Monday, July 16, 2001
Freedom Riders plan a reunion in Mississippi
Their '61 fight against segregation struck a key blow for civil rights.
By Deborah Bulkeley
JACKSON, Miss. - Just after her train arrived here in the summer of 1961,
Norma Lisbon and about 20 companions - some black and some white -
challenged the rule of segregation by entering a waiting room labeled
The band of Freedom Riders was arrested, and most of Lisbon's 40-day
imprisonment was spent in maximum security. In exchange for her freedom,
Lisbon was required to sign an agreement never to set foot again in
Mississippi. Now, 40 years later, she intends to return.
Lisbon, now retired and living in Philadelphia, and Carol Ruth Silver, a
veteran civil rights campaigner, would like to see every surviving Freedom
Rider attend a reunion in Jackson in November.
"I think the message is one of reconciliation, of putting this chapter in
the history of Jackson, Miss., in its perspective," said Silver, 62, a San
Francisco lawyer who is organizing the reunion.
"It's time for making this a monument to the history of the civil rights
movement . . . to allow kids in Mississippi, both black and white, to say,
'Here's where something important happened, and we look at it and
understand it.' "
In May 1961, a group of black and white college students who became known
as Freedom Riders set out from Washington to New Orleans to test a Supreme
Court ruling banning racial segregation on interstate public transportation.
At segregated bus stations, black riders tried to use white waiting rooms
and bathrooms, while whites tried to use facilities set aside for blacks.
As the riders were beaten and arrested along the way, national attention
rose, and hundreds joined the campaign.
"People were on fire. They wanted to change things, and they did," said Ed
Blankenheim, 67, who was on a Greyhound bus that was firebombed in
"It was the freedom-ride notion itself - riding for freedom - that changed
the civil rights movement," Blankenheim said.
With the help of a few friends, Silver has compiled a list of 416 Freedom
Riders by searching Jackson police records and archives of the
An Internet query has provided several possible addresses to match each
name. A tedious search has begun, said David Lisker, a history professor at
City College of San Francisco, who is helping organize the event. He met
recently with the Jackson City Council.
"To us, every Freedom Rider we find is like finding gold," Lisker said of
the growing list of people who have been invited.
Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. called the reunion an "opportunity for
citizens to demonstrate to them how appreciative they are of the work they
did some 40 years ago.
"The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all came on
the heels of the kind of social activism that the Freedom Riders were
symbolic of during that period of time," he said.
Although traces of racism remain in the state that recently voted to keep a
Confederate emblem on its flag, Mississippi today has more black elected
officials - including mayors of large cities - than any other state.
Blacks and whites work side by side in local and state law enforcement,
once a whites-only profession. And most communities enjoy good race relations.
The reunion, planned for Nov. 8-11 at Tougaloo College, will include
speakers on the civil rights movement, a tour of jail cells where the
riders were detained, and a tour of historic sites in Jackson, Lisker said.
In addition, it will be a chance to meet the friends and cell mates who
helped one another endure 40 days in prison.
The civil rights campaigners, most now in their 60s, recall the fear they
felt as they rode into Jackson on buses and trains. They also remember mobs
of reporters and police officers.
They say the years have not dulled memories of overcrowded jail cells and
angry guards, passing notes through bars and keeping journals on toilet paper.
Recalling the angry whites who hissed at her during the hearing after her
arrest, Lisbon, 67, said: "I'm hoping that with the passage of all this
time they will look at us as just fellow Americans doing what any American
Neither Lisbon nor Silver regrets the decision to go to jail. Both went on
to lecture and recruit more Freedom Riders. They say they are excited about
Said Silver: "We will demonstrate one more time, if necessary, that blacks
and whites can get more done working together than they can separately."
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