Imagine a National Park. Picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren’t just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, preserving the stories of who we are and how we came to be. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands. Opinions shared by guests are not the official position of the NPS.
Episode 1: Roy Wood, Jr. interviews Charles Person (Freedom Rider)
Welcome to our first episode featuring Charles Person and Roy Wood, Jr. Charles Person was a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders rode buses across the south to test Supreme Court rulings declaring segregation unconstitutional in restrooms, bus depots, and waiting areas. Roy Wood, Jr. is a comedian, best known for his work on the Daily Show. Raised in Birmingham, he has written that Alabama represents to him “painful history, new hope, and home.” Audio footage courtesy of Freedom Riders Park, Inc.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights.
Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration?
National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National Parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public land.
[Music volume increases. Song: Turn Me Round, by the Psalters]
Welcome to our first episode. My name is Kat, and I'm a Park Ranger at Freedom Riders National Monument and Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Today, we are honored to welcome Charles Person and Roy Wood, Jr.
Charles Person was a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders rode buses across the South to test Supreme Court rulings declaring segregation unconstitutional in restrooms, bus depots, and waiting areas. Brutal violence in Alabama showed that when it came to integration, the nation was failing. Freedom Riders sat down on these buses in order to stand up for the truest of our nation's ideals. Mr. Person has just published a memoir of his experiences and a call to action for change: Buses are a Comin'.
Roy Wood, Jr. is a comedian best known for his work on The Daily Show. Raised in Birmingham, he has written that Alabama represents to him painful history, new hope and home. I'll let the two of them take it from here.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Well, let me start just on the behalf of all of Black America, brother Person, and just tell you, thank you. Just a simple thank you. And that's before we even get to the medals that are on your chest as a Marine Corps veteran, just thank you for what you all chose to do in that ride down South. I have a million questions. I hope some of these you haven't been asked before, but the book, the memoir, pardon me. It's straight up poetry. And the thing that I really enjoyed about your memoir is that you didn't just go into what happened and often when I, when we look at a lot of the media that's created around the civil rights - but I'm talking TV and film primarily. You only have enough time for the what. This is what happened. This is who did it. This is what changed. These are the policies. Whereas with your memoir, you were able to really get into the why people chose to do what they did. My first question to you, just out the gate. You're 18 when you decide to become a Freedom Rider, how did you convince your Mama to say yes? ‘Hey, Mama, I'm going on a racism tour down South. But don't be worried.’
Charles Person: Well, I didn't quite tell her the whole truth. I just explained to her that I was going to be seen for advanced training in nonviolence. Now she knew that I was active in the Atlanta movement, that I had been in jail, and like most parents, she figured there was not much more that could happen to me. And no one realized that when laid in store for the Freedom Riders, but Dad more or less convinced her that I would be okay. The men in the family supported me, and that's what made it possible. But convincing Mom, you know, everywhere they're going to worry. I had never left the South before. I'd never left the state of Georgia before. So all this was new, and at 18, it was quite an adventure.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Now the Freedom Riders were comprised of young and old, men and women, more importantly, White and Black. How much interaction had you had with White allies up into that point before you got to DC and met the people that you would be on the bus with?
Charles Person: In the Atlanta movement, unfortunately, we had very few Whites participate. [unintelligible] There was one White fellow that was in my freshman English class. But other than that, our Association, we were really lone wolves operating alone in Atlanta. So it was really encouraging when I got there, the meet of the Whites that were involved, it was really surprising. And they really welcomed you on board. In fact, the Bergman's, Dr. Bergman and his wife, so they were more or less like my parents. They said "We're going to take care of you." And believe it or not, they tried.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Let's stay right there for a second with Dr. Bergman. He was one of the people I believe, if correct me from wrong, but in the memoir, you talked about how Dr. Bergman said, and this is going back to the why, people were choosing to take a stand. Dr. Bergman saw the mistreatment of African Americans while he served, and it was one of the things that kind of stuck with him and just that one little annoying thing that just never left his mind. And he decided to act on it. And he saw the Freedom Rides as an opportunity to actively be a part of something that would push the nation forward. What advice do you have, if any, for White people today, who...they have that same inkling in the back of their mind, like Dr. Bergman, but they haven't quite taken that step or want to try and find that program. Well, I guess what advice would you have for them in deciding to make that step forward?
Charles Person: I think the biggest problem most Whites have today is they are a product of our educational system. And the biggest problem with that is that we were...Slavery and the Trail of Tears, the Manifest Destiny, the Mexican Wars, they were all taught as little modules. They were all separate, whereas if you connect them together, then all of a sudden you see a picture of how we became that country from sea to shining sea. And once that happens, then they have a new outlook on what our aspirations are and how bad we were treated. In other words, sometimes you say, "Oh, yeah, well slavery was this and that, and sometimes the movies glamorized those aspects of slavery or how we were content and happy little pickaninnies. And that was not the case. So they need to realize how life was for Blacks, not only in slavery, but during the era of Jim Crow. Once they have a better understanding, then we can have that conversation, and then they can understand that I'm not whining, and I'm not begging, I don't want anything more than is given any other American. I want to belong, just like you want to belong. I mean, we ask for nothing special. We just want to be treated as normal human beings.
Roy Wood, Jr.: A part of the memoir that struck me as very riveting was not only the age differential in everyone that was involved in the Freedom Ride, the original Freedom Riders from DC, I'm talking about, but also where they all were emotionally in their relationship with the civil rights movement, at that particular biomarker in their life, and how you at 18, you recognized that, you clocked that immediately. And in the memoir you described, okay, I've decided to be a Freedom Rider, which meant you had to go to Washington, DC, for a training period so that you can be taught. Let's just say more in depth nonviolent training and how to, how to maintain your stillness around, let's just say high tense situations with a lot of stimuli going on, to say the least. So in that time, you and all these other strangers, you simulate conflicts, and they were created to test your resolve to remain nonviolent. And in the memoir, you talked about meeting that the 20 year old John Lewis, and in the book you described them as this.
“I smiled. John seethed. John was always serious, always straight faced, always solemn. For me, the importance of the work was primary, but I also felt a sense of adventure. There was no adventure in this for John. For John, this was as serious as life gets.”
At what point in the Freedom Ride did it stop becoming an adventure for you as well and turn into an actual, full focus, primary mission objective?
Charles Person: I think once we got started and we started meeting people in various towns and how they opened up to us, for example, every night, we had to be put up. We had to stay someplace. And we stayed with people and many them, they didn't have very much, but they gave us the best that they had. And after seeing this, you gotta realize I was coming from Atlanta and seeing these people and how they were reaching out to us, who were strangers, and they gave us, like I said, the best they had, that for me, made this journey, it took on more significance. I wanted in some way after the Rides, be able to go reach out to these people and thank them because the journey for me would not have been possible. Plus, also, they gave my parents, I guess, sanity because they knew that I was being taken care of, even though they didn't know these people. It was quite an evolution, you know, from the beginning, the training and all that and how things mounted as we went further and further South.
Roy Wood, Jr.: The thing that I found interesting in the training chapter, and I'm sorry to just stay on that part of the memoir for right now, but for me, this is the first time I've ever seen that layer of the civil rights movement peeled back. They talk about non violence, non violence, and we practice nonviolence. Well, if you practice something that means you have to be trained in it, which means that you all sat and you all figured out ways to yell slurs at each other and sometimes from people who weren't necessarily believable when they said it to you because you knew what their heart was. You knew who they really were and what their soul was. For them to try to recreate a situation of racism for you to react to was a little funny. I would imagine, in the moment, at least a little bit off kilter. Tell me about some of the moments on the trips where you all smiled.
Charles Person: Well, I think the most important thing for us was the evenings. During the day, while we're on the bus, even though, say, I may be sitting with a Rider, we didn't converse very much. We wanted to be focused, and we wanted to make the appearance that we were just passengers. You just happen to have sit in the same seat. But in the evenings we always had dinner together and we discussed what went right that day and what went wrong. And that was also a time when we were given our allowance. And that was important because one of the most embarrassing thing that could have ever happened to us, had we gone into a restaurant, ordered food and they served us and we didn't have the money to pay. So it is imperative that we have funds. Also, I was taught there, and it's been with me all my life, is I always tip generously. That's one of the things, because if you get served, be generous in your tipping. And that's been a habit I've had all my life. You know, when I go places, I always tip liberally because it's important. Black people have a reputation throughout the world as being poor tippers, you know, the slightest thing is wrong with the service and we retaliate to the server and maybe it's not even the server's fault.
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's warm water in my ice water. I'm not tipping you. [Laughter]
Charles Person: You've been there?
Roy Wood, Jr.: Oh, Yeah. I used to be a server. I worked at Golden Corral for two years. I have some first hand experience. So in sticking with the memoir, Buses are a Comin', You not only paint a beautiful picture of the circumstances that led to everyone who made this choice. And, of course, you cover everything that happens in Anniston and the horrors in Birmingham. And I do want to talk about Birmingham a little later, but I just found this memoir so compelling because of the why. And you actively during the time that you all were training, you found your [unintelligible. And this is something I can kind of relate to because, well, not in the circumstances. You get what I'm trying to say. When you're in the presence of people that you're intimidated by or curious of, you're trying to find these moments within the conversations to slip in the quick thing that you were curious about. And you talked about how you went around as best you could over the course of that training period in DC to find out what drove these people to be a part of this. You know why you were there. But I want to know why she's there, he's there, she's there. And you spoke with Reverend Cox, and Reverend Cox said this. He said, quote, ‘So many others made sacrifices so I am not a slave. It's my turn to sacrifice on behalf of someone else. We can sacrifice now, Charles, for those we will never know, who will never know of our sacrifice and will never care we did this. We can sacrifice.’ Do you feel the story of the Freedom Riders and what happened there? Do you, do you know the worth? Like, how aware, because in the moment it's not, you can always go: 'This is going to be a monumental thing that we will be talking about for decades.' But did you know at the time how monumental this was going to be, as the bus is pulling out of Washington, DC? Did you all know?
Charles Person: I don't think that we were aware of the impact. We weren't deluding ourselves to think this is going to be some great revolution or things are going to change. All we hoped for is that we could make a difference. If we can highlight to the country that how things really were, how bad they actually were. And I think that has been the [story?] of the Freedom Rides. Even now. There's so many people that have heard the term, and they have a vague idea of what the Freedom Ride was about. But because of the events that happened afterwards and the deaths and things that happen afterwards, overshadows the Freedom Rides, because it was so early. This was really the first big campaign after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And also after the death of Emmett Till. All those things had a very strong impact on all of us who were involved. But we weren't going to say that we're going to change the world. We didn't have...we weren't savvy enough to think that what we were doing was going to change the world, but it did.
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's often conversations about, where protests are concerned, about outside agitators. So I was in Birmingham during the George Floyd moment that we had as a country, and there were a lot of protests. There were a lot of demonstrations. And then there was also this group, this contingency of outside agitators that were coming in and starting a lot of ruckus and hijacking the narrative. And that's what the media chose to run with, more often than not. You spoke of something very interesting in the memoir about how, you know, you all have come through Anniston and the bus has been fire-bombed, and many of you have been beaten within an inch of your life. And you get to Birmingham, and you simply need a doctor. And there were Black doctors who were declining, and understandably so, because of the pressure that they were under, they still had to live here when you all leave. Y'all coming in town and you all in the eyes of some Black people at that time, the Freedom Riders were seen as outside agitators. In the moment, because you go through all the training and all the preparation, how did that feel when you all are in need of medical assistance, and the only people who can give it to you are Black people. But the Black people who give it to you are risking literally their entire fiscal existence to help you. In some cases, may be risking their own lives. Were you all understanding of that rejection? Did it anger you? What was that feeling to you yourself being seen as outside agitators when you knew what you were doing was to try to help the greater good.
Charles Person: At first, it was very disappointing and you didn't know how to react. But as it was explained to me why the doctors had taken their position, but I think it seemed wherever there was a door was closed, another one opened, because what we later found out, the only medical help I received was a nurse in Reverend Shuttlesworth's congregation, and she did a remarkable job, considering that was all the medical help I received. I mean, it was sufficient. However, what happened later, that particular wound drained to the base of my skull, and I developed a knot, which got the be out the size of my fist. But the treatment that she gave, it was the only thing. But it got me through for many, many months. I'm always indebted to her, and that's I guess one of the disappointments for me is a lot of those wonderful people who assisted us in all kinds of ways, is being able to go out and reach out to them, and just say thank you because they made a big difference, you know, that that human touch, especially at the time that we were, we were battered and we were bewildered. And to have folks, strangers, come to us and say they understood, and they supported us. And I think that's why the Riders grew from 13 to over 436 Riders because of the empathy not only towards us, but to all the
replacement Riders as well.
Roy Wood, Jr.: What was...I believe it was Anniston, if I'm not mistaken, I can't remember if this part of memoir happened in Anniston or in Birmingham, but you talked about how - I'm pretty sure this was Anniston - where everyone had gotten off, they had firebombed the bus, everyone is getting off of the bus and people are being beaten and the ambulance arrives and the ambulance says it will only take the White Freedom Riders to the hospital. Did that create any type of division within your group when you all saw the way that your White colleagues were being treated, or was that just dismissed because you knew they were standing tall with you?
Charles Person: Well, I think it's the community are the people that were there, how devoted the Freedom Riders were to each other, because when they refused to take the Black Riders, the White Freedom Riders said, 'If you're not going to take them, then we're not going either.' So which would have created a greater crisis, that they not gotten anyone to the hospital, but that defiance of the White Freedom Riders, what brought all of us closer together, but also, you know, it kept them as a group together, you know, because after they left the site of the burning bus, that crowd followed them to the hospital and they threatened to burn the hospital down. These guys had already proven that they would burn up stuff. So if they would burn up a bus, surely setting fire to a hospital is no big deal to them.
Roy Wood, Jr.: I say sometimes, and I say it being playful on stage because, you know, with comedy, you kind of have to be a little silly. But I do think that there is, you know, as a 42 year old Black man and being raised more in the history of civil rights versus the actual moment of civil rights, there's a different separation. And when I look at the present day racism and tragedies that are put at the feet of Black people, there is a trauma to that. There is something terrible to watching the news. There is something that is depressing to having to always take that in and never see justice for our slain brothers and sisters. Like even with the trial that was happening in Minneapolis with Officer Chauvin, well, former Officer Chauvin, I couldn't watch it, and I just, I followed it some, but I could not watch people recounting step by step, and moment by moment. It was too much. But I have the luxury of turning off the TV and at least trying to find some sort of escape. You were born and you were raised in the South, went to college in the South as a Morehouse man. You can't escape a region. I can turn off the TV. You can't escape Atlanta. You can't escape just riding through Birmingham. And they have the Freedom Riders Monument, which just opened this year in Anniston. How do you feel when you go back to these places? Are you ever able to just exist in the present in the South?
Charles Person: That's a good one. When we went through Anniston for the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I didn't get off the bus. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I had very negative feelings about the place. 10 years later, the 50th, I came by. The town had changed tremendously. There was a lot of empathy by ruling officials of the government, the Mayor and all those people that, you know, they were reaching out to us and were trying to make amends. And the Anniston today is a whole lot different from Anniston back in 1961. I find it a very warm community. I could live there. That's how much it has changed. And the same way with Birmingham when we came back to Birmingham,
of the people. See what has made the difference is the Black community realizes the importance of what happened then and they're reaching out and saying, 'Hey, we're sorry.' And this is the new us, and that's...the new us is what we can embrace. And that's why those portions of the South don't have the stigma that they once had. And I think what happens, what makes it better is people like you who are born there, and, you know, you're the younger generation. You're in between that old past and that new future. And I guess that's what gives us all hope is the fact that we realize that things and people do change and we can make a difference as to how we relate to one another. And I think, this for me, has been the biggest change because I don't feel any anger towards any of those places. In fact, I dispensed with anger a long time ago. I have no reason to hate. I've given up all those, mainly because we won, you know. If we were still on the effects of Jim Crow, I may have a different attitude. But because there are changes, I can be benevolent and say, 'Hey, I can embrace the change.' And I do.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Let's talk about the medals on your chest there. You're 18 and you survive something ridiculously traumatic in the Freedom Ride. Three months later, you're at Paris Island training to be a United States Marine. For what that country had shown you it could be three months prior, why make the choice to go and defend it in Vietnam?
Charles Person: Well, in two fold reasons. One is that my mother knew that I would stay in the Movement. She knew that there's no way I was going to not be involved some way. So she encouraged me. She says, 'Why don't you join the Army?' And because I hadn't been totally truthful with her from the beginning, and after what had happened, I figured I owed it to her. So I did some, I pursued a different route. At the time, the Army was trying to recruit Blacks for the Academy at West Point. Because in those days, the only way you could get in to West Point was have a congressional appointment. Well, you know, they weren't appointing too many Blacks to West Point out in the South. [Laughter] So I wasn't gonna get that. But the thing is, I had all the tests and all that stuff and, of course, academics, that was never a problem. And the physical, it was no problem. But that particular afternoon, the day before I was supposed to do my final to enlist, there was an article on the Marine Corps. And I said, 'Hey, Let's try this.' I went out to the Marine Corps recruiter and he was happy. I did extremely well on the test. But then he found he couldn't enlist me. Because what had happened, when we were arrested in Atlanta, they put our case on what they call the dead docket, which meant I couldn't leave the city at all.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Blacklisted.
Charles Person: So what happened is the recruiter went down there, and I guess he told them, 'So we can get this one out of your hair.' So they allow the recruiter to enlist me. And that's how I enlisted in the Marine Corps. But, you know, I come from a community, we had a lot of veterans in my neighborhood, in Buttermilk Bottom. We had World War I veteran who was disabled. We had Korean War. And, of course, my dad and his cousin were World War II veterans. So in our community, the military didn't have a stigma. In other words, they would say to us, 'Stay in school, get a good education, or join the Army, they'll make a man out of you.' So that's the kind of environment I grew up in, of course my dad was a very proud soldier, in spite of all the crap he had to put up with when he was in the army. I mean, he endured some stuff that... nothing like I experienced then in the Marine Corp. But, you know, I had heard the stories so I was prepared for all the stuff that could possibly have happened.
Roy Wood, Jr.: What's the biggest difference between the two war zones, Vietnam and the civil rights movement?
Charles Person: Well, in Vietnam, I had a gun. [Laughter]
Roy Wood, Jr.: Touché.
Charles Person: You know, I was a peaceful warrior. My role, I think I was destined to do there because I was one of those people who, I was not afraid. I was not afraid during the Freedom Rides. And when I got the Marine Corps and we got in Vietnam, I was cool as a cucumber because I had experienced stuff like, you say, as a nonviolent person, I endured that. And here I was in a situation where I had colleagues, they all had guns and all that other stuff. But I also, you know, I'm serving my country, and when we get to Vietnam, it showed how ill-prepared America was for that war. For example, we're landing in a country where the native language is either Vietnamese or French. In our command, we had no one could speak either language. So what do they do? They rounded up a bunch of us kids who spoke French, enough high school and college French, and we became the interpreters for the US Marine Corps in Vietnam.
Roy Wood, Jr.: If you all just aren't there on that day, we just not communicating with nobody.
Charles Person: Yeah. You know, it's like, 'duh.' They didn't know the good guys from the bad guys. But like I say, you know, the Freedom Rides prepared me for a lot of things in life, but also they prepared me for Vietnam. And I think I survived Vietnam because of what I learned on the Freedom Rides.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Two more questions, and I'll get you out of here. I know we don't have a lot of time. I feel like there is a disconnect between your generation and the generation that's coming behind me. A little bit of my generation, too, in terms of the tactics that should be employed for getting rights, the tactics that should be employed in terms of social justice and equality. I've always been of the belief that civil rights in Jim Crow....I believe that there was much more of a concrete...racism was more concrete and obvious. 'Hey, stop hitting me in the head. Let me go in that school and get an education, please.' Whereas I feel like racism now, it's a lot of policy, there's a lot of...it's not as solid. It's not as clear, it hides. It's a vapor now. And you have to have different tactics for that. And what do you think the young generation and your generation could learn from one another so that there is more of a cohesiveness
to the ideologies of how to fight oppression?
Charles Person: One of the things that I think the young people need to do, if you're going to be a leader, you have to realize that there are dangers inherent in being a leader. And I think a lot of the Black Lives Matter leaders are intimidated by the people who threaten them. So in many cases, you don't know who is in charge of a Black Lives Matter group in your particular city, and I encourage them: Define who you are. Let people know who you are, let them know what the cause is and why you are fighting. The reason: this way you develop allies. A lot of times people will say, 'Well, I don't know why they're marching. Why are they doing this?' You need to explain. Let people know, and so they can realize that, 'Hey, this is for their benefits, for all of our benefit,' And we need to develop allies. You can't operate in a vacuum. And we all live in a community and everyone can contribute. But if you don't let people know, they're not going to participate. I love the enthusiasm of the young people. I enjoy the numbers that they're able to turn out. And they also have to realize that you are in control and you are responsible for what happens. We always had monitors. Also, we had a dress code. And that's important because if you saw somebody throwing a molotov cocktail with a shirt and tie on, do you know, 'Well, hey that's one of our people?' But in most cases, these people have no dress code and you can't isolate them. But I think that they've gotten a bad rep this past summer. Most of violence was not of they're doing and not of the people that sponsored them, but the narrative changed and a lot of people now think that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group because they haven't gone out and corrected the record. And I think that's one of the things they need to even now, they need to go out and say, 'Hey, this is who we are, and this is how we operate.'
Roy Wood, Jr.: You spoke about in a previous interview that I saw, you spoke about the relationship with the media that you all were able to forge during your era, which helped with the narrative of what you all were out to accomplish, when you're at these to protest. How much does media play a role in this misrepresentation of Black Lives Matter's intentions? Separate and apart from what you're saying in regards to them needing to have a more cohesive, a more organized cohesive structure, because sometimes I feel like, well, if the story has been covered differently, then maybe that would have helped as well. I'll get you out of here on this question. So, I try to take my Mama to see Selma, Oscar-winning film, and she declined at the time. She eventually watched it with me at the house. Once it came out on HBO or whatever. But my mother said something to me that I didn't understand until I saw the Derek Chauvin trial. She said, 'I don't need to see a movie about it. I lived it.' Do you watch any of the civil rights films that come out from time to time? Do you partake in any of the films that speak to things from your era?
Charles Person: It took me a while to get to that point. At first, I could not watch it, but I have kids, so you got to be able to sit there and talk with them. And once I came out, let them know that I was involved, because for...I was married to my wife, Joetta, for 10 years before she even knew I was a Freedom Rider. It's just not something that comes up. But after a trip to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we saw there ... a reporter was there -
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's a piece of the bus there, in an exhibit.
Charles Person: And so we were able to after that, we started talking about it within the family. And then I started getting invitations to talk to groups and stuff. But it was very painful. I mean, even now, though, I probably break up a lot of times. I have flashbacks, and today there's none of us are very few of us receive any psychological training. I mean, after the events. So we never, in other words - It happened, and we went on with our lives. And for me, even now, sometimes I'm in interviews and If I'm not prepared for a question, I'll shut down. My system will shut down. I'll break down in tears. So a lot of it, like, you feel now. I had an interview doing Black history month for a school, and we had four hours continuous with this group. And at the end of the day, I was... I just couldn't respond because I'm telling them the story, but I'm reliving each moment, and it just really got to me, and I said, 'I'll never do that again knowingly,' because I know that the system just can only take so much. And the kids had such good questions, and they would take me back. And I could see myself in Birmingham. And I could see these guys, and I could see - It's not so much what they said or what they called [out], it's how their faces were contorted with hate. And you wonder, 'How can someone who has never seen me, hate me so much, or my people?' You mind is trying to rationalize what's happening and there's no rationalization to an illogical situation.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Well, the memoir is Buses are A Comin', and I'm going to end one more time on Revered Cox's quote: 'So many others made sacrifices so I'm not a slave. It's my turn to sacrifice on behalf of someone else. We can sacrifice now, Charles, for those we will never know, who will never know of our sacrifice, and will never care we did this. Tell you right now, we care. This nation cares. Black America cares. Charles Person, thank you so much for the honor of just sitting and talking with you about this memoir. It's so meaningful. And I hope to get down to Anniston. I had to get me about - I'm going to take all the vaccines. So once I get all three vaccines in my system, I'm going to be out the door, and I'm going to be down to Anniston and I'm going to visit the Freedom Riders National Monument.
Charles Person: Well, thanks for caring.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Yes, Sir. Thank you so much, brother.
Ranger: Thank you for listening to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Thank you to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn me 'Round. Until next time.
Episode 2: Rev. Shuttlesworth and the Freedom Rides
In this conversation, we focus on Reverend Shuttlesworth's role in the Freedom Rides. Interviewees include Dr. Martha Bouyer, Executive Director at The Historic Bethel Baptist Church; Reverend Thomas Wilder Jr., the current pastor at The Historic Bethel Baptist Church, and one of Reverend Shuttlesworth's children, Mrs. Ruby Bester.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains, or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National Parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Ranger Kat: Thank you all so much for being here. I just so appreciate it. It's really amazing to be able to have this conversation. I've had the pleasure of meeting some of you, but just for the benefit of everybody, My name is Ranger Kat and I'm a park ranger at Freedom Riders National Monument, and I am so incredibly honored today to welcome Dr. Martha Bouyer, Reverend Thomas Wilder, and also Mrs. Ruby Bester. It really is just a pleasure to have you all here. So I'll first introduce Dr. Martha Bouyer. Dr. Bouyer serves as the Executive Director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church Foundation. She also is involved in many other educational initiatives to strengthen civil rights education in the classroom. Welcome, Dr. Bouyer. Thank you for being here.
Dr. Bouyer: Thank you.
Ranger Kat: And also joining us today is the person who now stands behind the same pulpit where Reverend Shuttlesworth once stood. Reverend Thomas Wilder has been at the helm of The Historic Bethel Baptist Church since 1988, and has helped the Church continue to develop as a space for worship and education. Welcome, Reverend.
Reverend Wilder: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Ranger Kat: And we are especially honored and excited to have Mrs. Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester to join us today. She is the second oldest daughter of Reverend Shuttlesworth himself. Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester is a retired educator, a motivational speaker, author and singer, I've heard. Welcome, Mrs. Bester.
Mrs. Bester: Thank you.
Ranger Kat: So let's start maybe each one of you can explain what your connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth was and is and also your connection to The Historic Bethel Baptist Church. Let's start with Mrs. Bester.
Mrs. Bester: Well, I'm daughter number two, Pat was number one. She came two years earlier, Fred came a year after me, and then five years later, came our baby sister Doctor Carolyn Shuttlesworth. We came to Bethel in 1953 as a pastor. We were there because Reverend….right here. I can't think of his name, right. Madley had suggested that Daddy go to Bethel and we went there and it was a warm fellowship. It was very nice. I was with Bethel from the time I was eight years old until I was 16. I started elementary school and graduated from Parker High School. But we left in 1961 because Pat had been at Spelman for a year and it was really hard to keep her there because we just were poor. And my mother, when Reverend Booth suggested that we come to Cincinnati because Revelations was available, my daddy didn't want to leave, but my mother insisted because Pat was in College, I would go the next year and Fred will come to next year. So we came to Cincinnati for economic reasons, even while she was in the south at Spelman, Pat babysat Dr. King's children. But that's why we came here. Bethel is number one in my heart because they allowed Daddy to change how we thought, using the Lord and dedicated people who believe that if you work together, follow your leader and do it non-violently, we could be successful. It was a terrible time, but they joined together their unity and strength with their faith in the Lord. Okay, that's my introduction.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. Beautiful. Reverend Wilder, what do you like to go next?
Reverend Wilder: Sure. My name is Thomas Wilder. I am the current pastor of Bethel Baptist Church. I've been there as you said since 1988. My connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth is that I served as his last pastor before he passed away. When he came back to Birmingham, he joined Bethel as a member, which I admired tremendously because a person of his stature, of course, everybody looks to him as the pastor. And there was still a lot of members who were there when he was there. But I admire the fact that he never tried to usurp my author or go around me or overshadow me or whatever. He helped me in every way he could. Of course, I was not stupid enough to try to think that I could take his place. So I always tried to honor him and officially named him Pastor Emeritus of Bethel because I think as long as Bethel stands, Reverend Shuttlesworth will always be known as the pastor because he was the one that sort of propelled it into the spotlight. So that's my connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth. I was his last pastor.
Ranger Kat: Alright, Dr. Bouyer.
Dr. Bouyer: Well, my connection really is twofold. I met Reverend Shuttlesworth long before I ever went to Bethel, I'm ashamed to say, but Reverend Shuttlesworth was a speaker for me. I do a lot of teacher workshops and training. I started this project about 20 years ago and the project is Stony the Road we Trod: Alabama’s Role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement. And when I started the project, I reached out to him and asked him about coming to speak to the teachers that I was working with. And he agreed to come. And he said he would always do anything for teachers because he understood their importance in terms of getting the story straight, teaching history and telling the story. So I met him. And as a result of trying to develop the Stony project, we went over to Bethel and I met Reverend Wilder because whenever I would bring teachers over, he would take his lunch break or leave work to come over to meet us. And then in 2014, the Foundation was looking for an Executive Director to run the Bethel project, and I applied for the job, and he hired me.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. Well, I wanted to ask all of you something about the South and kind of setting the stage for people. So there's racism, and then there's racism in the South, and then there's racism in Alabama in the 1960s. And racism in Alabama is like a whole different thing. Can you explain to listeners what set Alabama apart, even from other States in the 1960s?
Mrs. Bester: Oh even before the 60s, in the 50s they were mean. As children, my parents had to buy our books, and they were used books from the white schools, written in, but they had to buy them. We couldn't go to the theaters. And if we did, we had to sit in the balcony. There were certain parts of town you just didn't go in. It wasn't even about after dark, it's no time. You could not be there. In fact, the whole structure of North Birmingham, they were talking about it with this new railroad system, they almost enclosed us in, so we couldn't get out to do whatever we needed to do. I mean, it was a train here, train there: within two or three blocks you had you had to wait on a train. So there were a lot of atrocities that went on that just kept us down as a people. But as a child, I remember the books that all kind of graffiti and whatever was in it. But that's the main thing I remember. Not being able to go places, not being able to do things, having basically to stay in your own community. I really learned how Birmingham is divided on the North and East or is it the north and south? But anyway, after Daddy was sick, I was there so much and I got lost so much that finally I just had to learn Birmingham so that I could get around to Oxmoor, where my Daddy was raised. North Birmingham is just as you come into the city. But then I didn't even know anything about South over there where Cullman and all those places were but we were very restricted to our community, locked in by the trains that… you had to start early to get any place on time. But the people worked together in Birmingham, they worked together to do what needed to be done. And I thank God for those people at Bethel. Mr. Blockman, the chairman of the Deacon board, can't call his name. I'm looking at his face…
Reverend Wilder: M.J. Davis?
Mrs. Bester: Not M.J., the older one, the real old one. Had one tooth.
Reverend Wilder: Okay. That was Charlie Watson.
Mrs. Bester: Yes, yes, no, no, no. Charlie Robinson was across Waterland.
Reverend Wilder: Watson, Watson.
Mrs. Bester: Watson, Right. Mr. Watson, that was it. Wonderful. Wonderful. Mr. Blackson, I mean, those people were they were good people. Miss Clark and her husband, we came into a love situation there. We weren't running from anything when we came, but we came into a situation where they totally accepted and loved on us. And they gave us all, all of the children. Most of the children that came along with me went on to get advanced degrees, not just a college degree but Masters and PhD, because we were always encouraged to learn. We always had something going on at Bethel. I loved Bethel Baptist Church because…and then they had a lot of stuff for the young people to do. When Daddy talks about Bethel, he said, “I loved them because they loved and they followed me.” All of our people were registered voters. And that's very significant because a lot of the people, Black people did not want him to disturb the status quo. In other words, getting us in more trouble. And really, it happened when we came here. There were people that were afraid that Daddy coming here in 1961 was just coming here to make some more trouble. And they actually shunned him, okay. But the Lord is always still in control. And Revelation was the Church we went to because of Reverend Booth. There are three churches I will always love, that is Bethel, Revelation and Greater New Life, because in the time that we needed them, they did for my family what needed to be done. When we were bombed, when we were mobbed at the
Church at the school, they were there. And then I was so thankful of how they reached out to Daddy. When he came back at 84, 85, he might have been 84, 85, I think he came back to Birmingham, but they took care of him again. And I'm grateful for those three churches, but especially grateful to Bethel for following him and giving him the love that sustained him, because there was a lot of fear going on. But the mass meetings allowed us to sing, praise God, and just laugh. Just even in the midst of all of what we're going through, they would be telling jokes. And it was a wonderful experience. I loved going to the Monday night mass meeting because, in fact, my brother wrote a poem about the Monday night mass
meeting. There was always an encouraging word, somebody to help you. I don't think I, did I answer your question? I have to be careful, because I get to talking.
Ranger Kat: You did. I think that what I heard you say is that racism in Alabama was really entrenched. And you describe how your life, it was the community because you couldn't go out and do things, and even your schooling really, it was second class. And I'm wondering, well…
Mrs. Bester: It was worst than second class. It was at the bottom. Daddy made a statement, and he used it a lot. After we won the civil rights battle that we did, he said, “Segregation might be dead, but her daughter, Racism, is very much alive.” And that's true. Today all you got to do is look at what they're doing in Congress, But racism, that really has to be a thing of the heart. But people don't talk about the people in Birmingham of other races that joined in with us, and those people should be recognized. But there were also people that came in. Dr. King's group was not that many men that traveled with him. I think that Reverend C.K Steele in Tallahassee, Florida, didn't travel with him. He was a pastor, as Daddy was a pastor, but Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, Reverend C.T. Vivian, and I met some of those other people that traveled with him at a thing at Howard University, and they had a world peace thing later. It was wonderful, and Daddy was able to fly up to be a part of it. But racism is a thing of the heart. And since people's hearts are so bad, that's why we must now legislate.
Ranger Kat: And I'm glad that you brought up that segregation may have ended at racism has not. And I do think that the Freedom Rides in many ways were one of the first really big nails in the coffin of segregation. So I'm wondering maybe we could start with Reverend Wilder. And I'd like to ask all of you, with the recognition that you may not have been very old when this happened, or maybe you weren’t born yet, but what is your most powerful memory that you have of the Freedom Rides?
Reverend Wilder: Okay. I was not a part of the Freedom Rides, per se. I was fairly young, and we live in a very small community, so they didn't come to our community. But one of my earliest remembrances of just things related to civil rights has to do with a man by the name of James Corter, who was the local representative of the NAACP in my community. I remember we met in a church that, it really seemed like it was 10 miles out of town and then 10 miles off the main road. It was way back up in the woods. But I remember going there, my parents going there. And I remember going to another church that was more immediately in town. And I think the guy, I'm not sure who he was, but my memory wants to say he was somebody who is very prominent in civil rights. But I remember as a child, probably six, maybe seven years old, joining with the older people, as they sang, “We Shall Overcome.” That's a very poignant memory in my mind. But I remember the first major civil rights issue that I remember very vividly was the day that John F. Kennedy and Dr. King were shot. I was in the fourth grade, I believe. And I remember we were in a trailer and my teachers coming in and crying like babies. I mean, just absolutely crying like babies because of what had happened to Dr King. And again, it's just a very, very vivid memory because I was so young and because I guess I was just trying to really understand what was going on.
Ranger Kat: Dr. Bouyer, what about you? A memory that you have the Freedom Rides?
Dr. Bouyer: Kat, I really don't have any actual memories growing up of the Freedom Rides and I grew up in Birmingham. A lot of times things that happened in our city, were not broadcast locally. Even if they were placed in the newspaper, they were placed in the back, you know, like another place it would have been in the front page, but not in Birmingham. But what I want to do is I want to help us kind of frame what was going on by reading a couple of Jim Crow laws, laws in Alabama, related to transportation. And this one is about buses. All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company, shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the White and Colored races. For railroads the law stated, the conductor of each passenger train is authorized and required to assign each passenger to the car or the division of a car, which is divided by a partition designated for the race to which such passenger belongs. Now, these were laws that governed transportation, buses, railroads throughout the state of Alabama and even in Birmingham, we had laws that said it was unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together in company one another in a game of pool, billiards, chess. The list went on and on and on and even spelled out punishment for individuals who allowed that. Now, I may not have known about growing up about the Freedom Ride, but I lived here and I understood in many ways the idea of sitting in the back of the bus. I understood we had to do it. I didn't understand the why behind it. And I understand from some of my friends, your question earlier about racism in Alabama, there were laws that did not allow Black people to try on clothes, and that could have also been a particular department store. But if you were Black and you want to buy clothes or a hat or shoes, if you didn't know your size and if you tried it on it did not fit, then you were in many cases forced to buy that even though you can’t wear it because of the law or the thinking behind that is that a white person would not try on something that may have been tried on by a Black person. So I agree with Ruby. That things were hard and that the segregationists were unrelenting, very mean. And they backed up everything by, force and law, this idea of massive resistance ruled the day. We were trying to bring about change through non-violence, their thing was massive resistance at any cost.
Ranger Kat: Well, thank you for sharing, reading those laws. It's so hard to hear them, and have them read because they're just so horrifying. And to think that that was just so recent in our history, too, is also pretty horrifying for me, as someone who didn't grow up, who wasn't alive during that time. I want to talk a little about, and Mrs. Bester, I know you have a lot of personal memories of the Freedom Rides, but I have a question specifically for you about that, but I want to turn now to Reverend Shuttlesworth and how he continuously chose faith over fear. So here's a person who literally has a target slapped on his back. And I think Mrs. Bester did a really good job of explaining how even the local African American community being concerned about him coming into the community because he was so driven to change things. The police were surveilling him. The parsonage and the church had been bombed three times. He was being sued by the City. So here is a person that already has a lot going on for him, a lot that he's dealing with and then in come the Freedom Riders, and they don't have a peaceful journey until Alabama. They met with some resistance. But in Alabama, things go terrible. The bus and Anniston is fire bombed. Many of the Freedom Riders, they're all beaten. They're all beaten with fists, with iron pipes. And then another bus is stopped in Birmingham. And again they are beaten with fists, with iron pipes by these huge mobs of hundreds of white supremacists. And many of those Freedom Riders are then trying to find a place where they can regroup and recuperate. But the police didn't really do much to protect them. So who's to say that they won't be attacked again? And whoever welcomes them in to try to help them to regroup and recuperate might also become a target. And they call Reverend Shuttlesoworth and he says, “Come into my home, come stay with my family, with my wife, with my children, come into my home.” And I just keep thinking about that moment when he gets that call. It wasn't his responsibility. It wasn't his Freedom Ride. He hadn't been planning it. He actually even discouraged Freedom Riders from coming into Alabama because he thought it was so dangerous. But he repeatedly chooses his faith over fear. And I want to know how he did that.
Mrs. Bester: God. He had a tremendous faith in the Lord. I didn't realize the strength of my father's faith, although I witnessed it so many times. I didn't realize it until I got very old and started reading more of the things he had gone through. It was so bad, our phones were tapped. We were, like, you say, surveilled by the police. We got calls all time of night, funny calls, whistles being blown, for whatever he did. If they knocked on the door at 3:00 in the morning, Daddy would always open the door. “Good morning, officers. How are you?” Big smile. You just never knew. Let them know that you weren’t anxious. Even when he wanted to announce what we were doing, Demonstrations, to tell other people in other cities, they would travel out of Birmingham to mail it because we knew that we were a target. I found that faith over fear, and fear is really False Evidence Appearing Real, faith over fear will arm you because God has your back. And if you really believe in the Lord, you just believe it. Daddy said when the Lord tell him to jump, he don't say how high. He just starts jumping, because he knows that He will make a way for him to land. I'm sorry you didn't ask me, but I just had to say that.
Ranger Kat: Well, that question really was for you.
Mrs. Bester: Okay, good.
Ranger Kat: And I have another question, Mrs. Bester, about your mom, actually. So your mom, this is Ruby Keeler Shuttlesworth, after whom you're named, I assume, she also welcomes the Freedom Riders into her home. Her story is one that we don't hear much about. But she was right alongside the Reverend when it came to -
Mrs. Bester: Oh, yeah.
Ranger Kat: I mean, she also suffered when the parsonage was bombed. She also attempted to integrate the school along with yourself, I understand, and she was stabbed during that integration attempt. So she was in the trenches with her husband every step of the way.
Mrs. Bester: Yeah. They also tried integrated train station. Go ahead. I'm sorry, dear.
Ranger Kat: I wonder, could you shed some light on what she thought of the Freedom Rides and what she thought of the Freedom Riders being welcomed into her home and what her role in all of that was?
Mrs. Bester: My mother was the kindest woman that I've ever known in my life. Ain't saying because she's my mother. Other people have said that to me. In College, they called her Ruby Sweet. But she truly loved my father. And she supported what he did. She protected us. There were times that she wouldn't let us go. But she always gave in to whatever daddy he wanted to have done. She and Daddy integrated the train station in Birmingham, where Reverend Lamar Weaver, went into the colored section, his car was rocked. He was attacked and everything. And they just went in and sat down and got their ticket and got on the train. But as far as the Freedom Riders, my mother, our home was a gathering place for whoever was trying to do what was right. For whoever had a question on what to do. And a lot of times, the Freedom Riders, Diane Nash, Hank Johnson [sic], they would call because they knew that he had their back as much as he could. When that bus was stopped in Anniston, and they wouldn't let anybody go get them. But Daddy, he had to stop his men on the way and say, “Take your guns out. I know you got them. Just leave them here in this garden. But we came to know what our guns against, what they got, waiting up on us at that bus.” But I interviewed Mr. Johnson and I was moved to tears as he told the story. Is that I always say, thank you, darling. It was just amazing. But the thing is, there are people that are still alive that are still within their right mind that know the story. And we're asking people that heard about it. We need to talk to them, if they are able to tell it. Because, and every time I speak to young people, which I've done over the years, I say, you need to get a pencil and paper and go sit with your grandmother and ask her how it was so that you can compare how good it is. Our young people today they don't know what we had to go through. Like you read those laws, Dr. Bouyer, I have that little book. And even in reading the books, your heart just sinks because it shows how disdained we, as a people, were thought of, just nothing. But like I said, the Lord made us able to do this because he gave us that strength to just keep on going. I never will forget the Monday night meeting. Where Reverend Phillips, No, Yeah, I think it was Reverend Phillips admired the suit of one of the two detectives that came to our meetings. He just touched his lapel. “I like your suit.” A new suit. Well, the next day, they had beat him up and carved KKK on his chest. Okay, so what happened there? Lent itself to other things. Just like when the house was bombed, the police said to daddy, “Reverend, I didn't think they would go this far.” And he said, “Well, you go back and tell your Klan brothers if the Lord can keep me through this, I'm here for the duration.” And they always say before the bombing, he wouldn't get on a plane. He didn't even want to go on a plane while it was sitting. But after that, he lost his fear of flying and other things. And he traveled all over the world later. But it was God keeping us, God letting us know that whatever, wherever I'm going to be there. And the people believed that because we had this movement Choir, Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights choir. Nims Gay and Mamie Brown were asked to start that. So when we got to the meeting, we had a lot of good singing, a lot of good speaking, a lot of good inspiration because everybody was on fire in this place, at this time, in this Church, we say we are equal. This is what we will do to work on it. And he worked on the schools, the police department, housing, everything that said negativity, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights dealt with it. And I have a picture of the board members like Ms. Dust Brooks,
Lucinda Bruce Brown Roby, people that were heroes in their own ways. But when these people came together for a time, and we did every Monday night, people looked forward to going. They looked forward to doing. And then we were trained how to do, how to march. Like, for instance, if we didn't have a lot of people, you stretched the line out. Whatever you needed to do for that situation, you do it right now. It's called be ready and ask the Lord to help you do it. But faith and fear. We did not show fear. We might have had it. But joining hands together, it made us stronger. You can't break a line. You can't break a chain that's gripped, you know. Segregation was so bad that even today, there are people who have the mindset of still being there, because it was so ground into them. I don't care what you did, what you accomplish, you remember how you were disdained in earlier life. But the Alabama Christian Movement, the Movement choir, the people that joined in, it made life hopeful. I did an interview called History to Hope, History and Hope. And I told them that our history has always been hope, hoping that the Lord will again provide for our safety, for our children, for whatever we were proposing to do, and give us the right way to do it. Our young people today don't know that it's not what you say, but how you say it. And after the civil rights movement was over, people used to say, “Ooh, that's an old fashioned to say, yes, ma'am and no, ma'am.” That's what we did. And at 76, I still say it because it's habit. We were trained to do what we needed to do to get through a terrible time. And even though many people well, really, I feel an interview, too. The four little girls were bombed after the March on Washington, and there was another man, Aaron, who was castrated. But somebody came back and put turpentine on the wound. And there were two other boys killed on the same day those four little girls were killed. But Birmingham was not as violent or murderers, I'll say, as other places have been. But we felt the stain of it. And I think the fact that when Dr. King finally came to Birmingham, he had been invited seven times, according to Andrew Young, we just, it made a difference. The nation considered Dr. King as the only leader. But there were many leaders in many cities, and many people left their cities to come and join with him. And that's why the story should be told. I'm really thankful what people are saying about Daddy, but they need to talk about the Colonel and some other people that helped him do what he did, because he could not have done it without support. But the thing that I really want our readers to know is that a lot of people hit the Internet to get information. Internet is what somebody put on there, and you really have to check your facts. In fact, I need to call Wikipedia because they call Daddy Reverend Fred, Frederica Shuttlesworth. And I'm named after my mother and father, Ruby Fredricka, and that's cause when my brother was well, when my sister was born, he thought the next one will be a boy. And so he immediately put Ruby, no Fred Lee Shuttlesworth Jr. And the lady said, “But Reverend, she's a girl.” He says, “Okay, give her her momma’s first name, Ruby Fredericka.” And everybody calls me Ricky. But that's significant in the fact that if anybody says Ricky, I know I know them from way, way back. But our trials in Birmingham with faith and fear, we were always reminded, even when they called in blue whistles on the phone. And we couldn't slam that phone down because you're going to get in trouble with the FLS. You had to put the receiver. I don't care what people said or did. We were instructed and knew better than to retaliate, because that's not what we do. So we had a lot of good training out of the experience in Birmingham to be ready. Like, for instance, if somebody didn't show up for a speaker. “Okay, Ricky, here, say something.” A singer, “Pat sing something.” He used his resources. And a lot of times people don't realize you don't have to pay for anything. Just look around. Everything we need to do, what we need to do is right there. All we have to do is ask the Lord. And I don't mean to be ecclesiastic and start preaching. But the more I think about what we went through, the more I praise God for bringing us through it.
Ranger Kat: Thank you and thank you for shedding some light on your Mom and the role she played..
Mrs. Bester: I didn't hear you.
Ranger Kat: I said, I'm glad you shed some light on the role that your Mom played too. And you mentioned Diane Nash, who was one of the Freedom Riders. And there's a quote of Diane Nash in a book about your father that's called A Fire You Can't Put Out. And she said that: “Fred was practically a legend. I think it was important for there to be somebody that really represented strength. And that's certainly what Fred did. He would not back down, and you could count on it. You know, I'm wondering if maybe Dr. Bouyer, I know you studied the story quite a bit, and you help educators to teach about it. How important was it to have somebody like Reverend Shuttlesworth in Birmingham to encourage the Rides to keep going? Because after that first ride, with all the violence that they encountered in Alabama, it would have been very understandable if they just sort of called it off. But pretty immediately, Diane Nash and the Nashville Student Movement send down new reinforcements. What do you think about Fred’s role in paving the way for that?
Dr. Bouyer: I really do think that Reverend Shuttlesworth was not just the man for the hour, but the man for the movement. As Ruby said, her father was the man not only in Birmingham, but I also refer to him as the architect of the movement in Birmingham. And just for a moment, I will talk about SNCC and Diane Nash and the students. And definitely the role that Reverend Shuttlesworth played when the attack happened in Anniston. As Ruby pointed out, he dispatched members of his organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. This was an organization established in Alabama after the then Attorney General Patterson outlawed the NAACP. Reverend Shuttlesworth was the Alabama President, and the NAACP was just really winning the race for equal rights to the court. And after the Brown v. Board decision, Alabama and all the Deep South States became really afraid as to what the NAACP might do. So therefore they asked Reverend Shuttlesworth to give up a list of all the members. He refused to do so. So the organization was declared an out of state or foreign Corporation and could not operate here. There was a flaw in the law that the state established about businesses, that an organization that could function. In the law, they stated that literary organizations and religious organizations did not have to turn over their membership list. So Reverend Shuttlesworth and a group of five other minutes got together down, really downtown, at the A.G. Gaston Funeral Home. This is where they met. And they decided it with him as a leader. What are we going to do? Do we stop working? Because the state of Alabama says we can't operate here as NAACP? But they found the flaw in the law and they established a new organization. They were very deliberate in the name of the organization, being Alabama, so they could not declare it to be a foreign corporation. And then Christian. Remember, I just said a flaw in the law stated that religious organizations did not have to give up their membership roll. So this new organization would be the driving force for civil rights activities in Alabama, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. And one of the things that I want to say about Ruby Shuttlesworth work that is so important, is the day after the beating of the civil rights activist with the Freedom Rides at the Trailways bus station and Birmingham. They all came once again to Reverend Shuttlesworth. He brought those people to his home, to his Church. And one of the men, James Peck, was beaten so badly all about the face and head, he was bleeding profusely. So he received some treatment but was fearful about staying in the hospital. So they brought him to the parsonage where the Shuttlesworth family lives. And Ruby tells the story better. But she said her mom, it was Mother's Day, and she had put a favorite white chenille bed spread on the bed. And when they brought him in, she said, “Put him on the bed,” and everybody's looking at this… put him on the bed. She did not care that, you know about the injuries, the wounds, what might happen. And when Ruby told this story, I read about it in the book Freedom’s Children. She said they could never, ever wash out the stains from that spread. But it didn't bother the Mrs. Shuttlesworth. She was willing to give everything that she had to support the movement in any way. And I just think it's important that we teach students in our schools about civil disobedience. And I've often made the point of comparing Reverend Shuttlesworth to Sam Adams. When we talk about the American Revolution, we go on and on about what a great, wonderful, brave person Sam Adams was. Well, Reverend Shuttlesworth is my Sam Adams. And I realized that at the time he came to Birmingham, in regards to civil rights and this whole idea that we've been talking about racism. I was doing a study once on the Holocaust, and they talked about six steps to a Holocaust. And really, by the time he came, we were at step six. And then I feel like Ruby, that God, particularly called him for this particular time and purpose. So he's my personal hero. I've been honored to have him as a dinner guest at my home on two separate occassions. But like I pointed out earlier, he would do anything he said for teachers because he understood that if the teachers got it right, if the teachers were able to teach us these lessons with a passion, conviction and knowledge, really based on the truth, that they could change things. So he always availed himself. He always came to participate in a Stony workshop, and always because the idea of empowering teachers, and he would more or less arm them. “You go back to your schools and you teach this history and you let the students know.” It's like for me, Kat, that anybody can be a hero. Anybody can stand up against wrong, against evil. And just having an example like Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth helps us to know that we, too, can stand up for right.
Ranger Kat: Beautiful. Thank you. I think Dr. Bouyer, you touched a little bit on the importance of education. But I would like to ask both of Dr. Bouyer and Mrs. Bester, given that you're both educators, what is a part of the Freedom Rider story as it relates to Reverend Shuttlesworth that people get wrong that you wish that teachers knew more about so they could teach correctly in the classroom?
Mrs. Bester: I just did a, when I knew we were going to be talking, I read a lot about the Phillips, about the Freedom Riders. And James Peck was on a bus that was led by somebody else. I can't remember his name. But then he had to leave, and Peck had to bring them on in, and they called Daddy to say it, he did tell them to be careful. And then when the bus had been messed up and everything, they called him to come and get him. But the Freedom Riders story is significant because these young people in college before they left made their wills. They were determined that to do what they did. But if they didn't do it, they want to set their things in orders, whether they did it or not. They left everything in order. And that type of discipline, facing, knowing that you might be facing death, lets you see the death and width of their love, but doing what is right and attaining equality for all citizens. The Freedom Riders were young and they left school where their parents had saved money. And, you know, it was hard back in those days to have money, but they did it because they had a belief that we can do this. And they didn't think about their lives. They just went ahead and did it. We have a lady here, Mrs. Betty Roseman in Cincinnati who was on a Freedom Ride, and she was the one assigned to go call if anything went wrong. And something indeed did go wrong when they stopped. And anyway, she was making the phone call back to the office and the bus left her. But a man came by, A White man came by, told her to get in the car and on the floor. And he took her to safety. And she never, ever was able to thank him because he just told her, “Get out here. You'll be safe here.” He took her back where the people, there were so many people that assisted, but those Freedom Riders, you have to look at what they were giving up. My father was there because they knew he would be there, Okay? And they knew from what he had done before that if they called him, he would answer. But when I interviewed um, is it Hank Thompson? Dr. Bouyer?
Dr. Bouyer: Yes – Thomas, Thomas.
Mrs. Bester: Thomas, okay. I realized that how much they meant. And we have yet to thank them for the many things that have happened because of what they did. Frederick Douglass started it. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, all of those. But each year we have had people that were willing to sacrifice their life, their time, their reputation, whatever it took to gain citizenship, humanity. And the people that are coming now have like when Obama said, he stands when he acknowledged Daddy's airport. He said, “I stand on your shoulders.” To hear him say that was really nice because he is so accomplished. But I look at the movement now. The Black Lives Latter, and I'm so grateful that it's just not black lives out there demonstrating. In fact, there are maybe five times the number of Blacks in the protests. And that just shows you where we have come as a country. And it's just a blessing. It is just a blessing. But we must remember the Freedom Riders themselves. They chose to get on a bus without a policeman, without any protection, no weapons. And they put their lives on the line in the city in each aspect of the bus rider. We did a bus riding thing in Birmingham, and I was with this white guy and two other white guys and two other teenagers, and he got on first and went to the back. The Black teenager stopped in the front. Well, I was a fourth one to get on, and by the time I got on, the bus driver realized what was going on, and he just kind of closed the door on my back as I was getting in. But people still did whatever they did to us. What it was throwing coffee, spitting, sometimes cigarettes put out on you for whatever the thing you were doing. The people were non-violent and that was trained, in the people that came, before they got on the bus, they told them what would happen. And so the Lord has equipped us to do what we needed to have done during those times. And yes, it was fear. But we didn't show fear. We kept on because we believe in the Lord and each other and the cause. And I hope I answered your question.
Ranger Kat: You did. I think bringing up the training piece is something that people don't often realize how much extensive training in non violence people went through in leading up to the Freedom Rides and also the application process to become a freedom rider, and I think they needed letters of recommendation. It was a very long, extensive process and a deep understanding that no matter how much pain you may experience, that you are not going to lift a fist and I can't imagine that level of dedication and commitment. It's really amazing. Dr. Bouyer, is there something that you try to counter when you're teaching teachers how to share the story that you feel is really critical that people know this is the real deal, something that people are not teaching correctly, that you really would like to tell educators to inform them.
Dr. Bouyer: I think that what happens is that we overlook a lot of the, I call them unsung heroes of the modern civil rights movement. As people begin to study and teach about this, they teach about maybe just two people. These are names that have been lifted up internationally, but we forget about people like Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Colonel Stone Johnson, Reverend C.T. Vivian, names that Ruby lifted up earlier. So I try to provide teachers a full or a fuller view of this time period and the role that Alabama played, the idea of looking at legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that all of that came out of Birmingham. So I try to address, what are your issues as to why you don't teach it? Is it a matter you don't have time, you don't know what to teach them about. You don't know names to lift up. So I take away all the excuses as to why it's not taught, and then I provide the information. But Kat, one thing we've got to also understand is that a lot of other teachers who may even be in their 40s, 50s and still in the classroom, the civil rights movement was never formally taught, in a lot of common settings. We are now finally sifting through all of this knowledge and all of this information, and we're finding out the who's, what, why, when, why is it important and we're able to do that? And part of what we do with the Stony project is that I take teachers all across the state, and then they get to meet people that participated in the movement. They get to walk in places that they sometimes only heard about. And it's amazing. When we look at being able to say I was there, I met, I understand better, will increase the likelihood of teachers doing a better job.
Mrs. Bester: They’re going to teach it better.
Dr. Bouyer: They can because of their interactions. It used to be when I started the Stony Project that we tried to do all of this in a week. But my teachers always said, “we don't have enough time, Martha, is there any way we could increase the time?” So now I offer the Stony Project as a three week teacher institute, and I still have in most cases, I've had at least, I do this for 30 teachers on purpose. I want to really make an impact. If I've got 50, 60 teachers, I can't really do what I would like to do with a number that large. So I've got 30 teachers, and I really try to make an impact With, over the three week period. And when I think about it, 30 teachers, even if 20 of them stayed in the classroom an additional 3,5, 10 years, look at the impact of this particular program. So it really is very planned. Very specific. If I can get 30 teachers, elementary school, middle, high school, home school situations. And the teachers are all given an opportunity to develop curriculum based on what they saw, what they heard. I bring in noted scholars from all over the country to come and talk. I provide them with all of the resources so that they can do a better job. And I'm going to send you something, Kat. We don't have time this morning for me to read it, but it's a quote from Reverend Shuttlesworth that every time, I just want to read just a little bit, but I'm going to send it to you. Okay. And this is entitled, America means Integration. Just a little bit. America.
Mrs. Bester: America what?
Dr. Bouyer: America means Integration. I’ll strike from the flag those colors of red, white and blue. America means integration. Else take out of the Declaration of Independence the words all men are created equal. America means integration. Else take from the flag - the pledge, I'm sorry. One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. America means integration. Else close down your courthouses and tear the meaningless signs down from over the doors. America means integration. Else we open the crack in the Liberty Bell and let it no more proclaim liberty through the land. I'm going to send you this because
Mrs. Bester: Would you send me that too, please.
Dr. Bouyer: Yes, it is so profound.
Mrs. Bester: I’ve never heard it.
Dr. Bouyer: Ruby I share with teachers and visitors who come to the church. But, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to read the rest of it. I'll still send it. But America means integration. Else send back the Irish to Ireland, the Orientals to Asia, the Anglo Saxon back to Europe, the Negro to Africa and call the Indian from his reservation, give him keys to the country and write sonnets and epics of his heroic deeds. America means integration. Else knocked down the Statue of Liberty and chisel off her base of slogan, Give me your poor, etcetera. America means integration. Else quit singing, Our Father's Got to be, Author of liberty. And this was written by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth proclaiming –
Mrs. Bester: Never heard it.
Dr. Bouyer: to what we say were are. And I still believe this. And whenever people are just moved, whenever they read this as to what he had to say about our nation, he was not trying to destroy the United States. He was trying to build our country to be what we say we are and what the world looks for us to be. And that includes all of us who call the United States of America home, regardless of our skin color.
Mrs. Bester: That was beautiful. Thank you, Dr. Martha. Kat, can I say one thing?
Ranger Kat: Of course.
Mrs. Bester: America needs Integration was great. Daddy also wrote a thing that if you were going to participate in any way, marching, whatever you did, there were ten things that you had to do and sign, and they were scripturally based. And at the bottom he said that if you can't demonstrate, you know, non-violently, we also need people to drive people, to prepare food, to make signs. But I think you should send her that. And then I want to tell you, Kat, that I met Dr. Martha because Daddy was doing the Stony the Road Project, and he had a brain tumor. So we had to travel with him. They would fly him in and my brother and I would drive to wherever he was. And this was in Birmingham at the Civil Rights Institute. And after Daddy died, Dr. Martha asked me to continue, which I've done to take his part in that. But I had never gone on the full tour, okay. And I was blessed to be able to go to 2, 3 of her tours with her teachers. They were on the bus and I had my car and Jackie was with me. And we were there when Obama on the fiftieth anniversary, called Daddy's names as he was talking about the people that had made that thing possible, Even Glenn Eskew’s book, when we were talking about the Civil Rights Bill, it starts with, But for Birmingham, we wouldn't be here today. And that's because Birmingham opened, when the people of the world saw the dog biting children and the fire holes being put on them, everybody said, “What is going on?” and people looked up. Four Little Girls tells the story very good. When Daddy was hit by the fire hose and had to be hospitalized, someone came and told him that President Kennedy and Reverend, Dr. King, had called off the movement because it was just getting too violent, or whatever reason, Daddy got out of the hospital after having two high poles, those put you out, and went to A.G. Gaston, and in the movie the man say, “The weak one came to the door.” But because he came to the door at the A.G. Gaston motel, the demonstrations did not stop. And we went on to get the civil rights bill that year in ‘64 and then the next year, the Voting Rights bill. But people don't realize that this group of people that started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked together. They went from city to city to do what they had to do. But I am so thankful for Dr. Bouyer for starting this, because you can't show what you don't know, and our kids don't know the history of the Black man. We have the history that the white man has allowed us to be shown and taught in school. We had the one month of February to do, but all Americans are significant. They've changed Black history now to diversity. And that's good. We are all diverse, but we're all Americans because we were born here. Doctor Bouyer, if you would send her that sign up form, do you have a copy of that?
Dr. Bouyer: I do. And Reverend Wilder, I’ll let him talk about the pledge, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights pledge. Reverend Wilder, will you share that with us?
Reverend Wilder: Absolutely. I was going to comment when she mentioned that. It was important. It was important that people remain non-violent. It was important that people understood what they were doing. It was important, and he stressed it, that this was a Christian movement, not that they were trying to make everybody Christians, but it was operated by Christian principles. And he started off with meditate daily on the teaching of Jesus Christ. You keep yourself physically strong and neat. And Dr. Bouyer often mentions, and I agree, that the one that I had said would probably trip me was the number eight, where it says that I would refrain from violence, of fist and of tongue and of thought. And I say I could probably make it past the fist, but I had something to say and I know I'd have something to think about, but that was Reverend Shuttlesworth. He was fiercely nonviolent.
Mrs. Bester: He really made it plain.
Reverend Wilder: Yeah, it was.
Mrs. Bester: And don't use your hands, your mouth and don't even think about being bad. That's not what we do.
Reverend Wilder: Thank you for the introduction on that. I think that was just very critical to show that this was not just lip service. This was not just something he did when the cameras were rolling or when the writers were there. This is what he believed.
Mrs. Bester: Exactly.
Ranger Kat: I'd like to ask you to all of you what the significance of this moment is. We're approaching the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. All of you have a connection, personal, spiritual and otherwise, with Reverend Shuttlesworth. I wonder if you could think about what is the meaning of this moment for you, this upcoming anniversary, where we are in history, how we're doing, how we're moving forward. And if you could maybe think about it as an opportunity to share, maybe in like, a minute, what it is that you feel about this upcoming anniversary.
Reverend Wilder: I'll start if you don't mind, and then maybe we can build on a crescendo, since I'm probably the least informed. We’ll start at the bottom and go to the top. I think it is important, particularly in light of the backdrop we have with the death of George Floyd and all the protests and everything else. That was a rainbow of people. And we saw the same thing, I think, in the Freedom Rides. We saw young people who were willing to risk and who were willing to challenge because of their youthful idealism, which is absolutely great, as opposed to cynicism. I but I see a reflection of the 1961 Freedom Rides reflect the same thing what we're doing now, reflect what was done in the 1960s. There were young people who saw what the law said, who heard what the law said, and they were willing to stand up for and suffer whatever consequences they could. So that's my minute.
Mrs. Bester: And they were prepared.
Dr. Bouyer: My minute. I would like to use a line form a very popular song. But the song is We've Come This Far by Faith.
Mrs. Bester: Yes.
Dr. Bouyer: But I want to say we still have a long way to go.
Mrs. Bester: Oh, yes.
Dr. Bouyer: And we know that we didn't get through all of that on our own, that it took men and women and children. And I'm sure the children didn't even fully understand what they were doing. Those Freedom Riders that came out of Nashville, the SNCC Group, as Ruby said, before they left, they all wrote their last will so that their parents would understand what was going on. A lot of those young people who came into Birmingham and they were so beaten, Bull Connor called their parents. And is like, “Do you know what your son and daughter, do you know what they're doing?” And their parents really, for a lot of them, sent them to plane tickets and they left here on TWA Transworld Airlines, going back home. And some of them flew directly from Birmingham to Louisiana, which was their final stop. But I still want to say that as a nation, it's wonderful to look back 60 years ago to see how far we've come, and to know that that's by faith. But let's look forward to the future, 60 years from now. Where will we be? And I just think based on what Reverend Wilder said, that we've accomplished a lot, but we still have a long ways to go.
Mrs. Bester: Amen. As far as my minute, these Freedom Riders were ordinary people who in those days got lucky because they were able to go to college by the sweat of their parents brow, or whatever they did, which was a great accomplishment. But they left college. They left it because they wanted freedom, humanity for all people. They risked everything. So I salute the Freedom Riders, and I'm so glad that people are finally recognizing what they did. There are so many people that did lot of things to make our country better. And the Freedom Riders definitely made a difference. They were…the bus that stands right now in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. And the descriptors of what happened on that bus and many other buses that they were on, shows you the terror that these young people went through. But they did it because they believed in freedom. And the one thing about it, is that everybody worked together. And I think it helped a whole lot in integration. We were forced to be with. But when I went to the March on Washington from Cincinnati, I was 18 years old, and it was amazing just to walk down the streets. We didn't associate with white people, but everybody was calm, cool, collected and connected in the sense that we will show the world that we want to stand together for human dignity. Human rights. That's why I love the name of that award. Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights. And it doesn't matter your color, because if you cut us all, we bleed red. But Reverend Shuttlesworth honor is for the Human Rights Award. And the recipients of these awards have been outstanding and doing things for the people as a whole, being knocked down. Like I tell people all the time, if Reverend Vivian had not died three days before John Lewis, many people in America would still not know who he was. But I remember John Lewis. I remember him being an integral part. He was a different person. He chose to serve. In fact, John Lewis got a ticket to come and work with Dr. King. Rev. C.T. Vivian was also invited to come and work with Dr. King because what he had done on his campus as a student, but one inspires another, the others go out and inspires. And that's what it was. It was touch and move. And the Freedom Riders have not been given the credit that they deserve. But they did a lot. They went into unchartered, mean territories and suffered a lot. But it made a difference. It made other people know that this should not be, we should be more proactive. And really, you can see it rolls up. Like you said, Dr. Martha, is moved up to right now. People have joined in a freedom protests. Freedom from hatred and the keyword should be love. I am thankful to the Freedom Riders for what they did. Can you tell me, Kate, what is the date for the celebration? Where will it be? I looked it up, but I couldn't find it.
Ranger Kat: So May 14 is the exact anniversary, and we will have a virtual event taking place that day. We have a number of virtual events that are taking place leading up to that date. And then really, because the Rides went from May through December, there will be events through December that will commemorate the Freedom Rides. And ultimately, once we have a more concrete list, I will make sure that you receive it. And I'd love to close out by asking you all to share the one word that you feel best describes Reverend Shuttlesworth.
Dr. Bouyer: Courageous.
Mrs. Bester: God’s man for the times. Oh you said one word. Servant. Okay.
Reverend Wilder: My word would be sincere because my interactions with him, he sincerely believed what he said. This was not pressed. This was not written for him. He believed that God was going to take care of him, and he acted like it.
Mrs. Bester: He did.
Dr. Bouyer: Because they said more than one word, I'm going to just say a few more. And the reason I chose courageous, it's like where there is no conflict, there is no need for courage. And because of the conflicts that African American people, black people face on a daily basis, not just in Alabama, but even in Washington, DC, our nation's capital, it was also segregated. So the conflict was segregation and therefore Reverend Shuttlesworth, God gave him the courage to challenge the conflict.
Ranger Kat: Well, thank you. It truly has been an honor and a pleasure to spend time with you today. And we're planning to use excerpts of this to share with the public the role that reference Shuttlesworth played in the Freedom Rides because it's a piece of his story and his activism that doesn't often get shared. So we're really excited to educate people about that. Before I close, is there a question I didn't ask that you wish I had that you would like to sort of expound upon to share with the public?
Mrs. Bester: I just want to thank Reverend Wilder for upholding what they say, I did a thing in Howard University is called Passing the Torch, and it was people that have worked with Dr. King passing the torch, basically, to the young students at Howard. But Reverend Wilder has been so essential in helping me educate Northern children. I've been to Bethel many times, and he's always opened his doors, even treated us to lunch on several times to share the history. Because people today can't imagine. Our young people can't imagine what we went through, and a lot of them think it didn't happen. And that's where we need to say. You got to check your sources. And I just wanted to appreciate and thank Reverend Wilder and Dr. Bouyer for your intense work in making known what happened in Birmingham and affecting the lives of so many people that are better because of it. And I thank you, Kate, for including me in this discussion. I truly learned a lot.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. I'm really glad that you were able to join everybody else.
Dr. Bouyer: I think you did a great job, your questions were really challenging and caused us to really, I think, just go deep within ourselves to actively participate in this. And I just want to thank you again, like Ruby, for including me.
Reverend Wilder: Ditto for me as well. And I want to thank both Dr. Bouyer for all of the work that she's been doing since she's been with us for that time, but also Mrs. Bester for joining us on such short notice. I was just…Dr. Bouyer and I were talking the other day, and we said, I wonder if Mrs. Bester would be willing to join us on the call. And when we reached out to you, you graciously accepted. So let me say publicly how much we appreciate that.
Mrs. Bester: I appreciate that. Thank you, sir. Thank you. That somebody can be moved forward from hearing our discussion. That's the blessing and hopefully they will share and do their research so that they can be a better person in their neighborhood. Because we are all at this state of our country, we need each other, and we need to understand that God is still in control. Thank you, Kate. I appreciate this opportunity.
Ranger: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn Me Around. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time.
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