In ‘The Buses Are Coming’, the story of the Freedom Riders

In 1961, more than 300 men and women, black and white and mostly under the age of 30, risked their lives for the cause of racial justice. In an effort to test Supreme Court rulings that declared unconstitutional “whites-only” dining halls, restrooms and bus terminals, as well as segregated trains and buses, the Freedom Riders traveled by bus from North to the Jim Crow South knowing that violence and incarceration likely awaited them.

In recognition of the courage and commitment of these activists, the San Diego Museum of African American Art (SDAAMFA) has opened an outdoor exhibit at the Quartyard in downtown East Village on the 13th and the market. “The Buses Are Coming” includes historic photographs, videos, interactive audio interviews and, making a statement of their own, “identification photos” of Freedom Riders from over 60 years ago.

The late Congressman John Lewis was part of the initial group of 13 Freedom Riders. Others who took buses in the South included civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael, Diane Nash, Tom Hayden and Minister James Bevel.

Earlier this month, the SDAAMFA hosted a group of Freedom Riders and activists at the opening of the exhibit: Luvaghn Brown, former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, Max Pavesic, Carol Ruth Silver, Hezekiah Watkins and Lewis Zuchman.

Carol Ruth Silver is the author of “Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison”. She was working as a clerk typist at the United Nations in May 1961. “I was transfixed by the scenes of what was happening in the South and especially the burning of a Greyhound bus,” Silver recalled. “I thought ‘This is absolutely wrong’ and decided to do something about it. So I and others, black and white, said ‘The time has come.’ We got on these commercial buses and we went through the South, going through the restrooms, the waiting rooms, the places that had signs like “Whites Only” and “Negroes Only”.

Was she afraid?

Freedom Rider Carol Ruth Silver looked at her arrest booking photo, which is part of a new exhibit in downtown San Diego.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I was petrified,” Silver says. “I would have been stupid not to be afraid. But sometimes you think you can’t do something and you do it because it’s necessary to save someone’s life or in this case to save a whole group of people from a life of discrimination.

Arriving in Jackson, Mississippi, Silver and the other bus passengers were arrested, tried and convicted. She spent 40 days in Parchman Prison, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Citing continued “generational discrimination,” Silver says progress toward justice and equality has been good, but “not good enough.” Yet she is proud of the Freedom Riders and their bravery. “We were a generation of ‘uprights’, people who saw something wrong and thought, ‘I’m going to get up and I’m going to fix it if it’s not good, at least better.’ That’s what we did.

At just 19, Lew Zuchman was, he says, “involved in organized crime. My goal was to be the first Jew in a mafia family. He had been in trouble all his young life and hung around the pool halls of New York.

Seeing his childhood idol, Jackie Robinson, on “The David Susskind Show” on television led him to the Freedom Riders. Robinson was a guest, as was Roy Wilkins, then executive secretary of the NAACP. Wilkins was warning people against getting involved in the Freedom Rides, Zuchman said. But his idol Robinson “cried and said if these people feel it’s time to stand up, how can you not support them? That’s when I decided to be a Freedom Rider.

Zuchman and six others boarded a regular Greyhound bus in July 1961 bound for Jackson. Violence was minimal along the way, but when they got to Mississippi “a mob descended on the bus station” and then “we were incarcerated. They wanted to fine us $400 and we refused to pay her. They never told us when we would be out. I was on my 42nd day when they called my name.

Freedom Riders (left to right) Luvaghn Brown, Hezekiah Watkins, Carol Ruth Silver, Max Pavesic, Lewis Zuchman and Bob Filner

Freedom Riders (left to right) Luvaghn Brown, Hezekiah Watkins, Carol Ruth Silver, Max Pavesic, Lewis Zuchman and Bob Filner attend the opening of ‘The Buses Are Coming’, a new outdoor exhibit at the Quartyard in the center -town of San Diego’s East Village

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Fearing Ku Klux Klan attacks upon their release, Zuchman and others on the bus stayed with black families who smuggled them out of town to safety.

Unlike Silver, Zuchman thinks things are “much worse today. Anyone who denies this, I don’t understand. But he does not regret his Freedom Ride.

“We were from all over the country — different races, religions, men and women,” says Zuchman, who runs community centers and afterschool programs in Harlem, East Harlem and the Bronx. ” It was wonderful. Each of us made the decision to do something that was very difficult at the time.

Luvaghn Brown didn’t take one of the buses, but in Jackson he was a young black man who was arrested and jailed for seeking service at a Woolworth’s store and for trying to break into a counter -meal.

A meeting with the Freedom Riders Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel led him to take an interest in their movement.

“I didn’t think there was a role for us young black men in Mississippi, but Lafayette spoke about nonviolence and I just liked it.

“My grandmother, who was one of my favorite people, was scared for me. She said, ‘They’re going to kill you.’ “I knew you could get killed, but I didn’t think about it. I just thought we were going to change the world. I felt like I was doing something important.”

People like Brown who fought for their rights in the Deep South of the 1960s were just as integral to the civil rights movement as those who came from the North.

“I appreciated that people took the buses to Jackson and people all over the world saw our struggle,” Brown says, “but I was really proud of the people from Mississippi and Louisiana who fought.”

“The Buses Are Coming”

When: Until September 7

Where: Presented by the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art at the Quartyard, 1301 Market St., San Diego

Admission: Free

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Coddon is a freelance writer.

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