By Naomi Lede
November 01, 2009
As the decade, 1950-60, ended, there emerged a new "army of the discontented."
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), created to
perpetuate the move to change a social order, provided the impetus to
nonviolent tactics used by college students, young and old people
from diverse backgrounds.
An aggressive project which came to be known as "The Freedom Rides"
emerged in 1961 when James Farmer, director of the Congress for
Racial Equality (CORE), announced that the organization would conduct
freedom rides through the South. Farmer, a brilliant scholar, was
featured in the movie, "The Great Debaters."
He graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The Freedom Rides
started in Washington, D.C., on May 4, after three days of training
under the leadership of Farmer. The story of the rides has been fully
revealed in various electronic and printed media.
If you look back at the Civil Rights Movement, many personalities
dominated the period of nonviolent resistance.
Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Ralph
Abernathy, the Little Rock Nine and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood
Marshall and Roy Wilkins to mention a few are frequently
mentioned as warriors in the struggle for civil rights. It should be
noted that the Freedom Riders provided impetus to a movement designed
to change the status quo in race relations. The Freedom Riders were
at risk when they banded together to challenge segregation in early May 1961.
Yet, they are not prominently mentioned among those who made a
significant impact upon the American conscience.
Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, (February 2009), Marian Smith
Holmes describes a scene that took place on Sunday, May 14, 1961
Scores of angry whites blocked a Greyhound bus carrying black and
white passengers through rural Alabama. The attackers pelted the
vehicle with rocks and bricks, slashed tires, smashed windows with
pipes and axes and threw a firebomb through a broken window. As smoke
and flames filled the bus, the mob barricaded the door. "Burn them
alive," somebody cried out. After news stories and photographs of the
burning bus and bloody attacks were revealed, many people joined the
caravan of brave men and women to risk their lives to challenge the
As I viewed the film depicting mobs attacking the Freedom Riders, I
wondered what happened to these brave citizens. Where are they now,
nearly 50 years later?
At best they are middle-aged citizens. My curiosity prompted me to
search for answers. Eric Etheridge, an accomplished magazine editor,
provides an in-depth glimpse into the lives of those "road warriors"
in his book, "Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi
The Freedom Riders were brave men and women of various creeds,
colors, and religions. They were college students from various parts
of America in search of positive changes in social, economic,
educational and religious institutional practices. About half were
white, half were black. Many were beaten up. One of their buses was
set on fire.
The legal action movement, though successful in part, did not induce
the kind of changes for which many aspired. But they never faltered
and never failed. What happened to the Freedom Riders of 1961? A few
Frank Holloway, 68, worked as a field secretary for the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Alabama and Georgia until
his retirement. Helen O'Neal McCray, then a sophomore at Jackson
State University, dropped out of school to join the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi.
She left Mississippi after the Freedom Rides in 1964, and worked with
various Civil Rights groups. She moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in
1966; taught elementary school for 29 years.
Since 1999 McCray has taught at Wilberforce University. David Myers
and Winonah Beamer, both white students at Central State University,
Ohio, were arrested for participating in the Freedom Rides.
Winonah spent most of her career working with disdabled adolescents
and adults in Ohio for 22 years. David worked as a photographer for
several newspapers; spent four years as a sports information director
and then worked as a photographer, reporter, editor/ and producer of
WHIO-TV in Dayton.
John Lewis, then 21, was the first freedom rider to be assaulted
while trying to enter a white waiting room in Rock Hill, SC. Lewis,
U.S. congressman from Georgia, stated: "We knew our lives could be
threatened but we had made up our minds not to turn back."
Another Freedom Rider, Ed Kale, graduated from Yale Divinity School.
He led a church in Connecticut; studied at Durham University in
England. He served as the Chaplain at Liverpool University and was
active in the anti-war movement. He was a campus minister and taught
at the University of Texas at Arlington, University of Minnesota.
Since 2004, he lived in Wisconsin, on Madeline Island in Lake
Superior, where he runs a kayak rental business. His fellow freedom
warrior, Hank Thomas, was a sophomore at Howard University in
Washington, .DC.; became a member of the original 13 Freedom Riders
who left Washington on May 4, 1961, and was on the bus firebombed
outside Anniston, Alabama.
He was inducted into the Army in 1963 and chose to serve as a medic.
After Vietnam he moved to Atlanta and got into the franchise business
starting with a Laundromat, then Dairy Queen. Today he and his wife
own two McDonalds and four Marriot hotels. They live in Stone
Perhaps the most inspiring consideration in all this was the
dedication exemplified by young people who believed in the greatness
To paraphrase the great theologian Howard Thurman, there was a spirit
abroad in the lives of the Freedom Riders who joined arms together to
bring comfort to the desolate and forgotten.
As a breach of the peace," they sought to ensure justice where
injustice existed; to make peace where chaos was rampant, and to make
their voices heard on behalf of the helpless and the weak. They succeeded!
Naomi W. Ledé is a retired Senior Research Scientist, Distinguished
Professor, and University Administrator. She serves as Chair, Board
of the Samuel Walker Houston Museum and Cultural Center, Huntsville, Texas.