US Freedom Riders remember the summer of change 60 years later | Black Lives Matter News


Sixty years ago, a group of young idealists set out to challenge segregation in the southern United States. Among them were Lewis Zuchman, 19, and Luvaghn Brown, 16, who became friends during the Freedom Rides campaign in the summer of 1961. Now in his 70s, neither is sure of the details.

“I was the youngest white freedom pilot and Luvaghn was the youngest black freedom pilot,” Zuchman told Al Jazeera. “We met in some way.”

Brown said the couple met in Jackson, Mississippi, but as they got to talk, “we can’t understand it,” he laughed.

Luvaghn Brown, now 70, was the youngest black freedom pilot in 1961 at the age of 16. [Simon Tate/Al Jazeera]

From May to November of that year, more than 400 young activists — in black and white — boarded interstate buses to cities in the southern United States. Its mission: to challenge the segregation that was still being applied to southern transit stations, even though the Supreme Court ruled the previous year that the practice was unconstitutional.

The reception they received was hostile. Freedom riders, as they were known, were often received with fury by southern whites. There were numerous incidents of mass violence in Alabama and Mississippi, often aided by local police forces. Even if they were lucky enough to avoid a beating, many activists spent weeks in jail.

Zuchman vividly remembers that hatred after his arrest shortly after arriving in Jackson, Mississippi.

“I remember being chained, walking with other prisoners, and the judge, who had sentenced me, saw me and spat at me. The judge! “Said Zuchman.” So you began to realize how terrifying it was down there. This was no America we thought. “

He spent 40 days in the famous Parchman State Prison in Mississippi.

“I remember the boy who distributed the food in the morning, who was a great white trustee with tattoos. And one day he said, “If it were up to me, I’d poison all your MFs.” And trust me, over the next few days, we were very active when it came to eating, ”added Zuchman.

He was a long way from his hometown, New York. Zuchman had been inspired to join the movement by his longtime baseball hero, Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in major league baseball. He saw Robinson on a TV show discussing the Freedom Rides and whether the campaign should end because of the violence.

“At the end of the show, (Robinson) said, with a tear falling on his face,‘ Look, if these young people feel it’s time for them to stand up, who do we have to tell them not to? “So I decided to offer myself as a freedom pilot the next day.”

Many of those who participated in the Freedom Rides were arrested and spent time in prison

“Determined to put their lives online”

The young people who volunteered for Freedom Rides were incredibly brave, according to Raymond Arsenault, professor emeritus of Southern History at the University of South Florida and author of the book, Freedom Riders: 1961 And The Struggle for Racial Justice.

“Essentially, they dared with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists in the south to stop them,” Arsenault told Al Jazeera. and going to the wrong toilets, sitting at the wrong dining tables at terminals and forcing a confrontation. “

The campaign also forced the administration of then-President John F Kennedy to examine racism in the U.S. at a time when it was more concerned about Cold War missiles than the Mississippi.

A Freedom Rider bus caught fire in May 1961 when a firebomb was dropped through a window near Anniston, Alabama. The bus, which was testing the segregation of the bus station in the south, had stopped due to a dropped tire. The passengers escaped unharmed [File: AP Photo]

When he first heard about Freedom Rides, Brown, 16, was not interested.

“Many were talking about non-violence and all that. I didn’t like that, frankly, ”Brown told Al Jazeera,“ I felt that to change things you had to hurt people. I was who I was then. “

Growing up Black in Jackson had made Brown an angry young man. He recalls how the murder of Emett Till in 1955 on Money Road when he was ten had sent fear into his community, along with the realization that “whites could kill anyone they wanted and get away with it.”

Till, 14, and Black, was beaten and killed by white men who thought he had spoken inappropriately to a white woman.

But as more attractions came to Jackson, Brown began to change his mind.

“I thought it was wonderful for people from all over to come,” he said. “They explained what the walks for freedom were. I said it was great. We should do something. “

Although Brown did not travel on buses, he became part of the campaign in Jackson; challenging segregation, organizing boycotts, spending time in prison, and finding himself in what he called situations of fear.

“The Klan came after us one night with the help of the local police. And so we escaped by jumping from the roof of a building next to us, ”Brown recalls. “The Klan went up the stairs, they were at the front door. They almost killed us. ”

A white police officer next to a “white waiting room” sign posted at the Greyhound bus terminal in McComb, Mississippi, on November 2, 1961 [File: AP Photo]

“I never thought we should quit”

Zuchman and Brown were very much in Jackson that summer. And, despite the enormous intimidation and initially indifferent American public opinion, the two were determined to continue.

“Did you think we would make a difference? I didn’t know one way or the other, ”Zuchman said,“ but that was in my blood. I wouldn’t let people treat me like that. “

“I always thought we were right. And I thought we could change things by appealing to America’s conscience, “Brown said.” I never thought we should quit. “

Despite the risks, the Freedom Rides continued to arrive and eventually public opinion began to spin. And as news of his ill-treatment spread, he forced the hand of the Kennedy administration, according to Arsenault.

“Kennedy was going to his first meeting at the summit in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev and was embarrassed on every newspaper cover about it,” Arsenault said. “People who can’t even sit in front of the bus, in the so-called land of freedom.”

The U.S. federal government finally acted to ban segregation on the interstate bus network in November 1961, and Kennedy’s adoption of civil rights causes went beyond the realpolitik of the Cold War.

“There is no way in the world that John Kennedy would have gotten to the point he made in June 1963, advocating a large-scale civil rights bill without the Freedom Riders,” Arsenault said.

Lewis Zuchman, 79, is still working to improve the lives of communities of color [Simon Tate/Al Jazeera]

“Attitude has a lot to do with what changes”

As for Zuchman and Brown, they still share their experiences, appear together at events in prisons and schools, and face a new generation facing their own civil rights issues. So what advice do they have for today’s activists?

Brown, 76, acknowledges the desire of some young activists to use some of the more radical methods of their own youth, but now calls for a softer approach.

“It could be as simple as putting your arm around someone. That can be a revolutionary act, depending on where you are, depending on what they do to that person, “Brown said.” So we try to get young people to understand that attitude has a lot to do with what changes. “

At 79, Zuchman is still working to improve the lives of communities of color, as executive director of Scan Harbor, a nonprofit organization that supports disadvantaged children in New York. But he resists exaggerating the success of the Freedom Rides.

Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands with Paul Dietrich just before a Freedom Riders bus left Montgomery, Alabama, on May 24, 1961 [File: AP Photo]

“On our 50th anniversary, people would say to me,‘ Aren’t you proud of what was achieved? And I said, “No.” We had some cosmetic success. But since then I’ve worked in the city center and I’ve only seen things get worse and worse for young African Americans and Latinos, ”he said.

But it does give a victory: “I think the only special thing is that it brought together young people (whites, African Americans, men and women) across America. It was a unique moment where we met as a country.

Arsenault, however, says the effect of the Freedom Rides was huge.

“Not only did it revolutionize the civil rights movement, but it changed the whole tenor of citizen politics in the 1960s,” he said, “The Freedom Rides are really becoming the roster of all other rights movements.”

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