Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Salutes Freedom Riders

Stacy M. Brown | 8/24/2013, 9:39 a.m.
Members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., said they’re energized by their return to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 50th ...
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity brothers Rep. John Lewis (left), Georgia Democrat, and the Rev. Al Sharpton (Courtesy photo)

Members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., said they’re energized by their return to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and ready to go to work in their respective communities to further the cause of civil rights.

The organization, founded at Howard University on Jan. 9, 1914, and its supporters boarded buses from numerous cities around the country en route to the Nation’s Capital to participate in a campaign titled, “Thunder Back,” to pay homage to the fearless Freedom Riders of 1961.


The fraternity, which boasts tens of thousands of members, plans to take part in two key events today.

They include a 7:45 a.m., Civil Rights Breakfast at Bolling Air Force Base, and a 10 a.m., re-creation of the famous march that attracted more than 200,000 people to the District 50 years ago.

“Phi Beta Sigma is an international fraternity and there will be busloads of them coming into D.C. for this,” said Marlene Johnson, who’s helping to organize the fraternity’s arrival.

The buses originated from Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, and several other locations, said Johnson, 77.

“There are a lot of activities planned to celebrate this historic event and the ‘Thunder Back,’ initiative is a clarion call to Phi Beta Sigma men nationwide to travel to Washington to commemorate one of the largest gatherings of African Americans and reignite the fight for human rights and justice for all people,” Johnson said.

Congressman John Lewis, (D-Ga.), plans to join his fellow Sigma brothers, who include Jonathan Mason, Sr., the international president of Phi Beta Sigma and the Rev. Al Sharpton in commemorating the march.

Lewis, then 23, counted as the youngest speaker at the 1963 march as he led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization, formed in 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.

‘‘We want our freedom and we want it now,’’ said Lewis, now 73. His speech, which contained hints of militancy, caused tension in the hours preceding the historic march.

“I’m honored that the congressman, the only person living who spoke from the podium at the first March on Washington 50 years ago and Hank Thomas, an original Freedom Rider, are participants in our ‘Thunder Back’ initiative,” said Mason, 42.

“Though we have accomplished many of the objectives Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of 50 years ago, our work is not yet done. Thus, we return to Washington, D.C., to march for jobs, justice and equality,” said Mason, a native New Yorker.

On May 4, 1961, 13 activists boarded two buses and left Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans and a place in civil rights history.

The Freedom Riders, which consisted of both blacks and whites, wanted to encourage the federal government to enforce Supreme Court rulings that outlawed segregation in interstate travel. Their cause clashed with local laws that kept blacks and whites separated in bus station restrooms, waiting rooms and at lunch counters throughout the South.