Freedom Rider visits Weber for second year


Charles Person is one of the original Freedom Riders, and one of only three still living. He visited Weber on October 18. (The RamPage/Sam Halpern)

Sam Halpern

By the time he was 20 years old, Charles Person had been attacked, beaten, bloodied, and slurred. One of the original thirteen Freedom Riders from 1961—and one of only three still living—Person experienced firsthand the policies and culture of segregation in his journey across the South.

Initially located and contacted last year by then-senior Becca Frenkel for Mitch White’s Topeka to Memphis civil rights class, Person came back to Weber for a second year on October 18 to speak with students about his experiences, as well as perspectives on current race relations in the U.S. today. Senior Hannah Ripans, who is in White’s class, chose to host Person for one of her required projects.

For the curriculum of his class, White encourages students to find those still living who experienced the civil rights movement firsthand. This year, as part of that effort, on October 3, students were also able to hear from Annette Jones White, a participant in the unsuccessful campaign to desegregate Albany, Georgia.

Originally from Atlanta, Person, now 75, was a stellar student and was in a special math program in high school where he was taught calculus (which was unusual then). With excellent SAT scores and grades and with the goal of becoming a nuclear engineer, he applied to Georgia Tech, but was rejected because of discrimination in the admissions process. Instead, he enrolled at Morehouse College, where he first became engaged in the civil rights movement.

“[I had] the impetus to get involved in all the civil rights activities that were happening on campus,” Person says in a project published by the University of Missouri. “Once I got involved, it was infectious—anything that had to do with protests, I was there. My life revolved around it, I did my homework and my assignments around sitting-in.”

Person told students that organizers handpicked the original thirteen Freedom Riders because they wanted them to have “squeaky clean” records. At 18 years old, he was the youngest chosen.

When the group started out, first leaving Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, their goal was to challenge and “test” segregation policies wherever they could—starting with “any facility that the bus stations offered.” He described that as the Freedom Riders made each stop, the white members of the group would go to the areas marked for blacks, and vice-versa.

By the end of of the summer of 1961, hundreds of people had participated in the Freedom Rides. Of those who were white, roughly one-third were Jewish.

Now retired from being an electrician with Atlanta Public Schools, Person occasionally comments on current racial issues. In an interview in August about the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, Person told the New York Daily News that he had thought the country had matured. In reference to a photo comparison circulated online that showed the similarities between people being beaten in Charlottesville and Freedom Riders being beaten in Alabama in the 1960s, Person said, “I wasn’t prepared for that. Not in this day and time.”

At Weber, one student asked Person his thoughts on the current “Take a Knee” movement, where one kneels or sits down during the National Anthem at athletic events. Person offered criticism for those he believes are taking the movement out of context from protesting shootings of unarmed African-Americans to accuse protesters of being disrespectful.

“The point of a protest is to get people angry,” he said. “Now [the protest is] not about the kids who were shot unarmed.”

Other questions included how young people today can support civil rights and blacks. In response, Person advised students to applaud success and support education. Person also left students with one piece of reasoning to guide them: “If you had the ability to change the world, would you?”

Editor’s Note: The student who wrote this story is in Mr. White’s Topeka to Memphis class.