Fifty years ago today, 13 people, seven blacks and six whites, boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., and headed into the South and onto the pages of history. They were the first of a wave of more than 400 Freedom Riders who would risk their lives challenging the segregation of buses, trains and airplanes from May until November 1961.
See also: 10 young civil rights activists.
The youngest to take a seat on a bus that day was 18-year-old Charles Person of Atlanta, a college freshman who had been active in the civil-rights movement since high school. The great-grandson of slaves, he was a gifted student who had dreamed of a career as a nuclear physicist, but was denied admission to the all-white Georgia Institute of Technology. He had been accepted at MIT, but the tuition was out of reach for his financially strapped family of nine.
"My dad worked two jobs and collectively he made less than $100 [a week] on the two jobs," Person told the AARP Bulletin in a telephone interview from his home in Atlanta. "He worked about 17 hours most days."
He enrolled in Atlanta's Morehouse College in the fall of 1960, where he participated in numerous sit-ins. "I did my homework while I was at the lunch counter because they weren't going to serve me," he said. His activism led to a 16-day jail sentence, which drew the attention of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) recruiters looking for a Freedom Rider to represent Atlanta.
The only hurdle was persuading his parents to sign a permission slip, required because he was under 21. Person said he "wasn't quite truthful" with his parents when he told them that he would be going to Washington for some CORE training, and would come back through Atlanta on a bus.
Although two earlier Supreme Court decisions had declared segregation in interstate travel illegal, state and local officials simply ignored them. Freedom Riders — blacks, whites, northerners, southerners, men and women — set out to nonviolently "test" compliance with the court decisions.
The reaction was immediate and violent. Of the two buses that left Washington May 4, one was surrounded by whites in Anniston, Ala., and firebombed. The mob pressed itself up against the door of the bus, screaming racial epithets and "burn them alive." All of the riders, including the future Georgia congressman, John Lewis, escaped with their lives, but suffered from smoke inhalation.