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50 years later, Freedom Riders are called

heroes in Mississippi

By The Associated Press

on May 24, 2011 at 9:30 PM, updated May 24, 2011 at 10:07 PM




By 1961, Mary Jean Smith had been a part of sit-ins and received training for
nonviolent protest, but she wasn't ready to challenge segregated travel in the Deep
South until she sat behind two white passengers on a city bus in Tennessee.

View full sizeMickey

Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser, via The Associated Press Freedom

Riders, from left, Hank Thomas, Rip Patton and

Margaret Leonard listen to the program during the opening ceremony of the Freedom Riders Museum in
downtown Montgomery, Ala., on Friday.

"They had a transistor radio and were listening to reports about the Freedom
Riders. One of them said, 'I hope all those n-----s die.' It did something to me. I
went into another world," she said Tuesday.

Smith, a Tennessee State University student, volunteered to be part of the next

group of riders who would head south through civil rights battlegrounds in
Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. Along the route, they were beaten and their
buses were burned. Eventually, they were arrested and thrown into the Mississippi
State Penitentiary.
On Tuesday -- 50 years to the day after the first wave of riders arrived at the
Jackson, Miss., terminal -- a celebration was held for them in Mississippi's capital.
They were welcomed by Gov. Haley Barbour; Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain
NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers; Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.; and
hundreds of high school and college students, who called them heroes.
Smith hadn't been back to Jackson since she spent 39 days behind bars in 1961.
She said the riders' official reunion in Mississippi was special.
"It's eerie. We were all meant to be together at that one time (in history). It gives us
a chance to help young people understand what really happened and give them
some kind of goal."

View full sizePaul

Schutzer, Times Life Pictures/Getty Images Freedom

Riders Julia Aaron, left, and David Dennis sit on board a bus as

they and 25 others on the bus are escorted by two armed Mississippi National Guardsmen on their way from
Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss.

The Freedom Rides were a project of the Congress of Racial Equality. In 1961, a
biracial group of mostly college students boarded interstate buses to expose the

segregation in travel despite a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed separate

waiting rooms and restrooms. The attacks they encountered in Alabama prompted
U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to get guarantees there'd be no violence in
Mississippi, said Hank Thomas, chairman of the riders' reunion committee.
So instead of a mob, the National Guard met the bus at the state line and escorted
it to the Jackson terminal.
Lewis Zuchman of New York said this week's reunion in Mississippi had been "very
dramatic and special. It's exceeding my hopes. We've had a lot of dialogue. We've
worked very hard for this reunion and to be reconciled."
Zuchman said one of the highlights was Barbour's apology to the riders about the
"mistreatment" they had received in the state a half century ago. Barbour, a
conservative Republican, made comments last year that his critics have described
as racially insensitive.
"It made us all feel this was worthwhile. If we expect him to understand and change
and be sensitive to issues we believe in, we have to respect him and give him a
chance," said Zuchman.
Barbour unveiled a marker in honor of the riders at the former site of the
Greyhound bus station.
"That really was the turning point of the civil rights movement. This marker will
remind people and teach people," Barbour said. "A lot of civil rights history
occurred in Mississippi. It's fitting and proper that we recognize this...celebrate the
There were a total of just over 400 riders and about 325 came through Mississippi,
Thomas said.
Thomas, of Stone Mountain, Ga., said the last five decades haven't dulled his
memories of Parchman or the billy club beating he took from Jackson police
officers when he answered a question without saying 'sir.' Thomas said he was
placed in solitary confinement at Parchman, housed in a cell so small he couldn't
lie down with his legs outstretched.
"All of that affects people differently. I'm over it. It doesn't mean you forget. You just
don't dwell on it," Thomas said.

An event also was held at the site of the former Trailways station, where riders
sang songs and marched onto a makeshift stage. Assistant Attorney General
Thomas Perez told the crowd the Justice Department is still working to ensure civil
rights aren't violated.
"When those first Freedom Riders stepped off that bus here 50 years ago, it
marked the culmination of a brave and harrowing journey. But it was one
checkpoint along the much longer path that we continue to travel today," he said.
Evers-Williams, a former board chairwoman of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People, encouraged the youth in the crowd to effect
social change.
"People of my generation are getting older, but we have something for America to
build on," she said.
Monsurat Favano, a 16-year-old from New York, was listening.
Favano said initially she didn't think she could have mustered the courage to be a
Freedom Rider. But after spending days with them this week, Favano said she
wanted to "make a change for the generation coming after me so they can have a
better life."
Shelia Byrd of The Associated Press wrote this report.