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Charles Person Was on Freedom Riders Bus 50 Years Ago

He helped end segregation on public transportation

When the second bus, with Person aboard, arrived in Anniston, the riders refused the driver's order to move to the back of the bus. Person and three others were beaten by Klansmen and dragged to the back of the bus. The bus rolled on to Birmingham, where another mob waited, abetted by a police department headed by the notorious segregationist Eugene "Bull" Connor. When Person and the other riders entered the bus station, they were savagely attacked by the white mob, some armed with lead pipes. Local doctors, fearing repercussions, refused to treat the black riders, so Person had his wounds dressed by a nurse who was a member of a local Baptist church where the riders stayed that night.

Many Freedom Rides followed that year, and they were front-page news. Five months after they began, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order ending segregation in public transportation.

Still living with the experience

For Person, the emotional and physical effects persisted. The beatings caused a large knot at the base of his skull, which he was finally able to have removed in the late 1990s. The emotional wounds never completely healed. "The pain hasn't gone away, because sometimes I'll be giving a lecture or seminar, and I'll be talking or someone asks a question, and if I'm not prepared for it I'll break into tears," he said. "We never got any counseling or anything, and there are still so many unanswered questions. How does an adult beat up on a youngster with his fists or a pipe? The anger on their faces ... you wonder how can a stranger generate that kind of hatred."

He regrets that he's never had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the people who beat him, especially the man who attacked him with a pipe in Birmingham, shown in a widely published picture.

Person went on to a 20-year career in the Marine Corps including nine months in Vietnam. After retiring from the Marines as a first lieutenant, he ran his own electronics company near the military base at Guantanamo, Cuba, in the early 1980s. He returned to Atlanta in 1984 to be near family, working as an electronics technician. He retired last year. He and Joetta, his second wife, have been married 25 years. They have four daughters and a son, but no grandchildren. Now 68, Person suffers from diabetes and the aftereffects of exposure to Agent Orange from his service in Vietnam, but gets around using a cane and walker. He volunteers as a tutor and mentor for high school students.

Next: Four other riders survive. >>

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