Buses are a comin’….
The Zepp Center’s Annual Civil Rights Tour – January 5-8, 2011
By Pamela Zappardino
Fifty years ago Freedom riders boarded buses to ride across the south testing the ruling that banned discrimination in interstate commerce. In January 2011, the Zepp Center’s annual Civil Rights Tour recreated part of that ride. We met in Atlanta – twenty eight of us from Baltimore, Westminster, Chicago, Seattle, Rhode Island, Georgia, and more. We crossed every demographic line there is: age, race, sexual orientation, religion, profession, newcomers to nonviolence and old-timers.
We climbed on a bus and traveled west, from Atlanta to Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama where in 1961 Freedom Riders had been attacked by the Klan and one of the buses had been firebombed. In Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church (which itself was bombed in1963 killing three young girls), we spoke with Freedom Riders Catherine Burks-Brooks and Bernard LaFayette, who brought those times to life in a very personal way. Catherine’s stories of her conversations with Bull Connor were riveting.
Bernard was with us on the tour, and during the long rides (the South is a big place) he explained the places and events that occurred there. Interwoven in his stories were lessons in nonviolence and how it was used throughout the Movement. Continuing west, we went into Mississippi and headed to Jackson, where many Freedom riders, including Bernard, were jailed.
He told us how important music was to the movement and how in jail in Mississippi they communicated and kept their spirits up by singing. “Buses are a comin, Oh yeah; Buses are a comin, Oh yeah; Buses are a comin, buses are a comin; Buses are a comin, Oh yeah.” Aggravated by the singing, the jailers told them to stop, but they continued making up new verses. “Rollin into Jackson….” and “Better get you ready…” they sang on even after the guards took their mattresses and toothbrushes. Lunch at Peaches Restaurant was both a historical and culinary experience.
We stopped in Philadelphia Mississippi at the Mount Zion Methodist Church whose burning in 1964 started the chain of events that led to the deaths of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. The long dark ride along back roads that followed was not terribly comfortable in 2011. It was easy to imagine how terrifying those roads must have been 50 years ago. The ghosts are still there.
Turning eastward, we went to Montgomery, Al, where Freedom Riders were met again by the Klan, the police nowhere in evidence because, officials said, it was Mother’s Day, and they were all visiting their mothers. We saw the church where the community gathered after that incident and were surrounded by an angry mob, precipitating federal intervention. We gathered at the powerful Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin that stands in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center, engraved upon it the names of those who died in the Civil Rights Struggle. We became part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the Rosa Parks Museum.
Back in Atlanta, we explored the history of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at its headquarters and spent the rest of the day at the King Center and the Martin Luther King Historic Site in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.
By the time we got back to the airport, we were friends, we had sung many songs, we had had great conversations with each other, we had learned things that you can only know when you walk on the ground. We understood the power of nonviolence to effect change, and the training needed to put nonviolence into action.
We would never be the same.