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Original Freedom Riders mark 50th anniversary

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

In 1961, about 430 black and white men and women, mostly students, rode interstate buses in the South to challenge local laws or customs enforcing segregation. Called Freedom Riders, they were jailed for trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating state and local Jim Crow laws, along with other alleged offenses. Many were beaten.

Something about that time inspired the activism, said Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr., who was a 21-year-old Tennessee State University student when the rides began.

“The students knew that it was time for a change and their parents were afraid for them . . . but they didn’t discourage them,” Patton said. “It made a big change in my life and in a number of people who participated.”

One of the original Freedom Riders, the 71-year-old plans to get back on board a bus next month for a tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

The 10-day Student Freedom Ride, set to begin May 6 in Washington, D.C., will retrace the original bus routes through Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The event coincides with the broadcast of “Freedom Riders,” a film directed by Stanley Nelson that will premiere on PBS’ “American Experience” May 16.

A new generation of riders will ride with Patton and a few other originals. Forty students nationwide were chosen to participate. Representing 33 states and the District of Columbia, they come from schools such as Stanford University, Florida A & M and Murray State University.

Jayanni Webster, a University of Tennessee junior from Tennessee, was one of the chosen students.

Webster, 21, said her desire to get involved grew out of several experiences: watching her mother, a social worker; studying in Uganda; and working with Amnesty International’s local university chapter, of which she’s president.

“I was always the person to say or believe that not everyone can be characterized by their environment, by their race, by their culture, by their status or by the money that they make,” Webster said.

She said she anticipates sharing the experience with the other students and meeting some of the original Freedom Riders.

Patton, as a Tennessee State student, was participating in sit-ins at lunch counters and stand-ins at movie theaters when the rides began.

When a bus was burned in Anniston, Ala., the rides almost ended, but the students in Nashville decided to continue them.

Patton was part of a third wave of students that joined, and on May 23, 1961, he took a rental car to Montgomery, Ala., to board a bus headed to Mississippi.

The next day, he arrived in Jackson, Miss., and he and another student were arrested almost immediately at a lunch counter. He was taken to the city jail and eventually transferred to Mississippi’s Parchman State Prison Farm. In total, Patton spent 39 days behind bars.

Patton said he was excited when he heard about the student trip in May.

“Hopefully, they will see something on that trip that will make them say they want to do something to make it better for people,” he said. “Hopefully, they will carry this experience back and not just let it die, but do something.”

Scripps Howard News Service

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