thumbnail of American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 1 of 2
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for a black person in the south back then. Ah, during the sixties, uh, traveling by bus or train was very horrendous for black people. Mainly because, uh, the waiting rooms were not readily accessible accessible, uh, and ah if you were able to go into a rest- restaurant it was a cubbyhole or a very small, small place. So most of the times most black people carried their lunches in a shoebox and a soda or something in a, in a, in a container, but, um, you didn't know what you were gonna encounter. Ah, it was knight riders. You had, uh, hoodlums uh you could be antagonized at any point in your journey. So most of the time it was very very difficult to plan a trip. Ah and and y'know you always had to meet someone to meet you there because you didn't know what to, what you were to expect [Host]: When did you ah first hear about the freedom riders? [Charles Person]: Uh, we had just completed, ah, a campaign in Atlanta, we were doing some things there, and, ah, CORE asked for
volunteers, and there were several of us who applied. And for some reason they - they selected me. [Host]: Why did you wanna go on the Freedom Ride? [Charles Person]: Well, the Freedom Ride, uh, I didn't know much about it. I didn't know about the general reconciliation of other allies. But I knew that, uh, it was something that was important because having traveled in the south i knew that ah you couldn't travel freely. I knew that - we all knew that for a fact so so uh the opportunity to test the law, to see if, uh, to let the world know that we cannot as a black person travel freely throughout the south and now the opportunity to have a sponsored trip that was, it was a great opportunity. Plus the fact that there were many whites who, who had, who were a member of CORE who were actively involved in uh in activities. And uh if they could, uh, truly if they could sup- to, ah, risk their lives and fortune to help us, then surely as a black person i should be able to participate. [Host]: If you can tell me in a nutshell, what was the idea of the Freedom Riders
meaning what were you gonna do? [Charles Person] In a nutshell the Freedom Ride was to prove that as a passenger in interstate travel that I could not freely ah enter a restroom, and be fed, get my shoes shined, get a haircut, or any of the amenities that the bus station provided. They were not open to us because we were black. [Host]: Um, but the federal law stated that those places should be open, right? [Charles Person]: Yea, yes the law stated that, but but uh when you crossed the Mason-Dixon line all that changed. And if you were a first class passenger and you were riding in the front of the bus and so forth, when you got to the Mason-Dixon line you as a black person had to precede to the rear of the bus. Uh also the, the uh waiting rooms were segregated. You had a small little area set aside for blacks and of course of course a large, larger waiting room for the, the ah majority white passengers [Host]: I just wanted to get clear that that one of the things that that that made the Freedom Ride possible was that the the law said that
segregation on interstate travel wasn't legal. Can you just kind of let me know that? [Charles Person]: Yes, ah, the law was - stated - that in interstate commerce or travel ah passengers regardless of their ethnicity should have been allowed to participate in, use all the facilities, all the amenities that were made to all passengers, but in the south this was not so. [Host]: So you decide to go on one of these Freedom Rides, um. When you signed up and they said, 'Okay, you're accepted,' what'd you feel? Were you scared? What'd you feel? [Charles Person]: Well I was apprehensive because I had never left the deep south before. And I had to go to Washington, D.C. for additional training. so I was apprehensiveuh but I was interviewed the night before by Julian Bond uh, and, uh, his experience in the movement 'cause he was a upper classman at Moorehouse, ah y'know gave me some assurances. And y'know being able to talk to y'know someone who was friendly the night before and uh if you ever saw a photo of me you'd say oh I have my little brown bag
of goodies that you know I didn't have a shoebox for I had a brown bag to carry my stuff as I, you know, I left Atlanta. [Host]: When you left Atlanta how'd you get to D.C.? [Charles Person]: I took the bus but I sat at the back of the bus then. That was the last time. In fact that was the last time I sat on the back of the bus. [Host]: Okay good. [Inaudible, laughing] [Second Host]: I love that. Let - let - let - let let me um, I want you to tell me that whole, full statement. And that, the full statement that said, y'know, something like, y'know, ah um 'when I got accepted I went to D.C.' and I rode on the back of the bus blah blah blah, okay. Ready? [inaudible] Okay, go 'head. [Charles Person]: Uh when I left Atlanta I had all my little goodies and I got on the bus. And of course I sat on the back of the bus. But that was the last time i said sit on the back of the bus
it was to make sure there were a nonviolent most of us it were initially where had aged at training in the fri- and sit ins and so forth so we knew about the condiments you know mustard and ketchup being squirted on you ?inaudible? on cigarettes being put out on you and being spat upon uh and also also how to protect yourself we didn't fight back in general you didn't protect yourself however if you did hit the ground you're told to get in a fetal position to protect your groin other vital organs and that was the training basically to make sure because they wanted to be sure that we were not gonna give reason to be ?continued assault? you know if you fight back and that motivates the attack on his uh but we were just taught to be nonviolent ?to an extent? and the training went extremely well because we had no one to drop out because they could not agree to remain non-violent [Interviewer]: You were eighteen at this point, right? [Charles Person]: Yes, I was eighteen. [Interviewer]: Ah jus- just um tell me that- that- You were the youngest one. Uh just uh tell me that you were eighteen you were the youngest one. What did you think about this non-violence?
[Charles Person]: Well as eighteen I knew living in the south that uh many uh black men had been killed because they had a weapon or because they fought back uh and so non-violence makes sense uh it makes sense for several reasons one is that there's no fun in fighting someone who doesn't who doesn't fight back and i think this is what happened to us and the during the Freedom Ride they beat us to a point and because we weren't fight back they just stopped and in my case I think it saved my life in Birmingham was the fact that that I uh just walked away and they didn't follow me or anything they just let me walk away they got ?to the point? punched me and uh they hit me in the head with a pipe i was bleeding but they let me they let me go but i never fought back and i never cried out in fact i didn't even feel any pain and that's something that I don't understand to this day i had had been punched and i had played football and stuff like that so I knew what pain was but all the punches that I received i didn't feel any pain as as one would expect
and maybe that is because of how we prepare each day or or or maybe it's just my fate I I- don't know I just but I I didn't feel any any pain and I didn't cry out. [rustling sounds] [Interviewer]: I'm going to ask you that again once we get there. So you have the training, what What did you personally think was going to happen. Do you remember? [Charles Person]: Uh I think what i feared probably the most in which even to this day i don't have a good relationship with dogs was the fact that in many campaigns they they sicced the dogs the dogs on us. Now you can tell a person to stop or a person will ?inaudilble? feel that they have done enough but a dog is going to attack until someone tells them it not to to attack and i guess that was my greatest fear was dogs uhm the other
other stuff the water hoses and all the other stuff I think I could have endured and did endure but i just think that in those areas where they used dogs dogs was was the most devastating for me i mean i just the thought of me being attacked by a dog I mean you get a ninety pound shepherd shepherds were the bulbs of chores in those days you know it's this is mind blowing i just i am even terrified to this day when i think about about it you know. [Interviewer]: I uh know that some riders maybe all riders wrote these kinda, they weren't wills, were they? Like kinda statements? [Charles Person]: We had to uh sign a statement, in fact it was posted at uh our fortieth anniversary some of the things that we said and you know you know your phone numbers of next of kin and that sort of stuff so we were prepared for the worst worst no because that's the danger and those days because the Klan had a reputation you know of people disappearing or
people being harmed and so we we were aware but we were not afraid. [Interviewer]: So you wrote statements? [Charles Person]: Uh we just I just wrote a wrote a little statement you know notifying my mom and dad and how they could be notified and essentially that was it. [Interviewer]: Did you tell your mom and dad where you were going? [Charles Person]: I told them a little white lie I didn't tell them all. I just told them that I was going for some training and we were going to be uh having to train people for non violent activities but I did but i did get my mother's permission the night before ?Anderson? in? birmingham we stopped in Atlanta and i went home I spent the evening with my family and I I asked my mom and she agreed to let me continue to ride so uh initially i didn't she didn't know the gravity of what were doing. [Interviewer]: I am going to ask you that again. My question is not going to be here so answer in a complete statement so my question is: Did you let your parents know what was going on before you left?
[Charles Person]: No i did not let let them know totally what the activities that were involved and just let them know that we're going to help train some people for non violent activities [Interviewer]: Once you got started, the first two or three days were were unenventful, right. Now could you start from the beginning? [Charles Person]: Mmmm Yes ?inaudible?, I- [Interviewer]: You got on in - [Charles Person]: In Washington DC. [Interviewer]: Tell us about that first ?inaudible? [Charles Person]: Well first three days were getting ?inaudible? I guess our itinerary worked out and what we know the plan the plan was we always had ?inaudible? action each evening through the day's events we would explain what happened uh how we were treated by the waitresses and waiters because uhm in many cases uhm
the waiters were black and we always encouraged to tip well uh because you know many times they were under scrutiny if they you know if they waited on us most of the time however we didn't get waited on they would just they would just close the lunch counter. uhm the only real incidents i think we had was was a small incident it was ah in North Carolina I tried to get a shoeshine but it was not a part of a test it was uh my shoes were dirty and i wanted to get them shined and i am not thinking that this was not to be allowed so they called the police and they were about to arrest me and since it was not a test that we had had scheduled I er left before they arrested me but but Don Perkins who was a core uh staff member he went in and he did get arrested. [Interviewer]: Uhm one of
one of the things I always found nice was ?inaudible? that you guys you guys all dressed so cool. Why why-- talk about the dress code. [Charles Person]: Well two things things you know in the south there were myths uh that you you know we were dirty and so forth. Invariably when you saw the the men they had shirt and ties on and coats uhm and the women were well dressed dressed as well now and that was to dismay the image that a lot a whites had of blacks in those days and we were college kids and that's ?inaudible? was the dress for school you know you wore a shirt and tie. [Interviewer]: So the Freedom Riders kinda dressed up. [Charles Persons]: Well, we were not you know dressy-dressed but we we were clean and well-mannered, I think. [Interviewer]: When was the first trouble? trouble that you had? [Charles Person]: The real- the real first violence happened in Rock Hill South Carolina and that was John Lewis an- Lewis and Edward ?Bigelow? were punched by some hoodlums in fact I-
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with Charles Person, 1 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.
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 1 of 2,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 9, 2020,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 1 of 2.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 9, 2020. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Charles Person, 1 of 2. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from