Held Feb. 22, 2017
About the Freedom Riders
In 1961, civil rights activists organized by the Congress of Racial Equality rode interstate buses into the segregated Southern United States to test the U.S. Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which outlawed racial segregation in restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines.
The Freedom Riders set out to ride various forms of public transportation in the South to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation. From May until November 1961, more than 400 Americans traveled together on the Freedom Rides. The Riders were young and old, male and female, black, white and Asian, religious and secular, and from the south, north, east and west of the nation. Unlike many protests in the Civil Rights Movement, the Riders were not practicing civil disobedience. The Freedom Riders were doing exactly what the Supreme Court said they had a right to do: buy tickets on buses and trains, sitting wherever they pleased.
They knew, however, that segregationists would likely force a conflict between the states and the federal government—and force the nation to consider the inequality exposed. The Freedom Riders also knew that this simple act of riding on a bus or train, in violation of a long-held and violently enforced tradition of white supremacy, might very well cost them their lives. Undeterred, the Freedom Riders endured beatings, bombings, harassment and even imprisonment—but they changed the Civil Rights Movement and demonstrated the power of individual actions to transform the nation.
A native of Piedmont, Ala., William Harbour was the oldest of eight children and the first member of his family to go to college. At age 19, while a student at Tennessee State University, he had already participated in civil disobedience, traveling to Rock Hill, S.C., to serve jail time in solidarity with the “Rock Hill Nine”—nine students imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in.
One of the first to exit the bus when the Nashville Movement Freedom Ride arrived at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, Harbour encountered a mob of 200 people wielding lead pipes and baseball bats. Harbour survived the riot but after the end of the Freedom Rides, still faced hostility in his native Alabama. He was also one of 14 Freedom Riders expelled from Tennessee State University.
“Be best for you not to come [home],” his mother warned him in 1961. With the exception of one brief visit, he stayed away from Piedmont for the next five years.
After the Freedom Rides, Harbour taught school for several years, and eventually became a civilian federal employee specializing in U.S. Army base closings. Today, Harbour acts as the unofficial archivist of the Freedom Rider Movement. He moved to Atlanta in 1969.
The youngest member of the original 1961 Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Ride, 18-year-old Charles Person was a freshman at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Born and raised in Atlanta, Person had been surrounded by reminders of segregation throughout his life. A gifted math and physics student who dreamed of a career as a scientist, he was refused admission to then all-white Georgia Institute of Technology. While at Morehouse in 1961, he became active in the Atlanta sit-in movement to integrate segregated lunch counters and was sentenced to 16 days in jail as a result.
Along with Jim Peck and Walter Bergman, Person was one of the most badly beaten of the Riders during the May 14, 1961, riot at the Birmingham Trailways Bus Station.
After the Freedom Rides, Person joined the U.S. Marines in late 1961, retiring after two decades of active service. He lived in Cuba from 1981-1984. Since returning to Georgia, he has worked in Atlanta’s public schools as a technology supervisor.