Rep. John Lewis in Montgomery for 45th Anniversary of Freedom Rides
On Saturday May 20, Rep. John Lewis will join other participants in the Freedom Ride movement, including Jim Zwerg, Rev. Solomon Seay, his colleague congressional colleague Rep. Artur Davis, State Sen. Quinton Ross, and other state and local officials to commemorate the 45th anniversary of this historic activism. They will attend ceremonies in Montgomery including the unveiling of a plaque at the home of Dr. Richard Harris (333 Jackson St.) at 2:30 PM and Rep. Lewis will address celebrants during a program sponsored by the Alabama Historical Commission at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery beginning at 5:00 PM. The First Baptist Church was formerly pastored by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, top aide to Martin Luther King, Jr.
On May 4, 1961, 12 young Americans, both black and white, determined to desegregate public transportation by sharing seats on a Greyhound bus trip through the Deep South. The Supreme Court had recently decided that segregation on interstate transportation was unconstitutional and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) decided to test that strategy by developing what became known as the Freedom Rides. Lewis participated in the first ride beginning in Washington, DC and planned to end up in New Orleans on the 7th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, May 17, 1961.
Rep. John Lewis, then 21-years-old and an active participant in the Nashville lunch counter sit-in movement, was one of the first participants selected for the ride. He shared his seat with another 21-year-old Wisconsin resident, Jim Zwerg. Their trip was largely uneventful as they traveled through Maryland, Virginia and other states, until they reached the outskirts of Anniston, Alabama where the bus was stopped and surrounded by an angry mob of 200 people. The riders, including Lewis and Zwerg, were attacked and beaten and the bus was firebombed.
The riders were separated by race, arrested, and Lewis and his fellow protestors were subsequently released and left at the Alabama state border by the police. They thought they would probably be lynched, but they were able to find shelter at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Richard Harris, who at the risk of their own lives hid Lewis and the other riders for four days until they could be rescued. Then Attorney-General Robert Kennedy had to declare martial law and require a National Guard escort to allow Lewis and others to continue the rides.
Dr. Harris was a former Tuskegee Airman and a registered pharmacist in Montgomery who owned Dean Drug Store. The store was a center for local activism in Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement, but was destroyed as a part of a local development project. Altogether 400 young men and women participated in the Freedom Rides that successfully brought an end to segregation in public transportation in America.