OXFORD – Three very different men started out in different places, but all wound up in Parchman because of their passion for justice.
Fifty years ago the state penitentiary held dozens of brave souls, men and women, white and black, who rode buses into the South to expose racism. Wednesday three of the first Freedom Riders, all of whom got arrested, came to the University of Mississippi to tell their stories.
“They threw firebombs and held the doors shut and yelled ‘Let’s burn them niggers,’” said decorated Vietnam veteran Hank Thomas, recalling how a group of hate-filled people attacked a bus he was riding in Anniston, Ala., in the spring of 1961.
Then a college student in Washington, D.C., Thomas was on the first of many bus rides. They departed from northern cities and drove into the Jim Crow South, intending to show that laws outlawing segregation in public areas servicing interstate travel weren’t being enforced.
On his second trip, Thomas was thrown in jail.
At 13 years old, Hezekiah Watkins was only curious, and didn’t mean to get involved, but when he got too close to a crowd surrounding the Freedom Riders at a Jackson bus station, he got swept into the fray.
Along with several black male Freedom Riders, Watkins spent three days incarcerated in a death row holding cell before they released him to his petrified mother. It prompted him to a life of activism and community building.
Lew Zuchman idolized baseball great Jackie Robinson, and his admiration for his hero gave the Jewish kid from New York courage to take a ride, too. He spent 42 days in Parchman for using a “colored” bathroom in a Jackson bus station.
“Lest we forget,” Thomas said Wednesday, speaking to a crowd of mostly students, hardly any of whom were alive when the buses rolled. He told them that many Jews stood arm in arm with blacks throughout the civil rights struggle.
Mississippi will honor the more than 400 Freedom Riders May 22-26 in Jackson. “It’s important that we celebrate these stories,” said Eric Etheridge, author of the book “Breach of Peace,” which shows many of the mug shots of the Freedom Riders.
“We need to honor the sacrifice these brave people made,” he said.
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal