Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series explaining the Freedom Rides.
On Monday, Charles Person, one of three surviving original Freedom Riders of 1961, will be the speaker for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center. The event runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. with doors opening at 1 a.m. Lunch will be provided to the first 500 through the doors.
Part 1: Before Rosa Parks – the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation
Everyone knows Rosa Parks. Go into any classroom in America, show a picture of Parks, and ask students who she is. No matter the grade, almost every hand goes up. Americans know Parks. They know Parks refused to yield her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Police arrested her, and, in 1955, a civil rights movement started.
Almost no one knows Irene Morgan. Eleven years before Parks committed her act of civil disobedience, Morgan did the same thing. Riding an interstate bus from her home in Virginia to her workplace in Maryland in 1944, Morgan sat in the white section of a segregated bus. Police arrested Morgan and a court convicted her of violating segregation laws. A lawsuit followed. The case rose to the Supreme Court, and in 1946 the Supreme Court ruled in Morgan’s favor in Morgan v. Virginia outlawing segregation on interstate buses.
The following year, 1947, 16 men – eight black and eight white – rode on two buses – a Greyhound and a Trailways bus – for two weeks to see if the country would abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Black riders sat in front; white riders sat in back. Sometimes the interracial riders sat side-by side. This “Journey of Reconciliation” limited its itinerary to states in the upper South – Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky – fearing traveling in deep southern states would risk too much violence and perhaps death.
The Journey of Reconciliation mostly succeeded. Sixteen arrests and minor violence took place. One rider spent a 30-day sentence on a chain gang. But the bus rides demonstrated that riders of any race could sit where they pleased. At least in the upper South.
Here’s what happened next.
While segregation on buses began to become normal, bus depots kept the waiting rooms, restrooms and restaurants segregated. Morgan v. Virginia said nothing of those. “Colored Waiting Room” signs kept passengers segregated by race.
African American Bruce Boynton sued to overturn this practice. In 1960 in Boynton v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled in Boynton’s favor just as it had ruled in Morgan’s favor 14 years earlier.
Would the country abide? Enter the Freedom Rides.
On May 4, 1961, 13 Americans – seven black, six white – departed from Washington, D.C. on another two-week journey through the South to see if Southern citizens would tolerate and live up to the court’s ruling. This time they would ride through the heart of the deep South. This time they would have younger riders. This time18-year-old African American Charles Person would be the youngest rider of either the Journey of Reconciliation or the Freedom Rides.