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Shawn Vestal: Student, civil rights leaders revisit South’s battlegrounds

When Benjameen “JaJa” Quarless rode into Greensboro, N.C., on a bus Monday, he was traveling in the shadow of 1961.

Quarless, a junior at Whitworth University, is part of a project marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders – students who challenged segregation at Southern lunch counters and on buses, and were met along with way with violence, arrest and general thuggery.

Fifty years ago, the Freedom Riders came into Greensboro in the early part of their journey, before things turned really ugly. Greensboro had been an earlier flashpoint in the civil rights movement, with sit-in protests at a Woolworth lunch counter that sparked similar action all over the South. This week, Quarless, his fellow students and four of the original freedom riders went to that same Woolworth’s – which is now a civil rights museum – as part of their exploration of that chapter in the country’s story.

“For these people to say enough is enough and to challenge this very brutal system of segregation struck me as a very powerful and emotional part of history,” said Quarless, a 21-year-old from Tacoma who’s majoring in philosophy.

Quarless was picked out of about 1,000 applicants to participate in the anniversary Freedom Ride. It will conclude on Monday in New Orleans, coinciding with the televised premiere of a film, “Freedom Riders,” that will air on the PBS series “American Experience.”

“The whole point of the trip is to use this to spark a wave of social activism like the original Freedom Ride did back in 1961,” Quarless said.

The original Freedom Ride was intended to test the South’s follow-through on the Supreme Court’s ruling that “separate but equal” was a farce – and that Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional. Let’s just say the South had not quite gotten on board: Freedom Riders were harassed, beaten, stoned, arrested, assaulted … all for entering restaurants and refusing to sit in the right seats on buses.

The resistance of the South to the law and to decency – and not just from the Klan, but from governors and mayors and cops – remains a depressing testament to the ability of people to cling self-righteously to deranged convictions. But the bravery of the Freedom Riders – kids no older than Quarless, defying a society committed to the notion that people of different races should not share a water fountain – remains an inspiration.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who also is riding on the anniversary trip, was met with violence at city after city along the way. He was 21.

“As a young child, growing up in Alabama, I had been told over and over again, don’t get in trouble,” he said in a speech in 2008. “But I got in trouble. It was good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

Lewis describes sitting at lunch counters and having cigarettes put out in his hair or tossed down the back of his shirt. Hot coffee dumped over his head. Being spit on and pulled to the floor. Beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery. Fire-bombed in Anniston.

“It was very violent,” he once said. “I thought I was going to die.”

The Freedom Rides eventually helped effect big changes across the South – doing more than any government or court did to help knock down corrupt, corroded hierarchies. Quarless said that before he joined this project, he knew about the Freedom Rides in general, but he’s been taken aback at the sheer volume and intensity of the violence that greeted civil rights protesters – and also by the bravery of those original Freedom Riders and others involved in the struggle for civil rights.

“To be able to talk to the original Freedom Riders is definitely empowering, because one of the things I’ve definitely gleaned from this experience, out of many things, is you don’t have to be a senator or a congressman … to effect social change,” he said.

He said that as the bus gets deeper into the South, where the worst of the violence occurred, that the memories of those days from a half-century ago become more painful for Lewis and the other original riders.

“It definitely gets more emotional the further south we get,” he said.

Quarless knows things have gotten a lot better in this country. But he still sees evidence of inequality and racism.

Before he set out from Washington, D.C., on the bus, Quarless spent some time in the capital. He was shocked by the number of homeless people he encountered on the streets, including one woman who was sleeping among newspapers in a darkened entryway.

“Television and media paint a picture of the world that does not include everyone’s narrative, like the women who slept among molding newspapers,” he wrote in a short essay about the experience. “(It) is our responsibility as her fellow neighbors and citizens to make sure her story is included in the dominant American narrative.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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