Who Were the Freedom Riders?Historians in the News
tags: civil rights, Freedom Rides, SNCC
Who were the first 13 Freedom Riders?
The original Freedom Riders were 13 Black and white men and women of various ages from across the United States.
Raymond Arsenault, a Civil Rights historian and the author “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” said CORE had advertised for participants and asked for applications. “They wanted a geographic distribution and age distribution,” he said.
Among those chosen were the Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, a minister from High Point, N.C., and Charles Person of Atlanta, then a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who was the youngest of the group at 18. “They had antinuclear activists; they had a husband-and-wife team from Michigan,” Mr. Arsenault said of the diverse group of participants.
Mr. Lewis, then 21, represented the Nashville movement, which staged demonstrations at department stores and sit-ins at lunch counters. But Mr. Lewis nearly missed his opportunity, according to his 1998 autobiography, “Walking With the Wind.” After receiving his bus ticket to Washington, D.C., from CORE, Mr. Lewis was driven to the bus station by two friends, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette. He arrived to find that his scheduled bus had already departed. “We threw my bag back in Bevel’s car, floored it east and caught up in Murfreesboro,” Mr. Lewis said.
The original group completed a few days of training in Washington, Mr. Arsenault said, preparing by role-playing to respond in nonviolent ways to the harassment that they would endure.
As the movement grew, so did the number of participants. Later in May, in Jackson, Miss., Mr. Lewis and hundreds of other protesters were arrested and hastily convicted of breach of peace. Many of the Freedom Riders spent six weeks in prison, sweltering in filthy, vermin-infested cells.
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