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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 John Lewis in 1961; right: Lewis in 2007

Arrested after riding from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss., on May 24, 1961; photographed July 25, 2007, in Washington, D.C. — Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Eric Etheridge

U.S. Rep. John Lewis


In 1961. Lewis, a 21-year-old student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn., was a leader of the Nashville Student Movement and the 1960 sit-in campaign there. He volunteered to become one of the original 13 Freedom Riders.

In his words. "During our stay in Jackson and in Parchman [the Mississippi State Penitentiary was also known as Parchman Farm], there was this commitment, almost a bond, that we would do everything possible to get everyone to adhere to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. That we would not let anything break that.

"But the Freedom Rides not only took the movement off of college campuses and out of selected communities, it took it to a much larger community. The movement became much more inclusive. People saw these young Freedom Riders — and some not so young — getting on buses, traveling through the South, which was very dangerous. So people were willing and ready to become part of that effort."

Today. Lewis, 71, has represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987. From 1963 to 1966, Lewis served as the chairman of SNCC, which he'd helped to form, and by then he had already emerged as one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement. He was a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in 1963 and one of the leaders of the Selma March in 1965.

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