American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 2 of 2
[Interviewer]We were talking about those first three days and how it was a piece of cake. Tell that story. Tell me that story. How did you- It felt like uh What happened on those first three days, which was nothing happened. [Person] The first three days of the ride was was uneventful and basically it was a piece of cake. We realized, you know, that this wasn't going to be as bad as we thought. you know, this is not going to be as bad as we thought. Each evening we would always review the day's events, you know, just to bring each other up because we were always separated into two groups. into two groups and since you were going to be changing buses the next day it let you know what happened on their bus and this prepared us for the next, for the next day's ride. [Interviewer] and when you met it you said was a piece of cake? [Person] It was a piece of cake. [Interviewer] So you met and.. You kind of stopped in the middle there, so you met- and compared notes. "We.. [Person] We uh compared notes and if there was any violence, any incidents that we experienced
we shared those with each other which made us, all of us, everyone, know what was going, everyone knew what was going on. [Interviewer] What did you learn from talking to the other group? [Person] We knew the attitudes of, say, the other type bus drivers on the other line. [Person] We knew the attitudes of, say, the other type bus drivers on the other line. We knew what we might expect at Trailways or uh, uh, a Greyhound; um a Greyhound, those kinds of things because you know they were uh they were both buslines but they were also competitors and there were some things that were similar and some things that were not similar. [Interiewer] I guess I'm trying to get ?inaudible? [Interviewer]I guess I'm trying to get you to say is, Charles, [Person] You know each evening, you know, we had [Person] Each evening, you know, we had nothing eventful to discuss so it was you know it was good. Everything was going well, and we figured if we could do this all the way through through then we would have achieved what we set out to do,
which is to prove, or disprove, that Blacks could ride throughout the south without incident. [Interviewer] Um, do you think in a way what you guys [Interviewer] Um, do you think in a way that what you guys wanted was trouble? Since you knew that these places were segregated, you'd just ?inaudible? so you knew it. In some ways what you wanted was trouble to publicize the problem, right? [Person] Right if they had been smart and just let us travel and served us the world would have said," "tsk" There's nothing to it" Because they reacted the way they did it showed the world uh that traveling throughout the south was not easy for people of color. [Interviewer] So talk about, get to Atlanta and now you're go- going into Alabama, so you're in Atlanta, was there a thought that maybe things were going to change at all? ?inadible? So you're in Atlanta. What - was there a thought that maybe things were going to change at all? [Person] Well uh
so James Farmer, a leader, he was aware that trouble uh, might be awaiting us in Birm- in Alabama and beyond. [Interviewer] But James Farmer, he got out of the rides? What happened with James Farmer? [Person] What happened that night, he got worried, I think his father was ill be awaiting us in Birm- uh in in Alabama and he uh [Interviewer] But James Farmer was not uh he got out of the ride. What happened to him? say "The night we were in Atlanta James Farmer .." [Person] In Atlanta James Farmer had met with Dr. King So what happened in Atlanta? [Person] In Atlanta, uh James Farmer had met with Dr. King and his staff and they had been informed that trouble was awaiting us in Alabama and beyond. James Farmer of course was one of the leaders of the CORE organization. [Interviewer] ?inaudible?
[Person] And he had to leave that uh night night because he had received word of his father's illness. [Interviewer] So in other words you got [Interviewer] So in other words you got word that there was going to be trouble [Person] Yeah that's true. James had to leave us the night we we embarked for Birmingham. [Interviewer] Doesn't sound so good; sounds like you we embarked for Birmingham. [Interviewer] Doesn't sound so good; sounds like you know, the leader's leaving,trouble's comin'. Is that true? [Person] Well we were seasoned riders, we were seasoned in the movement, so uh you know we we had to continue it wasn't uh we all had things to do. they share responsibility goin' on the ride, see. Each bus had testers, I mean everyone was involved in some phase of the activities but they were generally two active testers on each bus and the others just, I was on the seating arrangements on how they sat on the bus.
[Interviewer] So you leave Atlanta, what happened when you head for Alabama? [Person] When we left Atlanta things were [Person] When we left Atlanta everything was was nice as always The only indication uh that I had that anything might be going wrong was we got near the Alabama border at a uh one of the little way stops and a man got off the bus, and he was in bib overalls and he looks at us and he says: "You niggers have had it good here in Georgia but just wait until you get to Alabama". That troubled me a little bit because you know, what did he know that we didn't know? I mean it was only just actually just an hour so ride from Anniston but he got off there, it's just a little small town, I can't recall the name but it was right on the Georgia Alabama border. [Interviewer] So what were you thinking? [Person] Well first of all, who is this guy? And we later found out who he was
but at the time we had no idea. I had no ideea who he was. [Interview] ?inaudible? Talk to me about what happened when you got to Anniston. [Person] When we got to Aniston, uh, there were some, several strange things that happened. [Interviewer] Talk about what happened when you got to Aniston [Person] When we got to Aniston, uh, there were some, several strange things that happened. One was the terminal itself was not open. The bus driver got off and he approached several men got back on the bus and he says that the other bus of Freedom Riders uh says that the other bus of Freedom Riders had been burned and he wasn't going anywhere back of the bus and of course we sat where we were, we weren't going anywhere and then the the man he had been talking to got aboard the bus and he started punching us ferociously. James Peck and uh and uh Walter Bergman had gone to get refreshments
and they beat them unmercifully and in fact they were both lying in the in the middle of the bus and then they proceeded to toss the two black students over them and they tossed us physically to the back of the bus and once they had gotten the bus the way they wanted it to the bus driver came on and we proceeded to burn me ?inaudible? [Interview] Talk about the beatings that you got from a personal standpoint and what you saw them do to Peck and Bergman [Person] Well since my seat was always the first one on the left uh they punched me uh in the face uh and repeatedly and the other student, they punched him as well uh and then when the Bergmans came to our defense they realized that, you know, here's a nigger lover or so they really was very ferocious when they beat them. In fact they beat Walter as he laid on the ground, you know, he suffered injuries that he sustained for the rest of his life.
Uh,James Peck, he was beaten, he was bloodied but he was still, he was still conscious and he was still able to carry out his duties once we got to Birmingham. Birmingham. [Interviewer] So you're still on this bus and these guys are just beating you ?inaudible? [Person] It's uh it's you know I had never never experienced anything like that in my life; there had been other movement activities but never has the ferocity been as as it was that particular day. They were just, it was like animals, you know, they were really, let's put it like this, they were very very angry at us for whatever reason. They were very angry. [Interviewer] So, the bus continues on now, you guys are half-conscious and beat up on the bus. What happened when you got to Birmingham? [Person] When we got to Birmingham, James and I, James Peck and I were scheduled to to test the facilities so he looked at me and I looked at him and we proceeded to go into the terminal. When we got into the terminal, the wall was surrounded by
men and they all came towards us and uh they just started beating on us and james went down almost immediately and they uh they punch me and punch me and uh they hit me in the back of the head with something and you know the blood started running. And uh after a while they just stopped beating me and I uh walked away I uh walked from the terminal out to the street and as luck would have it or fate a city bus driver came down and he stopped and I got on and I said take me somewhere and he drove several blocks and he says, he told me to get off the bus and to go across the track, somebody gonna help you over there. I got across the tracks and I call Reverend Shuttlesworth's house and told him what had happened and that we needed help so he sent a driver to pick me up and they brought me back to his church and realized I was bleeding too badly and they needed, I needed
help so there are three doc- black doctors in Birmingham and they took me to the first one and he refused to treat me. They went to the second and he refused to treat me so they just brought me back to, um, the church area and a nurse in his congregation put a special kind of bandage on that was kind of pull the wound together and that was the only treatment I really received for the wounds that I received that day [Interviewer] So you say you went to two black doctors and the refused to treat? [Person] They refused to treat. [Interviewer] Why? [Person] They probably would have when you're fishing for lost their license. [Interviewer] Okay got it. ?inaudible [Person] Uh we felt that that the reason they we would not treat me was because they would have lost their license but I couldn't go to the ?inaudible? we didn't even try that. We knew that was out so uh I hear you know they considered us rabble rousers outsiders so you know i can understand i mean now i understand at the time, you know, you're bleeding and so forth there is, you know, doctors are treat to treat those forces? who are injured and as a young person I
couldn't understand that but as I have gotten older I understand more. [Interviewer] So even the black doctors couldn't treat you? [Person] No. [Interviewer] Tell me that [Person] Even the black doctors would not and could not, well, would not treat me. They could have and I mean they were skilled because they s- their practice was that, that was that community in Birmingham, they serve that community but being an outsider, as they saw me, they refused to treat me. [Interviewer] What was the role of Governor Patterson in all of this? [Person] Well, he considered us outsiders, [inaudible from interviewer] Governor Patterson considered us as outsiders. We were there to stir up trouble and you know and so forth, that was his his take on the riders. He was well aware that we were coming just like the FBI knew that we were, they had a copy of our itinerary, they knew what the deal was but the politicians in those days had a stance, they had a personal stance, but also they needed to be successful in the south as a segregationist you had to expouse certain things. If you wanted to be a successful politician
you had to carry the party line which in those days was, you know, segregation. [inaudibel from interviewer] [Interviewer] When did you learn what had happened to the other bus? [Person] We didn't know the extent. All we knew then that something had happened on the other bus that the uh bus driver had conveyed to us and that in Anniston but no one knew the extent and how it could have happened and the thought that they would burn a Greyhound bus? That was unfathomable uh, you know that was what we had been informed. [Interviewer] So they never took you to the - [Person] No [Interviewer] um- do you remember um, uh what's your memory of what happened next? So you go, and they treat your wounds, what happened next? [Person] Well I had Reverend Shuttlesworth's place, they were trying to find out all the status and condition of all the other people. Most of the
other riders have had smoke inhalation. Mr. Bergman was was was his his face was all ah puffy and swollen, um and of course James uh I knew he was going to require stitches but he ended up getting fifty three stitches. stitches and they didn't want to treat him at the hospital but they did. Ah. And the other, I didn't know at that time, the status of the other riders because the other riders who had a role, a lesser role on you know they were testers for that day and they were just writers and observers. That was another thing, their job was to make sure the word got out if something happened, like say if we had been abducted or anything like that at least some would have known known your whereabouts and in many cases they rode typically as black riders, they generally sat in the back of the bus and did like they were supposed supposed to do and then they were a more or less observers and also we had reporters on each bus from the Baltimore American and
we had two photographer and a writer from Jet and there was one from one other magazine. [Interviewer] Um, do you remember how the decision was reached to stop the other rides? [Person] I- that was made at a higher level meeting but by the CORE staff but I think we were just so weary; you gotta realize James had received fifty three stitches. Mr., Walter Bergman was was in bad shape. I was in pretty bad shape. We were pretty much traumatized. You had almost everyone on the other bus received smoke inhalation so that was our whole group so you are looking at almost ten of the thirteen riders, original thirteen riders, because James Farmer was not there so uh out of twelve riders, ten were almost incapacitated, so that was why the decision was made we could no longer continue but thank God that Diane decided to keep the rides going. [Interviewer] How did you feel when you were told ?inaudible?
[Person] We we were very happy because we did not want it to end like that because - [Interviewer] No not that Diane ?inaudible? You were told that the decision was to stop the rides [Person] Well we were disappointed. We did not [inaudible from interviewer] that's right when the eu was a sudden lead a core staff that the rice can no longer contain your eye we were disappointed we did not want a rides in that way we were uh close to getting to Mississippi and for the rally in New Orleans and uh as beaten and as weary as we were we wanted to continue but the staff made the decision because we were a little raggedy bunch by this time [inaudible interviewer] That your mother didn't know? [Person]. No and when we arrived in Atlanta I asked the leadership if I could
go home and spend some time with my family and at that time ?inaudible? informed my mother what we were involved in and what had happened prior to us getting to Atlanta and asked her permission uh to continue. I told her there might be violence we had heard words that things were going to get a little rough in Alabama and she just gave me God's blessings and allowed me to continue to ride.[Interviewer inaudible] [Person] That's Mama. [Interviewer] Talk to talk about what happened happens ?inaudible? you guys have decided now to abandon the rides and now you are just trying ?inaudible? Alabama [Person] Okay first we all, we tried to go by bus and the bus drivers refused to travel. They were not going to travel with Freedom Riders on the bus at all so then we opted to fly and we go to the airport and there's all kinds of strange people; there were a lot of FBI agents which we didn't know at the time.
We get on board and there's a bomb threat; we have to get off the plane of course they search the plane and so forth. I mean this goes on and finally we get a chance to leave and this is my first airplane flight; I've never flown before in my life and I must have watched the engines all the way into New Orleans. It's just that reaction to your first flight but it was nice to leave because as we took off to see the crowd on the ground and realize that we at least were flying to safety was really a good feeling [Interviewer] Uh I just need you to say you know something about you made the decision to call off the rides but they won't let you even get the bus out [Person] The decision had been made that we were not going to continue to ride but we were going to go ahead and ride to New Orleans for the rally on the seventeenth of May um but um, bus drivers refused to take us out. They were not going to ride, leave ah Birmingham with freedom riders on the bus, so
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Charles Person, 2 of 2
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- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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- Charles Person was a Student at Morehouse College on the CORE Freedom Ride, May 4-17, 1961.
- American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
- (c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
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- Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 2 of 2,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 9, 2020, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-0r9m32p291.
- MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 2 of 2.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 9, 2020. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-0r9m32p291>.
- APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 2 of 2. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-0r9m32p291