Freedom Riders get place in history 50 years later

Associated Press | 5/25/2011, 12:12 p.m.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Freedom Riders who were attacked in Alabama’s capital city on May 20, 1961, returned 50 years later to be hailed as heroes and have a museum dedicated at the old bus station where they were confronted by an angry white mob.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said he teared up Friday when he walked through the old Greyhound station where he was beaten and knocked unconscious.

“It says something about the distance we’ve come and the progress we’ve made in this state and nation,” said Lewis, who participated in the rides.

That change was evident in former Alabama Gov. John Patterson. In 1961, he called the Freedom Riders fools and agitators when they set out to integrate Southern bus stations. But the 89-year-old ex-governor welcomed them Friday and praised them for bringing needed changes.

“It took a lot of nerve and guts to do what they did,” Patterson said after meeting 10 Freedom Riders for the first time.

The Freedom Riders were mostly college students, blacks and whites, who set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses across the South to test a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate transportation. That meant no more separate waiting rooms or water fountains designated for white and colored.

After one bus was firebombed near Anniston and the Ku Klux Klan threatened and beat Freedom Riders in Birmingham, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy secured a promise from Patterson to have state troopers protect the group’s bus from Birmingham to Montgomery. City police were supposed to take up the job once they crossed the city line.

Patterson kept his word, with state trooper cars and a helicopter guarding the bus. Lewis said they were so well-protected that some slept on the bus.

But when they reached Montgomery’s Greyhound station, police were not there. Instead, an angry crowd fueled by Klansmen beat them, journalists and a Justice Department official — John Seigenthaler, later a well-known newspaper editor — after he came to the riders’ aid.

Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks of Birmingham, now 71, said one scene will stay with her forever, revealing the depth of hatred on their attackers’ faces and in their words.

“To see the expressions on white women’s faces screaming, ‘Kill the niggers. Kill the niggers.’ That sticks with me,” she said.

Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg, 71, of Tucson, Ariz., was beaten unconscious and ended up in the hospital, unable to complete the ride.

He said when he left Fisk University in Nashville to participate he had no idea of the many dangers they faced or that they would ride into history. He said the Freedom Riders were concerned about big issues, such as maintaining a policy of nonviolence no matter how hostile the foes, and little issues, such as how to pay for their bus tickets and what to do about the final exams they were missing in college.

He said he had some idea what he faced when he went to see a Fisk official about trying to make up his finals. “He said, ‘If you live through it, you can come back and take finals.’ ”