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10 Freedom Riders: Then and Now

50 years ago, young civil rights activists boarded buses and trains to beat Jim Crow

Left: Police photo of James Lawson Jr. in 1961; right: Lawson in 2005

Arrested after riding from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss., on May 24, 1961; photographed Nov. 11, 2005, in Los Angeles — Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Eric Etheridge

The Rev. James Lawson Jr.

 

In 1961. Lawson, a 32-year-old Methodist minister and divinity student, was already a veteran activist committed to nonviolence. He joined CORE in 1948 during his freshman year at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. A year later he withdrew his draft registration, which cost him 13 months in federal prison. In 1960 he was expelled from Vanderbilt University for his role as a leader of the Nashville, Tenn., sit-in movement.

In his words. "Our intention was that no matter how many people got beat up, we'd have another crew. If we got beat up in Jackson, we'd put another crew into Jackson who would go from Jackson to whatever the next stop was. That was the notion.

"But as the arrests took place in Jackson, and as we saw their effect, we decided to put out the cry and let people get arrested in Jackson and go after filling up the jails. That then became the strategy.

"We also realized we were going to put Jackson and Mississippi at center stage. Mississippi was a closed society. The Sovereignty Commission, the KKK, the White Citizens' Council were all very much in control."

Today. Lawson, 82, is pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis at his request to speak to striking sanitation workers; King was assassinated there the following day.

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