BACK ON THE BUS

Two Freedom Riders remember the early days of the civil rights movement and how they risked their lives to ensure equality for all.

Aired on March 11, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

> FOR SEVEN MONTHS IN 1961, HUNDREDS OF CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS BLACK AND WHITE DESCEND ON BUS STATIONS ACROSS THE DEEP SOUTH TO PROTEST RACIAL SEGREGATION IN PUBLIC SPACES.

THE FREEDOM RIDERS AS THEY SKAM TO BE KNOWN OCCUPIED WHITES ONLY WAITING AREAS, BATHROOMS AND LUNCH COUNTERS IN AN EFFORT TO BRING ATTENTION TO SEGREGATION THAT HAD JUST BEEN RULED ILLEGAL BY THE SUPREME COURT.

IN THE PROCESS THEY WERE ARRESTED, JAILED AND OFTEN FACED VIOLENCE FROM ANGRY MOBS OPPOSED TO DESEGREGATION.

LAVE VAUGHN BROWN WAS 16 AND HAD JUST GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL IN MISSISSIPPI WHEN HE JOINED THE FREEDOM RIDERS.

LEWIS ZUCHMAN JOINED FROM NEW YORK TO MISSISSIPPI.

TODAY THEY'RE ON A WHOLE ANOTHER MISSION TO PASS THE BATON TO A NEW GENERATION.

THEY JOIN ME NOW.

GENTLEMEN, WELCOME TO YOU BOTH TO THE SHOW.

THANK YOU.

FIRST, I JUST WANT TO START OFF WITH WHAT WAS IT THAT LED BOTH OF YOU TO JOIN THE FREEDOM RIDERS?

MOSTLY ANGER.

AND IT WAS A PLACE WHERE YOU COULDN'T GO DOWNTOWN TO EAT YOU.

COULDN'T GO DOWNTOWN TO TRY ON CLOTHING.

YOU COULDN'T GO DOWNTOWN TO A MOVIE.

YOU WERE A SECOND CLASS CITIZEN.

AND THE ONLY WAY I KNEW HOW TO DEAL WITH THAT WAS THE VIOLENCE.

AND SO THERE WERE TWO GENTLEMEN THAT USED TO COME AROUND.

I'D LEFT HOME AT THE TIME.

AND THEY HAD BEEN ON THE FREEDOM RIDES, AND THEY WERE TRYING TO RECRUIT PEOPLE FROM JACKSON TO JOIN THEM.

SO IT WAS THROUGH LISTENING TO THEM THAT I CAME TO UNDERSTAND THAT, OKAY, MAYBE WE CAN DO SOMETHING, AND MAYBE WE CAN USE THIS NONVIOLENCE THAT THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT TO DO IT.

SO WE WERE -- THE RIOTS WERE GOING ON.

I FINISHED HIGH SCHOOL I THINK IN JUNE.

SO JULY IT WAS THE FIRST ARREST.

IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG.

AND I WAS WALKING WITH JIM TRAVIS DOWN TO DOWNTOWN JACKSON, AND WE PASSED A WOOLWORTH WHERE WE COULDN'T EAT, AND WE DECIDED TO GO IN AND GET SOMETHING TO EAT.

AND WE WERE ASKED TO LEAVE.

WE COULDN'T -- THEY COULDN'T SERVE US THERE.

WE SAID NO.

AND THEY THEN BROUGHT THE MANAGER OUT.

SAME THING HAPPENED.

SO THEN THEY CALL THE POLICE.

AND WE GOT ARRESTED FOR SITTING AT WHITE LUNCH COUNTER, AND WE WERE TAKEN TO JAIL.

AND I THINK FROM THEN ON, I WAS INVOLVED.

I STAYED INVOLVED AT THE VOTER REGISTRATION PIECE LATER.

BUT IT WAS MOSTLY ANGER.

AND IT WAS THE PEOPLE LIKE LEW AND LIKE OTHERS HAD GOTTEN ON BUSES AND COME DOWN AND ALMOST GOT KILLED, SOME OF THEM DID, TO HELP US.

AND I THINK THAT FOR MYSELF, THAT WAS IMPORTANT TO ME.

SO THAT'S HOW I GOT INVOLVED.

AND LEW, AND I HATE TO SAY IT, BUT THE WAY SO MANY PEOPLE UNFORTUNATELY LOOK AT THINGS, IT MAKES SENSE FOR LEVAN TO GET INVOLVED.

THIS WAS PERSONALLY AFFECTING HIS LIFE.

YOU WERE HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY.

THIS WASN'T DIRECTLY AFFECTING YOUR LIFE.

WHY DID YOU GET INVOLVED?

THERE ARE MANY REASONS I GOT INVOLVED.

EVERYTHING WE DO IN LIFE IS DETERMINED BY MANY PIECES.

MY FATHER COMMITTED SUICIDE WHEN I WAS 2 1/2.

AS I GROUP, MY IDOL IN LIFE WAS JACKIE ROBINSON, WHICH HAD POWERFUL MEANING TO ME, NOT JUST BECAUSE HE WAS A GREAT BASEBALL PLAYER, BUT JACKIE STOOD UP.

HE STOOD ALL UP ALL THE TIME.

WHEN HE WAS IN ARMY, HE REFUSED TO SIT IN THE BACK OF THE BUS AND WAS COURT-MARTIALED.

WHEN I WAS 19, I WAS WATCHING TV.

THERE WAS A SHOW, DAVID SUSKIND.

AND ON THE SHOW WAS HANK THOMAS WHO WAS ON THE ORIGINAL FREEDOM RIDER BUS THAT WAS FIREBOMBED IN ANISTON.

AND JACKIE ROBINSON.

AND WHITNEY YOUNG WAS CAUTIONING AGAINST CONTINUING THE RIDE.

THEY FELT IT WAS TOO DANGEROUS.

AND JACKIE ROBINSON SAID IF THESE YOUNG PEOPLE FEEL THIS IS THE TIME TO STAND UP, WHO ARE WE NOT TO SUPPORT THEM.

SO THE NEXT MORNING I DECIDED TO GO DOWN.

THE LAST THING I WANTED TO MENTION IN TERMS OF WHAT YOU SAID, I'M JEWISH.

I GREW UP -- I WAS BORN IN 1942, DURING WORLD WAR II.

IT WAS AS MUCH MIGHT FIGHT AS AFRICAN AMERICANS.

AND I THINK THE FACT THAT WE ONLY FEEL SHOULD ONLY STAND UP FOR THEIR OWN PARTICULAR IDENTITY GROUP, I THINK IS ONE OF THE REASONS WE DON'T DO MORE, WE DON'T PROGRESS MORE IN TERMS OF SOCIAL JUSTICE.

RIGHT.

I FELT THIS WAS MY FIGHT AS MUCH AS MY AFRICAN-AMERICAN AND WENT DOWN WITH THAT SENSE OF JUSTICE AND DETERMINATION.

LET ME ASK YOU BOTH THIS FOR NOT ONLY MYSELF, BUT FOR ALL OF THE OTHER PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN BLESSED ENOUGH TO HAVE BROKEN UP POST-CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, AND ALL OF THIS IS HISTORY FOR US THAT WE READ IN HISTORY BOOKS OR SEEN DOCUMENTARIES.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE, LIKE TO BE INVOLVED IN THE FREEDOM RIDES WHERE YOU WERE ON THOSE BUSES, AND YOU WERE FACING THOSE MOBS WHO IN SOME CASES, AS YOU MENTIONED, DID KILL PEOPLE?

I DON'T KNOW.

I ALREADY KNEW THAT PEOPLE COULD DIE BECAUSE I LIVED IN JACKSON.

I WAS 11 YEARS OLD WHEN EMMETT TILL WAS KILLED.

AND AS AN ASIDE, ALL THE PARENTS WERE UPSET.

THEY DIDN'T WANT THE BOYS OUT LATE AT NIGHT BECAUSE WHITE PEOPLE HAD A WAY OF JUST TAKING IT OUT ON ANYBODY.

AND EVEN THOUGH WE LIVED IN THE CITY, THERE WAS A LOT OF FEAR.

SO IT WAS NOT NEW TO ME THAT PEOPLE COULD DIE FROM DOING THIS.

SO I DO WANT TO TURN A LITTLE BIT TO THE ORGANIZATION THAT YOU GUYS ARE WORKING WITH NOW AND THE OUTREACH WORK THAT YOU'RE DOING WITH YOUNG PEOPLE.

WHAT IS IT -- WHAT'S THE ADVICE THAT YOU HAVE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE THAT WE SEEM TO BE SEEING A N P ACTIVISM AND KIDS WANTING TO GET INVOLVED AND HELP CHANGE THE WORLD FOR THE BETTER.

WHAT IS IT FROM YOUR STORY THAT YOU CAN TELL THEM OR THAT YOU ARE TELLING THEM?

WELL, FOR MYSELF, I GUESS, YOU KNOW, LEVAN AND I ARE CIVIL RIGHTS SPOKESPERSON FOR FACING HISTORY, DEDICATED TO ENSURING THAT THE HOLOCAUST IS REMEMBERED IN THE SCHOOLS AND NOW OF COURSE SOCIAL JUSTICE AND CIVIL RIGHTS.

ONE OF THE THINGS LEVAN AND HAVE I DISCOVERED WHICH IS REALLY INTERESTING, BOTH OF US HAD REALLY EMESSED UP CHILDHOODS.

WELL WERE VERY ABUSED AND WE ACTED OUT AND DID ALL THE WRONG THINGS THAT COULD HAVE ENDED WITH BOTH OF US NOT BEING HERE A LONG TIME AGO.

AND HOW LUCKY WE WERE TO BE FREEDOM RIDER, HOW FORTUNATE WE WERE.

SO I GUESS WHAT TRY TO DO IS TO HELP OUR YOUNG PEOPLE, I GUESS TO HELP VALIDATE THEIR ANGER AND VALIDATE THE FACT THAT THERE IS A LOT WRONG IN THIS WORLD, BUT HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT DEALING WITH THAT IN A WAY THAT DOESN'T INJURE YOURSELF.

WHAT FACING HISTORY ALLOWS US 20 DO IS GO OUT AND TALK TO CHILDREN AND TALK TO THOSE YOUNG PEOPLE THAT YOU'RE TALK.

WE FAILED THEM.

WE DIDN'T -- WE DIDN'T -- WE DIDN'T FINISH.

THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT DIDN'T SOLVE EVERYTHING.

WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT THINGS LIKE VOTER REGISTRATION, WE TALK ABOUT VOTER REGISTRATION, WE TALK ABOUT POLL TAX, WE TALK ABOUT WHATEVER.

THEY'RE DOING THE SAME THING.

IN PENNSYLVANIA WE HAVE THE VOTER RIGHT.

UH-HUH.

IT'S JUST LIKE WE USED TO FIGHT FOR RIGHTS TO VOTE.

THERE IS NO SUCH -- PEOPLE AREN'T CHEATING.

PEOPLE AREN'T LYING.

PEOPLE AREN'T DOING ANY OF THAT.

BUT THE CHILDREN HAVE TO FIGHT THAT.

AND THEY HAVE TO BE CONVINCED THAT IT'S THEIR FIGHT.

AND THEY HAVE TO LEARN TO LISTEN TO PEOPLE LIKE MYSELF OR EACH OTHER OR PEOPLE WHO DON'T AGREE WITH THEM.

YOU TELL THE CHILDREN THIS.

YOU GIVE THEM DIRECTION.

YOU TELL THEM THAT EVEN THOUGH WE THOUGHT THAT THERE WAS NOBODY OUT THERE WHO COULD ITEM US ANYTHING, THERE WERE PEOPLE WHO GOT US OUT OF JAIL.

THERE WERE PEOPLE WHO REPRESENTED US IN COURT.

THERE WERE PEOPLE WHO HELPED STRATEGIZE.

WE CAN DO THAT FOR THEM.

THEY HAVE TO TAKE THE LEAD.

THAT IS A BEAUTIFUL NOTE TO LEAVE IT ON.

YEAH.

GENTLEMEN, I WANT TO THANK YOU BOTH FOR YOUR BRAVERY AND FOR YOUR CONTINUED WORK TO MAKE SURE THAT HISTORY IS NOT FORGOTTEN AND REMEMBERED.

THANK YOU.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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