Boulder Creek resident honored by Oprah for freedom ride in 1961
by SHANNA MCCORD, santacruzsentinel.com
May 2nd 2011 8:45 AM
BOULDER CREEK - Fifty years ago in the spring of 1961, Boulder Creek resident Michael Powell was a student at San Jose State University and disturbed with how black people around the country were treated as second-class citizens.
His interest in racial equality drew him to a presentation on campus from Congress of Racial Equality, and the talk by the group's director James Farmer was so powerful, Powell said he had no choice but to join the cause to challenge segregation laws in the South.
Powell's participation in the famous Freedom Riders movement will be celebrated Wednesday on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in an episode called "Oprah Honors American Heroes: The Freedom Riders Reunite 50 Years Later."
Powell is one of nearly 180 surviving Freedom Riders to be honored by Winfrey.
Powell and his wife Catherine flew to Chicago on Wednesday, taped the show Thursday and flew home Friday. He is part of the group sitting in the orchestra section of the audience and does not participate in the conversation on stage with Winfrey.
Powell said the Freedom Riders sharing the stage with Winfrey have more violent and dramatic tales to tell of their experiences.
The first freedom ride started May 4, 1961 with 13 people, led by Farmer, taking Greyhound and Trailway buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.
Their mission was to test the Supreme Court decision, Boynton v. Virginia, which outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in bus terminals that crossed state lines.
Freedom Riders, about 400 in all, were arrested that summer for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and violating Jim Crow laws.
Powell, 70, a semi-retired software developer, participated in the July 23, 1961 train ride from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss.
He was among a group of six people who sat in the "color waiting room" after arriving at the Jackson train depot.
"We just sat down and were told to move or be arrested," Powell said. "So, off we went."
Powell said he was arrested on grounds of endangering the peace and sentenced to four months in jail and a $200 fine.
The city jail was jammed with other Freedom Riders, so Powell was hauled off to serve his time at Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm.
He said he ended up only spending six weeks in jail.
Powell is proud to have participated in the Freedom Riders cause, and credits it for spurring the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The bold work of the Freedom Riders paid off for Powell in 1971 while on a family vacation in Tennessee. With his young black adopted daughter in the car, Powell drove across the Mississippi border to visit a store in an area known to embrace segregation.
Instead of hostility, to his surprise Powell was warmly accepted by the people in the small Mississippi town.
"That's where it was the worst, and the people couldn't have been nicer," he said. "That to me put a seal on it. The segregation scheme in the South was ready to go away and it did. It was pretty marvelous."
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