Marking freedom after a long, hard ride
Duluth News Tribune, March 1, 2009
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Had things gone the way George Houser originally planned, he wouldn't be visiting this town today. He certainly wouldn't be the toast of it.
But history has a way of turning the best plans upside down.
"We didn't know what to expect," Houser, 92, said of his travels here 62 years ago. Then, Houser, who is white, and his interracial traveling companions were run out of Chapel Hill by an angry mob accusing them of "coming here to stir up the n----s."
On Saturday, a much larger crowd came out to dedicate an official state marker to that incident and reclaim that past.
Led by Houser and Bayard Rustin -- the latter gaining fame as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington -- the 1947 bus and train trip followed a Supreme Court decision the year before that outlawed segregation in interstate transit.
Southern states ignored the ruling, however, and with a tactical genius not often seen today, Houser and Rustin responded by creating the concept of a freedom ride, then dubbed the Journey of Reconciliation. The strategy was simple but effective: blacks would sit up front on buses, whites in back, and both side-by-side -- and one rider would travel incognito, carrying the bail money.
Originally slated to go from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, the group was warned that violating Jim Crow laws in the Deep South would be too dangerous. Rerouted, the trip went to the Upper South only, making a right turn to travel the breadth of North Carolina. "We were invited to come to Chapel Hill. It wasn't just automatically on our schedule," Houser said.
The invitation made sense. Home of the University of North Carolina, the town had a liberal reputation on race relations for the time and seemed like it would be a respite for the group, which in four days of travel had endured a handful of arrests for refusing to submit to segregation in Virginia and elsewhere in North Carolina.
"We thought that Chapel Hill was going to be easy on us," Houser said.
At first it was. A local white minister, the Rev. Charles Jones, put them up for the night and even held an interracial party for them. But when the riders boarded a bus to leave the next day, four were arrested, raising the ire of a group of white cab drivers who weren't a part of the town's liberal tradition. One rider was struck, and the whole group was chased back to Jones' house. A phone call threatened worse if they didn't get out of town by nightfall.
They did -- not by bus, but chauffeured by Jones with a reluctant police escort. Though there were no further incidents of violence on the two-week trip, the reward for their efforts were convictions for violating the local segregation laws, despite the Supreme Court ruling. Three received sentences of 30 days on a chain gang. Real change in overthrowing segregation in America would have to wait, until the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision seven years later, the Montgomery Bus Boycott a year after that, and the much more famous Freedom Ride of 1961, directly based on the 1947 trip.
But now, it's being remembered in Chapel Hill, where an official state marker was erected to commemorate the incident and the ride -- the first anywhere along the journey's route.
To herald it in, local members of the NAACP, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (the cosponsor, with the Congress of Racial Equality, of the 1947 ride) and other groups, as well as committed individuals, crowded a gym and auditorium to take back their history.
Maybe it's just a road marker, like thousands of others across the country. But it certainly stands out in Chapel Hill, where the most prominent monument is of Silent Sam, a confederate soldier greeting visitors on the university grounds. In the rest of the state, only four markers denote civil rights history, a state historian said.
"Why do we have to study this history? Why do we have to study these horrible things that happened?" Karen Abbotts, granddaughter of the late Rev. Jones, asked rhetorically. "If we don't do that, we will be held hostage to that history," she answered. "Our work is never done."
Robin Washington is news director of the News Tribune and executive producer of the PBS documentary on the Journey of Reconciliation, "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!" He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org