Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider by Charles Person with Richard Rooker

Buses Are a Comin': Memoir of a Freedom Rider cover imageSummary: Memoir of one of the two remaining Freedom Riders. 

Two things can be true at one time. The era of overt legal segregation was not that long ago (my mother is two weeks younger than Ruby Bridges, and many school districts around the country did not desegregate until roughly about the time of my birth). And we are very rapidly losing those that played prominent roles in the Civil Rights Era. Charles Person is one of just two members of the original Freedom Riders that are still living. Buses are Coming’: Memoir of a Freedom Riders was published just a couple of months ago. It is yet another book that I would not have known about without a recommendation from a friend. A friend of mine was invited to go to Charles Person’s home a couple of weeks ago, and there he spent four hours talking with him and learning about his story. It was out of that meeting that I heard about Buses are Comin’.

Charles Person was born in 1942. He was the youngest of the original Freedom Riders. As a Morehouse freshman, he participated in the Atlanta Student Movement that organized the end of segregated restaurants and shopping in Atlanta. During those protests, Charles Person was arrested and spent 16 days in jail for “trespassing and disturbing the peace” while standing in line at a lunch buffet attempting to pay for a meal. As retaliation for singing freedom songs while in jail, he was moved to solitary confinement for ten of those days. In part because of the jail sentence, he fell behind with his spring classes during his freshman year; he dropped out of Morehouse that spring and applied to be part of the Congress on Racial Equality’s Freedom Ride. (Person had applied to MIT and Georgia Tech, was accepted into MIT, but could not afford to attend and was rejected because of his race from Georgia Tech during the final year of required segregation at Tech.)

Roughly half of the book is about Person’s early years before college and the protests at the Atlanta Student Movement. The second half of the book is a much more detailed look at the initial Freedom Ride. That first Freedom Ride brought attention to the illegal segregated interstate travel, but it did not succeed. One of the buses was burned, and virtually all of the Freedom Riders were severely beaten. Eventually, with a representative of President Kennedy and the work of Birmingham pastor Fred Shuttlesworth, the Freedom Riders were flown out of Birmingham.

In response to the failure of the first ride, Diane Nash of SNCC organized a follow-up Freedom Rides. It took more than seven months. More than 400 riders participated in 60 rides before the federal government agreed to enforce the 1946 Morgan v. Virginia and the 1960 Boynton v. Virginal Supreme Court rulings that desegregated interstate travel. The Buses are Comin’ is just about the first Freedom Ride. In an afterward, Charles Person speaks of the follow-up work, but he did not participate in those follow-up rides because of his parents’ resistance.

The more I read about the Civil Rights Era, the more it is clear that the real work of the Civil Rights Era was small-scale organizing by people that will never be well known. Of course, it is vital to learn about Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, and John Lewis, but the unknown people allowed their work to be successful.

These Buses are Comin’ reminds me of a similar memoir by Carolyn Maull McKinstry. While the World Watched tells McKinstry’s story of narrowly missing being killed by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and her participation in the Birmingham Children’s crusade. Unlike most Civil Rights Era memoirs, which are usually framed as harrowing hero stories, most of While the World Watched is about her recovery from the trauma of losing four of her best friends, participating in a march, and being arrested a child, and the resulting alcoholism. The hard parts of the movement were made clear. That is also true, but there is more of a hero story framing with I Will Not Fear by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine.

Melba Pattillo Beals, Carolyn Maull McKinstry, and Charles Person are still living. They range in age from 72 to 79. All of them were part of the student movement of the Civil Rights era, and while they participated in those initial marches and protests, the rest of their lives were still impacted by ongoing racism. Beals, in her memoir, speaks about the difficulty of finding housing even 20 years after discrimination based on race in housing was made illegal. Not in the book, but based on my friend’s discussion with Charles Person, he went into the military. He was trained as an engineer there because of continued education and job discrimination. McKinstry speaks about her brother, who stopped speaking for years after the string of church and home bombings in their area and who died before he turned 50, in large part because of the trauma of his early life.

I regularly encounter white adults resistant to the idea that there is ongoing racial discrimination or that there is a continued impact from historical discrimination. It is books like these I wish people would read. I think it is a story and memoir that has the best chance of changing minds and opening up people beyond their personal experience and ideological blinders.

Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider by Charles Person with Richard Rooker Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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