MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Back in 1961, when a group of college students defied segregation on interstate buses across the South, they were met with threats, intimidation and violence.
Six of those same Freedom Riders got back on the bus Saturday to retrace their journey from Montgomery to Birmingham, joined by about 100 college students on a trip organized by Vanderbilt University.
The Freedom Riders started as a small group of 15 volunteers in 1961, but they swelled to a movement of more than 400 during their protests in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia over that year. The black and white volunteers sat together on buses, trains and planes, and they staged sit-ins at segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels.
John Lewis, 66, was on the bus in Montgomery when it was swarmed by an angry mob in the most violent encounter of the Freedom Ride.
“It was so quiet before the mob came, almost eerie,” recalled Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia. “Then all of a sudden they attacked, and left us lying there, bloody and unconscious.”
That day, Lewis was sitting next to Jim Zwerg, a white college student who was knocked unconscious and suffered three broken vertebrae in the attack. Zwerg, 67, said on Saturday the riders were warned of the dangers before the trip began.
“Before we embarked, it was stressed that we would encounter one of three things, if not all: jail, severe beating or death,” he said.
The Freedom Riders signed wills, anticipating possible death when they faced the mobs wielding hammers, bats, pipes and knives. They also received training in nonviolent protest techniques.
Gbemende Johnson, a 23-year-old graduate student at Vanderbilt, was one of the college students who got a chance to hear stories from the original Freedom Riders on Saturday.
“I can’t imagine it,” Johnson said. “It was just incredible bravery.”
Also present Saturday was John Seigenthaler, who was then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant. Kennedy sent Seigenthaler to negotiate safe passage for the riders.
Instead, Seigenthaler became a victim when he tried helping two young women in trouble in the Montgomery attack and was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head from a pipe.
Seigenthaler, who went on to become a newspaper editor, downplayed his role in the original rides.
“I’m a footnote to the history of the Freedom Riders,” he said.
Shevaun Evans, a 23-year-old graduate student from Vanderbilt, said the story of the Freedom Riders should inspire people today to continue the fight against discrimination and hatred.