Mr. Charles Person: One of the original waves of some 400 Freedom Riders, working with the late Congressman John Lewis.
I grew up at a time when America needed scientists, and I had always wanted to be a scientist. I had worked in high school to get the kind of grades. I was in special mathematics, I was in a pilot program where they were teaching calculus to high school kids, or analysis it was called then. So I was geared toward that type of work. My SAT scores and my GPA were good enough to get me accepted at MIT, but Georgia Tech was also the number one engineering school in the South, so I applied to Georgia Tech, and of course rejected my application. So I could not understand, here we were competing with the Russians, because the Russians had launched Sputnik, and we say we needed scientists, yet I was being denied an opportunity to go to a school which I was imminently qualified to go to, so that gave me the impetus to get involved in all the civil rights activities that were happening on campus.
Interview with Charles Person for the Freedom Riders 40th Anniversary Oral History Project, 2001. Freedom Riders 40th Anniversary Oral History Project, Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi Libraries.
In the summer of 1961, the Freedom Riders, a group of mostly young people, both black and white, including Charles Edward Person, risked their lives to challenge the system of segregation in interstate travel in the South. Person was the youngest Freedom Rider on the original Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Ride. A gifted math and physics student, with aspirations to become a scientist, he was a member of his local NAACP Youth Council in high school. As a freshman at Morehouse College, Person became active in the civil rights movement, joining a student organization called the Atlanta Committee on Appeal for Human Rights and was on the CORE Freedom Ride, May 4-17, 1961. His memoir Buses Are a Comin': Memoir of a Freedom Rider was published by St. Martin's Press in 2021.
Mr. Hezekiah Watkins:
"I was unaware of the racism, the bigotry inflicted on blacks during that time," Watkins said. "I was a kid who would watch TV every day, the cartoons and cowboy pictures."
That was until one day when he awoke from a nap to see The Birmingham Campaign marching across his screen, with protestors encountering brutality in their pursuit of Civil Rights.
"I saw a group of individuals. They were in Alabama at the time. I didn't know where they were. But I just saw them on the news. I was at a loss, and I didn't know what was happening. I saw individuals being beaten, kicked, spat on, watered down with hoses. I just looked at it, amazed. I'm thinking it's a continuation of a movie segment, but it was news that was happening."
"I began watching it every day. My friend who didn't have a TV, I told him about it, and he would come to my house and watch it along with me. And he was amazed," Watkins said.
He had never seen anything like it in his young life. He didn't know it at the time, but he was witnessing some of the movements of the Freedom Riders, groups of black and white activists who participated in "Freedom Rides" throughout the American South to protest segregated bus terminals.
After being met with hesitant responses from his mother and school teachers when asking about the Freedom Riders, he and his friend's curiosity grew. So much so that they concocted a plan to fake a stomach bug after church one day to sneak out and see the activists themselves as they traveled through downtown Jackson's Greyhound station.
"My mother came and checked on me before she left; she stuck her head back in the door and said, 'Boy, don't leave this house.' I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' After she left, my friend ran over."
"He said, 'let's go, let's go. Let's go.'"
The boys bicycled down to the bus station, only to find that the Freedom Riders had already been rounded up and arrested. They began playing on the sidewalk, running up and down, drinking out of "White's Only" water fountains, and embracing their newfound freedom.
However, their fun quickly ended when Watkins' friend jokingly pushed him into the doors of the Greyhound station and ran off. Before he could exit, a security officer caught up with him and asked for his name and birthplace.
"I gave him my name. I told him I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And when I said Milwaukee, he said out loud, 'I have another one over here!'"
Thinking that he was from up North like many of the other riders, he was quickly ushered away from the station and taken to the infamous Parchman Prison.
At just 13, he was Mississippi's youngest Freedom Rider to be arrested and put on death row. He endured "unthinkable" conditions for five days with no due process. "I try not to even think about it even now," Watkins said.
He was eventually released by then Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who ordered his discharge at the behest of late President John F. Kennedy.
From that moment forward, Watkins devoted much of his life to pursuing equality and Civil Rights, getting arrested more than 130 times, often with excessive force.
"I'm 74. As we speak, I would do it all over again right now. Except going into Parchman. I never ever, ever, ever want to go there."
FLASH FORWARD TO TODAY, AND WATKINS IS A GRANDFATHERLY FIGURE AT THE MISSISSIPPI CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM.
As a museum docent, Civil Rights thought leader and speaker, and living part of history, one of his greatest enjoyments is getting to teach younger generations the importance of embracing the past to create a better future. Many of the children who listen are 13 years old themselves, some older, some younger.
"I want all of them to take advantage of the privilege they have today that we didn't have," Watkins said.
"That's what we've fought for. That's what a lot of them died for."
Mr. RON SILVER: Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald K. Silver retired from the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon. He was an Assistant U.S. Attorney from 1982- 2015. He was Chief of the Civil Division in Oregon from 2008-2014 and spent his last year as Special Counsel for Community Engagement. He spent two years in Washington, D.C. as the Assistant Director of the Office of Legal Education, responsible for training all the civil attorneys within the Department of Justice. From 1982-1991 he practiced in the Los Angeles office. While there, he took part in the Voting Rights Act case, Garza v. County of Los Angeles that led to the election of the first Hispanic Supervisor in over 100 years in Los Angeles County. In Oregon he has handled several Fair Housing cases. The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association awarded Silver its 2002 Public Justice Award for his Fair Housing work.
He has actively taught about the history of the Civil Rights Movement within the Department of Justice, other federal agencies, Oregon and Washington Bar Associations and within Portland and Vancouver schools. Silver has led many middle and high school students to Alabama and Mississippi on Civil Rights history trips for the past 10 years
But through reporting one other thing became clear: Silver is a case study in likability. No one says, "Oh, yeah, I know Ron" and leaves it at that. No. Seemingly anyone familiar with the energetic attorney bursts into a glowing smile at the mention of his name and talks, in detail, about the impact Silver has made on their life.