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Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Salutes Freedom Riders

Stacy M. Brown | 8/24/2013, 9:39 a.m.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity brothers Rep. John Lewis (left), Georgia Democrat, and the Rev. Al Sharpton (Courtesy photo)

The Freedom Riders practiced non-violent resistance, despite brutal attacks against them. They challenged Jim Crow travel rules. The original plan called for a two-week trek from Washington, D.C., to the South traveling on two buses.

Hank Thomas, 19 when he boarded one of the buses with Lewis in 1961, said the violence surprised him. “We had no thought of any kind of violence,” Thomas told a CBS News reporter yesterday [Friday, Aug. 23]. But violence would ensue 10 days later.

Outside of Anniston, Ala., the Ku Klux Klan surrounded Thomas' bus and the racist group set it afire. Thomas and five others barely escaped death. “I was looking for the easiest way to die,” he said.

Hours later that day, in Birmingham, Ala., the second bus which carried seven others, met an unforeseen and brutal attack from thugs carrying pipes and bats. The late James Peck, another Freedom Rider and a Birmingham resident, lost six teeth after being knocked unconscious during the attack.

“We must not surrender to violence," Peck, a New York native, said in 1961.

Peck died in Minneapolis, Minn., in 1993 at age 78.

Diane Nash, who at the time attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., recalled the importance of carrying out the Freedom Riders’ mission despite the violence. “It was critical at that moment that we not allow the rides to stop,” said Nash, 72, who would go on to recruit new students for a second wave of Freedom Rides headed toward Alabama. More than 400 students and others across the country ultimately joined them.

“It was the start of the civil rights movements,” said Stanley Nelson, 62, director of the new “Freedom Riders” documentary. “You see it becoming a movement around the Freedom Rides.” Nelson will debut his film at Cramton Auditorium on the campus of Howard University in Northwest on Sunday, Aug. 25. The event is free and open to the public.

The Freedom Riders, along with the overwhelming media attention, pressured the administration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, to finally enforce federal laws desegregating interstate buses and public accommodations.

“This means everything to me, being a part of this [50th anniversary] and traveling to D.C.,” said James Vincent, 64, who hails from Providence, R.I., where he heads the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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