Columbus State lecture: Freedom Rider shares civil rights story

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 17, 2013 

Only two generations removed from slavery, Charles Person's grandfather taught family members to defend themselves the best way he knew how: He made sure they could shoot guns well.

While growing up in segregated Atlanta, Person heard his grandfather repeatedly state, "Never again," and wondered what he meant.

Now, at 71, Person looks back at the different path he chose to resist legalized hatred. Instead of taking up arms as his grandfather prepared him, the 18-year-old Person became the youngest of the original 13 Freedom Riders. He survived beatings and bloodshed on that journey of nonviolent protest 52 years ago. It sparked the desegregation of public transportation and was a seminal victory in the civil rights movement.

Thursday afternoon at Columbus State University, a crowd of about 300, heard Person share his story of perseverance and preach his message of peace.

Person's high school civics book described his Atlanta neighborhood as "a blighted area, an urban slum," but he dreamed of rising above that environment and becoming a nuclear physicist. He was fully qualified to attend Georgia Tech, he said, except for the color of his skin. The Massachusetts Institute of Tecnhology accepted him, but his family couldn't afford the tuition. So he enrolled in Morehouse College in the fall of 1960 and got involved in sit-ins. He spent 16 days in jail for his activism, and the organizers of the Freedom Rides noticed. They needed someone to represent Atlanta.

"I made a decision," he said. "I just can't take it anymore. I've got to do something."

On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders -- black and white, male and female, young and old -- gathered in Washington. They boarded two buses, one Greyhound and one Trailways, and reached Atlanta without incident. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the March on Washington two years later and was assassinated five years after that, warned about trouble awaiting them in Alabama. But he couldn't convince the Freedom Riders to stop.

Person's bus, the Trailways, arrived in Anniston, Ala., on May 14. It was Mother's Day, so the station was closed, but a group of white men were there to greet them. They told the driver that the Greyhound bus was burned, then they boarded the Trailways and demanded that the black riders move to the back.

When they refused, the Klansmen attacked. They punched and kicked the riders, including Person and the white supporters.

"The thought of a white person coming to the aid of these black students was just too much for them," he said. "I mean, their rage was … It's unimaginable anyone could generate that kind of hate."

The Klansmen tossed the riders and stacked them in the back of the bus like pancakes, Person said. Satisfied that the bus was properly segregated, the Klansmen allowed the driver to continue to Birmingham. They took an alternate route to avoid a mob waiting for them along the way.

One of the riders bled so profusely, Person said, his blood covered the floor of the bus. The Klansmen knocked a 61-year-old retired professor to the floor and stomped on his chest. They would have killed him, Person said, if his begging wife hadn't intervened.

In the Iron City, a throng of about 20 angry white men welcomed the riders to the bus station -- and so did an iron pipe to Person's head.

"I didn't cover up," he said. "I didn't cry out. For some unknown reason, I felt no pain. I wasn't overly religious, and I played football, so I knew what pain was, but through that whole episode, I don't recall any pain."

The Klan allowed him to walk away. He rode a city bus for a few blocks until he found a payphone. He called the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who sent someone to pick him up.

Birmingham doctors refused to treat Person for the cut. Over the years, the wound developed into a knot at the base of his skull and had to be surgically removed.

After the Freedom Rides, Person joined the Marine Corps and served for 20 years. The Vietnam War veteran ran an electronics business and worked for Atlanta Public Schools before retiring.

The effects of Agent Orange have left Person reliant on a walker, but he insists the lack of education in today's youth is more debilitating.

"There are thousands of teenagers who cannot read, who cannot write, who have no marketable skills," he said. "These young people are more disabled than I will ever be. They need our help."

Person sees the legacy of the Freedom Rides in current events. He noted the Arab Spring used nonviolent tactics to overthrow oppressive regimes.

"Hopefully," he said, "IEDs, suicide bombs and car bombs will become a thing of the past."

Gary Sprayberry, chairman of CSU's history and geography department, said Person's visit helps make relevant what seems like ancient history to his students.

"The reaction I usually get from students is the sense of absolute amazement," Sprayberry said. "When they start learning a little bit about Jim Crow and the restrictions of African Americans, they're just bowled over by something like that. I think they do gain an appreciation for it. I stress over and over, what people like Charles Person did ensured the freedoms that everyone enjoys today."

Person wasn't shy about criticizing his own movement. He questioned why the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the Southern Poverty Law Center haven't focused on combating gun violence. He wondered aloud, "What are we afraid of? Why are we so afraid?

"In 1961, I know what America was afraid of. It was afraid of you, the cause of students in America who saw something wrong and were determined to do something about it."

Person challenged the CSU students to find their own ways to improve the world: "When the bus for your generation comes to town, will you answer the call? Would you, could you, get on the bus?"


Here some other events in Columbus State University's year-long retrospective of the American civil rights movement:

Continuing through Nov. 7: Freedom Riders exhibition, Simon Schwob Memorial Library.

Oct. 24: Lecture by T.K. Thorne, author of "Last Chance for Justice: How Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers," 12:30 p.m., Schwob Memorial Library.

Oct. 29: American Experience documentary film, "Freedom Riders," 7 p.m., Davidson Student Center auditorium.

Nov. 7: Lecture by Thomas Aiello, assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Valdosta State University, on "Leaving the Promised Land: The Atlanta Hawks, Race and the NBA's Move to the Deep South," 12:30 p.m., Schwob Memorial Library.

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