Students, activists visit Rock Hill on Freedom Rides anniversary tour

Students, activists visit Rock Hill on anniversary tour

05/11/2011 12:00 AM

05/11/2011 7:14 AM

"The call went out" and "the movement" answered.

That's what a group of Freedom Riders of 50 years ago said Tuesday as they passed through Rock Hill, just one stop along the historic path of the May 1961 Freedom Rides protesting Jim Crow segregation in the South.

A handful of Freedom Riders are traveling with a group of 40 college students from across the nation brought together by PBS for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

The trip will lead up to a screening of a PBS documentary "Freedom Riders" on May 16.

On Tuesday, the Freedom Riders and students ate lunch together in Rock Hill at the Old Town Bistro and learned about the city's own fight against racial inequality.

PBS selected 40 students out of 1,000 applicants to retrace the May 1961 Freedom Rides when 13 activists, black and white, set out on two buses from Washington, D.C., heading south to test the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation in interstate travel facilities.

On May 9, 1961, the original Freedom Riders stopped at the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill. Passengers were attacked after attempting to enter the "whites only" waiting room.

That violence was only the beginning.

Near Anniston, Ala., one bus was firebombed, and in Birmingham, Ala., passengers of the other bus were attacked by an angry mob.

The violence threatened to end the historic ride, but activists answered a call for help and came from across the nation to continue the journey.

Now, some of those riders are retracing that path with college students eager to hear their stories.

The students

Stephanie Burton - a graduating senior at Florida A&M University and native of Montgomery, Ala. - said she joined this year's ride with PBS to continue her family's legacy of fighting for equality as activists.

Having grown up with that history, Burton "decided to act on it."

"I'm aware of my moral obligation to society to make this world a better place," she said.

Learning from the original riders as well as fellow students fighting for other causes has been "inspiring," Burton said.

"Each time I sit by somebody different on the bus, it's a history lesson," said Burton, who will soon work for AmeriCorps mentoring underprivileged children.

Fellow traveler Marshall Houston of Alabama agrees.

Houston just completed a degree in economics and English at the Univ. of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and will soon take a job teaching seventh grade math in Denver.

"I don't have the vocabulary to accurately describe what I'm feeling," he said. Riding alongside veteran Freedom Riders has been "mind-blowing," he said.

The veterans

Ernest "Rip" Patton Jr. decided to take a seat at the back of the bus. He was keeping an empty seat next to him where students could sit and share stories and ask him about his own.

He'd already made an impression on Burton and Houston, inspired by his nonviolent philosophy of having "love and respect" for everyone, even the hateful and violent, they said.

In 1961, Patton, a college student in Nashville, came to Montgomery to join the Freedom Rides, even after learning that the riders before him were firebombed and attacked, he said.

"It was our time to go," he said. "We were not afraid. We were determined to finish that ride."

Patton, like many activists who joined the Freedom Rides, had already engaged in nonviolent protests in Nashville where waves of protesters would sit at segregated lunch counters until they were arrested and replaced by more activists.

The idea was to fill the jails, he said.

Like Patton, Joan Mulholland spent time jailed in a Mississippi prison for participating in the 1961 Freedom Rides.

Mulholland first got involved in protests while a student at Duke University, where teachers were supportive, she said, excusing students from class and pop quizzes to attend demonstrations.

Eventually, she and other activists took their protests on the road. Mulholland was with a group of students who came to Rock Hill in early 1961 to picket McCrory's lunch counter in protest of segregation. That's when a group of black students from Friendship College decided to sit down at the white lunch counter and face a jail sentence instead of paying more bond money.

Their "jail, no bail" strategy was picked up by protesters across the nation, including the Freedom Riders.

Again in May 1961, "The call went out," she said. "Have movement, will travel," was the answer.

Robert and Helen Singleton - then students of UCLA - were heading up protest efforts in Los Angeles. When the call went out for more riders in Lousiana, Robert was faced with a difficult question, whether to bring his wife, Helen.

He had taken the nonviolent oath to "never strike back." But could he be nonviolent if Helen were attacked? he asked.

Helen convinced him that he could, that it was unfair to recruit others to commit to nonviolence and risk being harmed if he was unwilling to allow her to do the same. The couple spent more than a month in prison with very little knowledge of one another.

After lunch Tuesday in Rock Hill, Mayor Doug Echols thanked the students for "reminding us that even after 50 years of progress there is still much to be done."

Patton said he hopes the students learn from the experience.

"I tell them to give themselves five years to do something and have it mean something, so this isn't just another trip."

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