Freedom Rides Map

CORE and the SNCC followed the path of non-violent direct action to effect change.

Dr. Charles Person, one of the original 13 CORE Freedom Riders, said the group underwent three days of training in Washington, D.C. with CORE Director James Farmer that included role playing to learn to withstand taunts, abuse and physical attacks.

This type of training was going on elsewhere. In Nashville, students learned nonviolent techniques from activist James Lawson. Others learned from Martin Luther King, Jr., and some even traveled to India to learn from Mahatma Ghandi, who used nonviolent resistance in the fight for India’s independence from British rule.

“Everyone who participated realized they had to remain nonviolent. Some choose it as a tactic, some chose it as a way of life,” said Person.

The riders themselves were carefully chosen. They didn’t want anyone whose background could detract from the message.

The riders were strategically seated on the buses. White riders sat with Black riders, men sat with women. Being a white Freedom Rider took a lot of courage, said Person, who has recently written a book about his experience, “The Buses are A’coming.”

“I was in awe of them. They already had all the freedom and they’re willing to suffer for my people?” he said. “If you’re willing to do this, then surely I, as a Black man had to be involved. To be a ‘n-lover’ as the word was, was worse than being me.”

He said the Klan in Anniston came very close to killing white Freedom Rider Dr. Walter Bergman, whose wife, Frances, intervened to save him.

“They took a beating for me and every Black person in the world,” he said.

Person said a different person each day would be the “tester,” assigned to test the enforcement of segregated seating on the bus, waiting rooms, lunch counters or other areas.

“We always had one person who was the ‘innocent bystander,’” he said. “They would blend in with the rest of the passengers, but they were the eyes and ears for us.” They would stay with anyone who got arrested and arrange bail if needed.

A network of people were available to help the riders with everything from legal aid to food and transportation.

“A lot of people could not demonstrate because of their parents or because they were not going to be nonviolent,” said Person. “But they could make sandwiches, they could make signs, they could make phone calls, they could raise funds to help us defray the cost of the trip. It was truly a grassroots movement, and we had no illusion that we were going to great things.”

Amy Henderson can be reached at 256-734-2131 Ext. 216.

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