Jean Thompson, then a 19-year-old CORE worker, said she was one of the riders slapped by a penal official for failing to call him "sir." An FBI investigation into the incident concluded that "no one was beaten," she told Etheridge. "That said a lot to me about what actually happens in this country. It was eye-opening." When prisoners were transferred from one facility to another, unexplained stops on remote dirt roads or the sight of curious onlookers peering into the transport trucks heightened fears. "We imagined every horror including an ambush by the KKK," rider Carol Silver told Etheridge. To keep up their spirits, the prisoners sang freedom songs.
None of the riders Etheridge spoke with expressed regrets, even though some would be entangled for years in legal appeals that went all the way to the Supreme Court (which issued a ruling in 1965 that led to a reversal of the breach of peace convictions). "It's the right thing to do, to oppose an oppressive state where wrongs are being done to people," said William Leons, a University of Toledo professor of anthropology whose father had been killed in an Austrian concentration camp and whose mother hid refugees during World War II. "I was aware very much of my parents' involvement in the Nazi resistance," he said of his 39-day incarceration as a rider. "[I was] doing what they would have done."
More than two dozen of the riders Etheridge interviewed went on to become teachers or professors, and there are eight ministers as well as lawyers, Peace Corps workers, journalists and politicians. Like Lewis, Bob Filner, of California, is a congressman. And few former Freedom Riders still practice civil disobedience. Joan Pleune, 70, of New York City, is a member of the Granny Peace Brigade; she was arrested two years ago at an anti-Iraq War protest in Washington, D.C. while "reading the names of the war dead," she says. Theresa Walker, 80, was arrested in New York City in 2000 during a protest over the police killing there the year before of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea.
Though the Freedom Rides dramatically demonstrated that some Southern states were ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate to desegregate bus terminals, it would take a petition from U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to spur the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue tough new regulations, backed by fines up to $500, that would eventually end segregated bus facilities. Even after the order went into effect, on November 1, 1961, hard-core segregation persisted; still, the "white" and "colored" signs in bus stations across the South be- gan to come down. The New York Times, which had earlier criticized the Freedom Riders' "incitement and provocation," acknowledged that they "started the chain of events which resulted in the new I.C.C. order."
The legacy of the rides "could not have been more poetic," says Robert Singleton, who connects those events to the election of Barack Obama as president. Obama was born in August 1961, Singleton notes, just when the riders were languishing in Mississippi jails and prisons, trying to "break the back of segregation for all people, but especially for the children. We put ourselves in harm's way for a child, at the very time he came into this world, who would become our first black president."
Marian Smith Holmes is an associate editor.
Photographer Eric Etheridge maintains a Web site, breachofpeace.com, that publishes information about the Freedom Riders.