They Need to Get It Right, for One Thing

An Interview with Freedom Rider Charles Person on the Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

By Cori Brosnahan

At 18, Charles Person was the youngest member of the 13 original Freedom Riders, who challenged segregation by riding through the South on interstate buses in 1961. American Experience spoke to him about what it feels like to have lived a history that’s now being memorialized in museums.

In 2011, Charles Person retraced his journey with American Experience. Photo by Christopher Churchill, Courtesy of WGBH

How are you feeling about the opening of this museum?

I’m excited. I don’t know how my expectations will be met until I get a chance to go. They need to get it right, for one thing. So much about our history is not being taught, even in the black community. A lot of people think slavery ended in 1865 and things should have been hunky-dory — and that has not been the case. After slavery there was Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights Movement. It has been less than 70 years since we’ve been able to get a good education in most of the states. The world thinks these things are ancient history and they want to know why the progress isn’t there that you would expect from things that happened, say, 100, 200, 300 years ago.

The old Greyhound bus stop in Montgomery, Alabama, where Charles Person and his fellow freedom riders were beaten by a mob of white protestors. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

When you boarded that bus, did you think you were doing something that would go down in history?

That was the farthest thing from my mind. I wasn’t thinking in terms of history. I was hoping that what we were doing would at least bring some impact or attention to the situation because in many cases, most people in America were not aware of what was going on. After the riots started, they thought we were on chartered buses, but no, we were taking regular buses that everyday citizens took; we were getting the typical treatment that happens to people of color once you pass the Mason-Dixon Line. It was commonplace for us, but most people in the country were not aware — and not because they weren’t interested, because it was so far-fetched! For example, when they burned the bus, who would have thought people would destroy someone else’s property to kill the people that were inside it? A bus in those days was a very expensive piece of hardware.

When did you realize that the Freedom Rides were having an impact?

We began to realize that this story was bigger than what we had even imagined when, instead of being a national story, it became a worldwide story. The world saw that bus burning, and they were trying to explain to their citizens how this could happen. It’s not like it was an accident. It highlighted the point that there were things in America that were not right. You must remember that this was during the Cold War. We were trying to put on a pretty face for the world, and yet there was a lot of shady stuff that was going on that they were trying to keep from the world.

I hold no animosity towards the people who beat us. I would love to sit down and talk with them to find out what they were thinking.

Has your understanding of the events changed over time?

I’m happy to have been a part of it, mainly because my mother appreciates it now, and I didn’t know that. I never knew until about a year ago. We took a road trip, and we were able to stop at nice restaurants and rest stops along the way. And my mom says to me, “I’m glad you did what you did.” Because for a black female, there were no restrooms you could go to! If they had to go potty, they had to potty between the doors of the car parked along the road. I had never thought of it until she mentioned it. It just made me feel good. She always supported me, but this was something kind of special.

Many people are hoping that this museum will provide an opportunity to have an honest conversation about race in this country. Why do you think that’s been so hard?

Some of these things are very emotional, no matter which side of the fence you’re on. But the only way we’re going to get better is if we’re able to talk about these things. I’ve been talking about race for years and I tell people, you can do it without being confrontational. I always mention the fact that I hold no animosity towards the people who beat us. I would love to sit down and talk with them to find out what they were thinking. Because I was just 18 years of age, I weighed 126 pounds — I was no threat to anybody. I just want to know what they were thinking. They tried to define who we were and what we were after, but they were all wrong.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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