“In every era, it takes a bus of change to lead the way. . . . Thankfully, a change bus is always a comin’.” So says Charles Person in his inspiring account of the 1961 Freedom Ride, Buses Are a Comin’. Person began taking notes when he got on his change bus at age 18. He would later lose those notes during a savage beating by a white mob in Birmingham, Alabama, but he still recalls it all vividly now that he’s in his 80s.
Growing up in the Bottom, a poor Black neighborhood in Atlanta, Person was unaware of racism’s reach. But when he was refused admission to Georgia Tech in 1960, despite an outstanding academic record that was good enough for MIT, he grew enraged. His grandfather prodded, “Do something!” But what could a teenager do?
Soon he knew. As a freshman at Morehouse College, Person witnessed his classmates’ participation in nonviolent sit-ins at Atlanta stores that refused service to Black people. He joined in, was arrested and served 10 days in solitary confinement because he sang protest songs too loudly.
By the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was recruiting people for nonviolent tests of two recent Supreme Court decisions prohibiting segregation on interstate buses and trains. Person applied, after assuring his parents he would be safe, and received nonviolence training in Washington, D.C. He admired his cohorts, including a young John Lewis, but was skeptical of their concerns about the trouble they might encounter en route. Before embarking on two weeks of Trailways and Greyhound bus rides to New Orleans, they were encouraged to write their wills. Person declined.
What happened on that trip almost killed these 13 riders, but their horrifying experiences brought global attention to the escalating U.S. civil rights movement. Four hundred more Freedom Riders would join them that summer, and the South would be forever changed. Person tells it all in riveting detail, with help from his friend, historian Richard Rooker.
And why tell this story now? Person writes, “Nothing will change if you, my reader, my friend, my fellow American, do not take Papa’s advice and ‘do something.’ What change needs to happen? Get on the bus. Make it happen.”