Freedom rider’s journey made strides in historic Civil Rights Movement

May 1961, 13 people boarded a bus headed to Washington, D.C. with plans to help desegregate the South by organizing sit-ins in public establishments that abided by Jim Crow laws. It was the first freedom ride orchestrated by Jim Farmer, founder of Congres

May 1961, 13 people boarded a bus headed to Washington, D.C. with plans to help desegregate the South by organizing sit-ins in public establishments that abided by Jim Crow laws. It was the first freedom ride orchestrated by Jim Farmer, founder of Congress of Racial Equality.

Now a U.S. Representative from Georgia, John Lewis was one of the ones who boarded the bus that day. Hank Thomas, now president of Hospitality Properties Inc. was another participant. The men recalled their harrowing experiences in a recent interview with the Defender.

The riders were often met by angry white mobs who would verbally abused and brutally beat them upon their arrival, and Lewis and Thomas would be jailed several times in their pursuit of justice – a quest that almost cost them their lives.

It was in Alabama that the two recall their first brush with death.

Their bus was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., something Lewis remembers vividly.

"I really thought I was going to die, I was just trying to decide which was the best way to die," said Lewis, who was a founder and leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. "If I got off the bus I was going to be beaten to death by that mob, of course it would’ve been a very painful death, if I stayed on the bus I was under the mistaken impression that if you breathe in toxic smoke it will simply put you to sleep and that was the way you would die.

Lewis said after a couple of seconds of smoke inhalation the natural instincts kicked in and compelled him "to get air any way you can."

It wasn’t until he tried to get off the bus that he realized the mob was holding the bus doors shut.

"I heard them say ‘burn them niggers up, burn them up,’" the Georgia Democrat said. "And the sad irony of this is that a lot of these people had just come from church. They had their children with them as they were coming to watch what was going to happen to the freedom riders."

Another memorable attack occurred in Selma, Ala. on March 7, 1965. It would also make national headlines and an indelible mark on the country’s Civil Rights Movement.

Only 25 years old, Lewis had planned to lead a march of 600 civil rights activists from Selma approximately 50 miles to the state capitol of Montgomery. But the marchers only made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where a gruesome scene would take place that would later be called Bloody Sunday.

Police armed with tear gas and other weapons awaited the marchers at the foot of the bridge.

When they reached the bridge Lewis said they saw a sea of blue uniforms and were warned they had two minuets to turn around.

Lewis decided that since they were already there, and the crowd was too big for them to turn around even if they wanted to, they should stop and get in the prayer position.

Only that message wouldn’t get far, said Lewis, because the next thing the crowd knew, it was being attacked.

The Alabama native recalled being struck with weapons and having tear gas used against them. He and his crowd were then chased back to a chapel in Selma.

It wasn’t until later on that night Lewis found out he had suffered a skull fracture from the blow he took on the left side of his head from a trooper’s club. He was admitted to the hospital for three days where he was visited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who reassured him the march would take place.

But out of that and other bloody encounters before it came voting rights legislation.

Lewis said the images were so disturbing to people that there were "demonstrations in more than 80 cities protesting the brutality and urging the passage of the voting rights act. There were speeches on both floors of congress, condemning the attack and calling for voting rights legislation."

On Aug. 6, 1965, the legislation was signed by more than 60 Congressman and sent to President Lyndon Johnson, said Lewis. The Voting Right’s Act outlawed discriminatory practices that would hinder or prevent Blacks or any other people from voting.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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