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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington
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Program recalls little-known pioneers of civil rights effort
Duluth News Tribune, Feb. 9, 2006
(Published day of broadcast of "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!" on WDSE-TV PBS-8, Duluth)

Virtually everyone in the world has heard of Rosa Parks. Far fewer know the name of Irene Morgan, who, like Parks but 11 years earlier, refused to give up her seat on a bus in the segregated South.

Morgan's action led to a 1946 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in interstate -- but not intrastate -- transportation. It also sparked a group of white and black radicals to invent the "freedom ride," a traveling protest in which they rode side by side on buses and trains in hopes of getting the Southern states to enforce the Morgan Decision. Dubbed the "Journey of Reconciliation," the protest, like Morgan's, was ahead of its time, and the riders' reward for their action was 30 days on a chain gang.

All of this was long before the civil rights movement reached its heyday in the 1950s and '60s, when I was growing up in Chicago. Though my family was steeped in activism, with my mother taking me on marches and sit-ins when I was 3 years old (I thought they were family outings), it wasn't until 1992 that I learned about Morgan and the activists she inspired. Then, I was working for a pacifist group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had given birth to the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and co-sponsored the 1947 ride with CORE. Some of the story had passed down in FOR's oral history, and a smattering of primary source materials about it sat in the basement of its headquarters. A few civil rights books made mention of the journey on a page or two or in footnotes. But for the most part it was lost to history.

Yet it wasn't lost for those who lived it. Of 16 riders -- eight white and eight black -- 10 were then still alive. Of those, I first met George Houser, who lived near the FOR building and kept in contact with the organization. One by one I met the others.

Having produced a handful of television and radio documentaries by then, the idea occurred to me to tell their story by organizing a trip to retrace their steps and filming it. Houser agreed readily, as did the Rev. Nathan Wright, who I reached just days before the embarking. He responded to my question, "What are you doing this weekend?" by saying: "I'm going with you."

But others were initially skeptical. Wally Nelson, who led a minimalist lifestyle with his wife, Juanita, on a farm in Massachusetts where they grew what they needed to eat and sold a small surplus, said he had to take his beans to market the first day of the reunion. I offered to buy all the beans myself, but the Nelsons wouldn't hear of it. He arrived in Virginia a day later than the rest.

Three others I located died before we could get them in front of the cameras. I spent much quality time with Homer Jack, a lifelong peace activist and minister who was excitedly looking forward to the project but who passed away three weeks before the trip. Similarly, I had a long, and pretty much one-sided, phone conversation with Worth Randle, a naturalist and ornithologist who had much to say on those subjects and more. He missed the first reunion but planned on participating in the second. He, too, died just before it took place.

Most haunting was my meeting with Jim Peck, who had been the only member of both the 1947 journey and the more famous 1961 Freedom Ride, in which he was severely beaten in Birmingham, Ala. Never having fully recovered from those wounds, and his health further compounded by a stroke, he was in a Minneapolis nursing home. There I found him hitting himself on his head and calling to the nursing staff, "They're hurting me." Unbeknownst to them, he was reliving the moment of the attack, adding: "They hurt me, and it took 53 stitches." But when I showed him photos of the 1947 and 1961 rides, he returned to lucidity to say, "I was on the Freedom Ride. I was on the Journey of Reconciliation. I was there." Though his family agreed to let us film him, he too passed away before that could be accomplished.

"Finding" Irene Morgan -- now Irene Morgan Kirkaldy -- was a particular thrill. After I left messages at numerous numbers, a call came back to my house answered by my daughter, Erin, then 13. She gave a big smile as she heard, "This is Irene Morgan." The two have had many wonderful conversations since.

For seven riders and Morgan, the reunion did go off as planned, and they also met with Jim Farmer, CORE's most famous leader of the 1960s who had wanted to participate on the 1947 journey but could not because he was starting a new job and ending a marriage. History works that way.

The documentary was completed in 1995, with retired U.S. appellate Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. agreeing to narrate it. His authoritative, stentorian delivery combined with his personal experience in the black civil rights struggle brought an indelible authenticity to the program. It aired first on New Hampshire Public Television and then on PBS stations across the country, with multiple broadcasts over the next three years. At least a hundred screenings have been held around the country, some with the riders, Morgan or myself in attendance. Others I only heard about a year or two later. Probably the most significant event was the 350th anniversary celebration of the town of Gloucester, Va., where Morgan got on the bus. Their honoring of her made national news, including the front page of the Washington Post, and led to President Clinton bestowing the Citizenship Medal on Morgan.

Morgan has taken it easy since then and made few appearances. The riders -- or "the guys," as my family affectionately refers to them -- have now nearly all passed on, as has Higginbotham. Two riders, Houser and Bill Worthy, survive.

His voice as cheery and optimistic as ever, Houser, 89, acknowledged being part of a diminishing breed. "I've been going to a lot of memorial services," he said from his home in Pomona, N.Y., yesterday. Turning to contemporary issues, he added: "Let's get out of Iraq."

A lifelong activist, he hasn't changed any. Nor would I expect him to.


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