The first Freedom Riders rode buses into a southern hell seeking equality, integration
Charles Person, the youngest of the first group of Freedom Riders, recalls violence in Alabama 60 years ago; Person will speak Saturday in a virtual presentation by Montgomery's Freedom Rides Museum
By the time 18-year-old Charles Person of Atlanta took a road trip into history as the youngest member of the first group of Freedom Riders from Washington, DC, in 1961, he was already well versed in nonviolent protests.
Testing Supreme Court decisions that outlawed segregated interstate buses and bus terminals was a logical but dangerous next step.
“The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) reached out to tap the manpower, and woman power, that existed at the time," Person said. "We had a lot of kids who had been trained in nonviolence. So they sent out a request for Freedom Riders, but no one knew what a Freedom Rider was in those days.”
Person, 78, will share his story Saturday at 10 a.m. for a Freedom Rides Museum virtual event.
He said his younger self would have gone anywhere to fight segregation. He was in one of two integrated Freedom Rider bus groups of men and women, young and old, that left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, en route to New Orleans. The first leg of the trip was uneventful. Things changed after he made it home to Atlanta.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was already a familiar face to Person, who had met King during sit-in protests. King was even arrested with students in October of 1960, Person said.
“He could talk with presidents and kings, but also he could talk to the common man,” Person said.
King was very open with youths as well. Person described him as a mentor. Though the Freedom Rides were an important task, King make it clear prior to the May 14 leg of the trip from Atlanta that he valued their lives more.
“He had some warnings for us,” Person said. “You know, we respected Dr. King, but we had a job to do. He had heard that we would not get out of Alabama, and he was right. We didn’t make it out of Alabama.”
Person said his group on the Trailways bus was beaten twice during the trip. Out of town members of the Ku Klux Klan came aboard his bus in Atlanta. When they made it to Anniston, hours after the Greyhound Bus carrying fellow riders had been attacked and burned, the Klansmen turned on Person’s group.
“We got beaten in Anniston,” Person said. Beaten and dragged to the back of the bus to "resegregate" them.
The bus continued on to Birmingham with both Klansmen and Freedom Riders, as if nothing had happened.
“James Peck was my partner that day,” Person said. “We all had been beaten, but on him it was very visible. He was a bleeder. He bled very easily.”
The pair attempted to see if they would be allowed to use Birmingham bus facilities reserved for whites.
“We went into the waiting room and the entire wall of men came toward us,” said Person, who was struck in the head with a pipe. “James went down almost immediately. I guess because I was younger, I was able to maintain my balance... Some of them had guns, but I think that because it was daylight they didn't go to that point."
Then a bright light went off. A photographer had captured the scene.
“They looked up when the flash went off. They just allowed me to leave. I just walked away,” Person said. “They attacked the photographer and destroyed his camera. They thought they had destroyed all the film, but one print did survive.”
Person walked out to the street and caught a Birmingham city bus.
“He drove a couple of blocks, and then told me if I went across the tracks, which was a Black neighborhood, there would be someone there to help me," Person said.
Person found a phone and called the head of the Birmingham Improvement Association for help. Three church deacons soon came. Going to a white hospital was out of the question, but Black doctors refused to treat Person as well.
“A nurse put a bandage on my head, and that was the only medical treatment I received that day,” Person said.
The bus trip was over, but the journey wasn’t. Person and fellow Freedom Riders were flown to New Orleans. When he went home to Atlanta afterward, President John F. Kennedy sent someone to interview Person.
“A week later, I was subpoenaed to testify against the men in that photo,” Person said. “It was in Montgomery, even though the crime happened in Birmingham. I went to their trial, and it was a sham. They were not going to convict those guys.”
Person said his mother was afraid he'd be killed if he stayed in the movement. In her mind, joining the Army seemed like a safer path.
"Instead, I went and joined the Marine Corps," Person said.
He stayed in the Marines for 23 years, and then became technology supervisor for the Atlanta Public School system.
Person has co-written a book with Richard Rooker about his Freedom Riders experience called “Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider,” which is expected to be released in April.
See Person speak Saturday
Saturday's virtual program with Person will be available to the public through a Zoom link on Freedom Rides Museum's Facebook page. It is free and open to the public.
"Different historians have written different things about Dr. King and what his role was during the Freedom Rides," said Dorothy Walker, site director for the museum. She described Person as an "authentic lens" to give a first-person account of the support role King played.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Shannon Heupel at firstname.lastname@example.org.