Buses are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider – Charles Person with Richard Rooker

This is the single best coming-of-age memoir I have ever read. I have read and enjoyed many. It is 1961, and eighteen-year-old Charles Person needs his parents” permission to become the youngest of the original Freedom Riders of 1961. James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) led up the plan to test the right of black and white people to use non-segregated interstate buses and use the facilities and amenities in the bus depots. The U.S. Supreme Court decided a pair of cases establishing these rights, but blatantly segregated buses, waiting rooms, depot restaurants, station restrooms, and even shoeshine stands remained the norm in the Jim Crow South. This was the freedom ride that led to the iconic photo of a Greyhound bus burning in a white mob’s effort to stop the Freedom Riders from continuing on their journey – actually, to kill them if possible. Pearson was on the Trailways bus that Mother’s Day, but his team was not spared. They were beaten to a pulp, enduring lifelong medical problems from their injuries, these black and white men and women fighting for equal rights for people of color. I was a seven-year-old white girl in a conservative city in Pennsylvania when they rode, with a mommy who was a civil rights activist and a daddy who supported her work. I heard about the burning Greyhound bus and had a rudimentary understanding of the lunch counter sit-ins and Jim Crow. Some years ago, I read the voluminous, amazing, and scholarly book on the 1961 Freedom Riders by Raymond Arsenault. I’ve read articles and interviews and thought I got it. And then I read Buses Are a Comin: Memoir of a Freedom Rider. I don’t say this to make a point about me. I say this to remind us all that there is more to learn: There is always more to learn. Always more that can bring deeper understanding. This is an eloquent, beautifully written, and compelling book, with wonderful use of the protest/freedom songs of the era. It is a different telling of a well-known story. Its strength lies in illustrating this two weeks in May 1961 through the eyes of a very young man with a year of college and some protests and sit-ins under his belt. Person’s voice is authentic. He shares enough to help us understand how he processed and experienced this journey: leaving Georgia on a bus for the first time, working with famous activists, training for nonviolent responses to violent treatment, breaking bread with supporters, befriending the older white riders on his team, and moving on, moving on until they were too battered to take one more bus. And when they could do no more, hundreds of others took up the job for the rest of that summer, riding buses all over the south in various groupings by race, sitting in the “wrong” seats, always an observer riding as a “regular” customer to help out if the others got arrested. We know that and certainly, I’ve tried to imagine what it was like to be part of this harrowing summer made up of many individual journeys. Person lets us in. He takes us on the bus and tells his very personal story and he does it engagingly and freshly.

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