“Oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.”
We spent the first evening of our trip in Atlanta, sharing dinner and community at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. Our honored guest was Charles Person, one of two surviving Freedom Riders to have made the trip in its entirety from Washington DC to New Orleans. The songs of the movement sustained him, he said, especially so when he knew that he should have felt fearful, and no song strengthened him more than “Oh Freedom.”
The Freedom Riders took to interstate buses like Greyhound and Trailways to test the enforcement of a 1961 order by the Interstate Commerce Commission, which fully integrated the mechanisms of interstate travel, including restrooms and lunch counters associated with travel depots. By the time the Freedom Rides began in 1961, it was entirely lawful for a Black person to sit at the front of a bus or anywhere else he’d like. But just because the Supreme Court says it is so does not guarantee that the country will agree and adapt.
Charles Person joined the Freedom Riders after training in a nonviolence program; Person had traveled safely from DC to Atlanta, where he met Dr. King. The Freedom Riders with whom Person was traveling asked Dr. King to join them on their rides, but Dr. King supportively demurred, warning, “I understand terrible things await you in Alabama. In fact, the word is, you all won’t make it out of Alabama.” The words were prophetic, as Person and his riding partner Herman Harris were beaten by Klansmen in Anniston, Alabama. They were punched in their seats, forced to the back of the bus, and as Dr. Bergman–at sixty-one years old, the eldest Freedom Rider–arose to assist his comrades, the Klansmen knocked Dr. Bergman to the ground and stomped his chest until he nearly died. Person and Harris spent the next two hours heaped in a pile at the back of the Trailways bus, as the Klansmen “called us and our friends every conceivable name you could think of and we endured that for two hours.” The bus made it into the Birmingham depot, where Mr. Person and fellow Freedom Rider James Peck, already beaten and bloodied by the Klansmen, tested enforcement of the ICC regulation inside.
To say it directly: law enforcement at the Birmingham bus depot was woefully, inhumanely, and intentionally abandoning its duties to Black citizens and their white allies. Person and Peck were met by white supremacists who threatened them with sticks, knives, guns, and pipes. Person managed to leave without further injury only because a photographer’s work distracted his would-be beater, which gave Person the opportunity to simply walk away from the chaos. He boarded a city bus, found a payphone, and contacted Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Seeing how badly Person was bleeding from the back of his head, Shuttlesworth asked all three of Birmingham’s Black doctors to provide care, but none did. Other Freedom Riders found their way to Shuttlesworth’s doorstep and recommitted to continuing the journey to their terminus in New Orleans–but no interstate bus would have them. In the end, Charles Peck flew into New Orleans, where he and his comrades were warmly welcomed for the courage they had shown in face of near-fatal danger.
But it wasn’t just courage; it was generosity of the greatest magnitude. One of my fellow travelers asked Mr. Person why the Black doctors refused to treat him that night in Birmingham. Doctors were licensed by the state, Mr. Person explained, and for a Black doctor to treat an “outside agitator” would be to risk the doctor’s license to practice. I knew, Mr. Person said, with a generosity that showed such grace, that those doctors’ services were more important to the Black people in their local communities than they were to me. His mother fretted over his safety–understandably so. “She never said anything to me except a couple of years ago. We were on a road trip to see my brother who was dying from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. After the second road stop, my mom says to me, ‘I’m glad you did what you did. I said ‘What do you mean, Mom?’” And what she meant was that until the Freedom Riders had insisted on enforcement of the ICC regulation, Black people had been denied access to restrooms for the simple fact of their race, and while males could relieve themselves outside comparatively easy, such was not the case for females. In those moments, Mr. Person’s mother appreciated his courage and generosity; his actions, and those of 400+ other Freedom Riders, afforded her the dignity of something as commonplace as a toilet. It took a perilous journey that was near-fatal for some for a woman to be able to use a toilet.
The appropriate conclusion is Mr. Person’s own, from the closing of his memoir. “By boarding my buses, I tried to serve my country–and did serve my country–to the best of my ability. I love America for what it is, but I love it more for what it aspires to be: a country where all are created equal; a nation out of many, one; a government of the people, by the people, for the people; a place where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. To reach these aspirations, others must board the bus a comin’ for them. The ride will not be easy, but it will be necessary. It always has been. It always will be.”
Kate Lukaszewicz | Middle School History Teacher
Sewickley Academy | 315 Academy Ave. Sewickley, PA 15143