Photos: Mike Lawrence
Flames licked at the seats of a Greyhound bus just outside of Anniston, Ala. Inside, 19-year-old Hank Thomas and his fellow riders were desperate to find a way out.
It was 1961, and members of the Ku Klux Klan had firebombed the vehicle carrying black and white riders who had been organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The group intended to ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in protest of the southern states’ noncompliance with a Supreme Court ruling against segregation on public buses.
The terrorists laid siege to the bus, smashing its windows, stuffing fiery rags inside, and preventing the occupants from escaping. Word began to spread that the fuel tanks were about to blow, and the crowd backed away, giving Thomas and his companions a way to get out and survive the horrific attack.
Honoring the Past
On a hot July morning in Washington, D.C. more than five decades later, Thomas stood with five other original Freedom Riders—Charles Person, Dion Diamond, John Moody, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Rev. Reginald Green—in the Lyndon B. Johnson building of the Department of Education in the U.S. capital. They were there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to re-create the first leg of their historic ride, from D.C. to Richmond.
Thomas, who would fight in Vietnam a few years after the Freedom Ride, has spent his life defending his colors: the color of his uniform and the color of his skin. “We loved a country that did not love us,” Thomas told the group of media representatives and students gathered to celebrate. “Everything we have today is a result of the price and blood we paid.”
To honor the Riders and their bravery in the face of certain aggression, the Department of Education organized an artistic revue that included poetry, spirituals and a proclamation from President Obama, before heading south to Richmond. “Education is the master key: It opens every door,” said Massie Ritsch, assistant secretary for the Department of Education’s office of communications and outreach. “On our ride to Richmond we’ll be reflecting this morning on our country and some periods where we’ve been at our worst, our ugliest, [so we can] reflect on our country’s potential when it is at its most beautiful.”
Then the original Freedom Riders boarded three school buses provided by IC Bus and National Express Corporation and set out for the Virginia State Capitol. Forty-nine high school, college and graduate students from across the nation joined them on the ride, symbolically taking on the mantle as Freedom Riders of today.
Jesseca Goodman, a junior marketing major at Coppin State University in Baltimore, described her own ride as an “awe” moment. “You have to remember how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go,” she said. “I plan to continue being a boulder for people to come to.”
Continuing the Journey
Once they arrived in Richmond, the Riders, new and old, filed into the room where Virginia citizens voted to secede in 1861. A statue of Robert E. Lee served as a reminder of the strides the U.S. has made in equality since the Civil War. Retiring state Senator Henry Marsh, the first African American mayor of Richmond, addressed the crowd. “We have to take action,” he said. “We have a new enemy: It’s apathy. And you have to make a difference.” Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe chimed in, “Do what is right, instead of simply what is easy.”
But perhaps the most moving words came from Catherine Lhamon, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, who underscored what the students had just learned about the ongoing struggle for equality.
“My office and I are here to support you,” Lhamon told the students assembled in the Old Hall of the House of Delegates. She cited massive improvements in education opportunities for minorities, pointing to a Pew Research Center study last year that found that black students in 1964 were half as likely as white students to graduate from high school, while today, black students are 93% as likely as white students to graduate.
Yet, there’s still much to be done. “Today, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this is what my office does,” Lhamon said, explaining that she and her colleagues battle segregation, sexually hostile environments and discrimination against those with disabilities in schools all over the United States.
After Lhamon’s speech, students and Freedom Riders gathered on the lawn outside for a photograph in the shadow of the Virginia Civil Rights memorial, which features quotes from leaders in the struggle for equality. One by Thurgood Marshall read: “The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.”
The students got the message. “There’s still progress to be made,” said Clifton Morgan III, who plans to practice litigation in Atlanta after graduating from the North Carolina Central University School of Law next May. “We have to remind people where we can make a difference.”
As for Hank Thomas and the original Freedom Riders, their journey this time ended much differently than the one they took back in 1961. “When we boarded those buses 53 years ago, we were in pursuit of the American Dream—the American Dream whose preamble stated then that we, as Americans, had a right to expect equality of treatment, to be treated with dignity and respect,” Thomas told those gathered. “And today, after 53 years, that dream of old has not been tarnished. It has lost neither tone nor tint. And it still stands a-glimmering through the veils of yesterday.”