Thursday, November 5, 2009

Join First Thursday antiwar demo/Freedom Riders' sacrifice and courage

 The Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore hosts an End the War! End the Occupation! rally on Thurs., Nov. 5 from 5 to 6:30 PM in Mount Vernon at Centre & Charles Sts.  The Pledge gathers in Mount Vernon on the first Thursday of the month to protest the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Call Max at 410-366-1637.


Freedom Riders’ sacrifice and courage

By Naomi Lede

November 01, 2009 06:44 pm

— As the decade, 1950-60, ended, there emerged a new “army of the discontented.”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), created to perpetuate the move to change a social order, provided the impetus to nonviolent tactics used by college students, young and old people from diverse backgrounds.

An aggressive project which came to be known as “The Freedom Rides” emerged in 1961 when James Farmer, director of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), announced that the organization would conduct freedom rides through the South. Farmer, a brilliant scholar, was featured in the movie, “The Great Debaters.”
He graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The Freedom Rides started in Washington, D.C., on May 4, after three days of training under the leadership of Farmer. The story of the rides has been fully revealed in various electronic and printed media.

If you look back at the Civil Rights Movement, many personalities dominated the period of nonviolent resistance.  

Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, the Little Rock Nine and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins – to mention a few – are frequently mentioned as warriors in the struggle for civil rights. It should be noted that the Freedom Riders provided impetus to a movement designed to change the status quo in race relations. The Freedom Riders were at risk when they banded together to challenge segregation in early May 1961.  

Yet, they are not prominently mentioned among those who made a significant impact upon the American conscience.

Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, (February 2009), Marian Smith Holmes describes a scene that took place on Sunday, May 14, 1961 – Mother’s Day.

Scores of angry whites blocked a Greyhound bus carrying black and white passengers through rural Alabama. The attackers pelted the vehicle with rocks and bricks, slashed tires, smashed windows with pipes and axes and threw a firebomb through a broken window. As smoke and flames filled the bus, the mob barricaded the door. “Burn them alive,” somebody cried out. After news stories and photographs of the burning bus and bloody attacks were revealed, many people joined the caravan of brave men and women to risk their lives to challenge the status quo.

As I viewed the film depicting mobs attacking the Freedom Riders, I wondered what happened to these brave citizens. Where are they now, nearly 50 years later?

At best they are middle-aged citizens. My curiosity prompted me to search for answers. Eric Etheridge, an accomplished magazine editor, provides an in-depth glimpse into the lives of those “road warriors” in his book, “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.”

The Freedom Riders were brave men and women of various creeds, colors, and religions. They were college students from various parts of America in search of positive changes in social, economic, educational and religious institutional practices. About half were white, half were black. Many were beaten up. One of their buses was set on fire.

The legal action movement, though successful in part, did not induce the kind of changes for which many aspired. But they never faltered and never failed. What happened to the Freedom Riders of 1961? A few examples follow.

Frank Holloway, 68, worked as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Alabama and Georgia until his retirement. Helen O’Neal McCray, then a sophomore at Jackson State University, dropped out of school to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi.

She left Mississippi after the Freedom Rides in 1964, and worked with various Civil Rights groups. She moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1966; taught elementary school for 29 years.

Since 1999 McCray has taught at Wilberforce University. David Myers and Winonah Beamer, both white students at Central State University, Ohio, were arrested for participating in the Freedom Rides.

Winonah spent most of her career working with disdabled adolescents and adults in Ohio for 22 years. David worked as a photographer for several newspapers; spent four years as a sports information director and then worked as a photographer, reporter, editor/ and producer of WHIO-TV in Dayton.

John Lewis, then 21, was the first freedom rider to be assaulted while trying to enter a white waiting room in Rock Hill, SC. Lewis, U.S. congressman from Georgia, stated: “We knew our lives could be threatened but we had made up our minds not to turn back.”

Another Freedom Rider, Ed Kale, graduated from Yale Divinity School. He led a church in Connecticut; studied at Durham University in England. He served as the Chaplain at Liverpool University and was active in the anti-war movement. He was a campus minister and taught at the University of Texas at Arlington, University of Minnesota.

Since 2004, he lived in Wisconsin, on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, where he runs a kayak rental business. His fellow freedom warrior, Hank Thomas, was a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, .DC.; became a member of the original 13 Freedom Riders who left Washington on May 4, 1961, and was on the bus firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama.

He was inducted into the Army in 1963 and chose to serve as a medic. After Vietnam he moved to Atlanta and got into the franchise business – starting with a Laundromat, then Dairy Queen. Today he and his wife own two McDonalds and four Marriot hotels. They live in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Perhaps the most inspiring consideration in all this was the dedication exemplified by young people who believed in the greatness of America.

To paraphrase the great theologian Howard Thurman, there was a spirit abroad in the lives of the Freedom Riders who joined arms together to bring comfort to the desolate and forgotten.
As a breach of the peace,” they sought to ensure justice where injustice existed; to make peace where chaos was rampant, and to make their voices heard on behalf of the helpless and the weak. They succeeded!

Naomi W. Ledé is a retired Senior Research Scientist, Distinguished Professor, and University Administrator. She serves as Chair, Board of the Samuel Walker Houston Museum and Cultural Center, Huntsville, Texas.

Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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