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Remembering the Freedom Rides 50 years later

In 1961, riders black and white headed South to test the region's segregation laws. Things turned violent in Alabama. Fifty years later, cities along the route are marking the rides with exhibit, murals and a new museum.

April 24, 2011|By Larry Bleiberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, exhibits and newsreels bring the Freedom Riders' story to life. There's also the cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," outlining his rationale for nonviolent protest. A museum window overlooks the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls attending Sunday school died in a 1963 bomb blast. It too is open for tours.

After the Mother's Day violence, a group of students in Nashville vowed to continue the Freedom Rides. "I didn't have any kind of fear," recalls Catherine Burks-Brooks, then a senior at Tennessee State University. "We felt it should go on."

The protesters headed 200 miles south to Birmingham and were immediately jailed. After midnight, they were packed into a funeral home limousine for what they were told would be a trip home. The Birmingham native found herself sitting next to Eugene "Bull" Connor, the city's notorious public safety commissioner. She chatted on the ride, at one point offering to make him breakfast when they got home.

Instead, he dumped the students in a small town on the Tennessee line in the middle of the night.

Burks-Brooks would not let Connor have the last word.

"Back then, we watched a lot of cowboy movies," she recalls. "I told him I would meet him back in Birmingham by high noon." It was 3 p.m. when she and her classmates returned by car to the city, taking back roads so they wouldn't be stopped again.

After rendezvousing with other Freedom Riders, the group of by-now 22 students made its way to the Greyhound bus station, where an overnight standoff followed. Klan members dressed in robes patrolled the station, but this time police kept order. Still, no driver would take the students' bus to the next stop, the state capital of Montgomery. After hours of negotiation, it was agreed that Alabama state troopers would ensure the protesters' safety.

As the bus left Birmingham, it was surrounded by a convoy of police cars. A helicopter followed.

"I was feeling secure. I dozed off," Burks-Brooks says.

On another morning this spring, I find myself in the same bus station to make the same trip. That's where I meet accountant Julius Parker, 31, who tells me that he's heard of the Freedom Rides; his grandparents marched in the '60s. But the Alabama native says the story baffles him. "To know the risk and go through with it anyway?" he asks. "I could not think with the last thought in my mind that I could do that."

The two-hour ride to Montgomery passes quickly today, and like the riders half a century ago, I am lulled to sleep.

"Everything was quiet," Burks-Brooks says. "It was almost like in a dream, rolling into Montgomery and not seeing anyone."

When the bus reached the station, the riders stepped out onto the pavement.

"All of a sudden, these people appeared," she says. "It looked like thousands. One thing that just stands out in my mind was to see those white women, some with babies in their arms, screaming at us."

Men smashed soda crates across riders' heads and tried to push a jagged pipe into one protester's ear. That's when the head of the Alabama state police, who had vowed to protect the riders, arrived. Furious that Montgomery's police had betrayed him, he pulled out a gun and fired two shots in the air. The crowd drifted away.

Montgomery, like Birmingham, has developed civil rights sites for visitors. The former Greyhound station will open as a museum and welcome center in May. A few blocks away, the Rosa Parks Museum honors another famous bus rider.

Visitors can also tour the First Baptist Church where riders donned robes and hid in the choir balcony during a protest rally. Outside, several thousand whites gathered and threatened to burn down the building, by then packed with more than 1,000 African Americans.

"I don't think anyone knew what was going to happen," says Pastor E. Baxter Morris, who often shows visitors around the 144-year-old sanctuary.

One former Montgomery resident, King, spent much of the evening in the pastor's study on a long series of phone calls with then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy. King was pressing for protection, which eventually led Alabama's governor to reluctantly mobilize the National Guard.

Over the next few days, the students remained hidden in the home of a prominent black pharmacist. Although they were fighting for equality, the female riders washed and ironed everyone's clothes. Vera McGill Harris, the pharmacist's wife, now 88, remembers the group as well-mannered. "They knew how to behave themselves," she says. "There was not any hanky-panky."

Although the Harris house isn't open to the public, it's designated by a historic marker. You'll find it three houses down from another Montgomery tourist attraction, the parsonage where King and his family once lived.

The modest home, decorated as it was in the '50s, was bombed with King's wife and infant daughter inside. In the kitchen, visitors find a table where, years before the rides, King questioned his resolve.

Perhaps it's a testimony to the movement King helped inspire that 50 years later, Climpson is astounded when he discovers how his bus trip to Mississippi is retracing history.

"I can't think that it happened," he says, still reading about the rides. "You would never believe people would do people like that."

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