An unidentified "Freedom Rider" sticks his head out of a chartered bus window in Jackson, Miss., having arrived from New York, Aug. 14, 1961. These black and white Riders challenged the rule of segregation by entering waiting rooms labeled "colored" or "White" thus testing a Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation on interstate public transportation. (AP Photo)

By Ariama C. Long,
Report for America Corps Member

This year marks the 61st anniversary of the 1961 Freedom rides through the segregated South, aimed at dismantling the Jim Crow system looming over the transportation industry at the time. 

Freedom Riders risked life and limb protesting illegal and often violent racial segregation throughout the South.

Recently, the riders were honored at a ceremony celebrating the 61st anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Riders from Queens, N.Y. Some of the men and women who got on the bus that day so many years ago were in attendance on July 26 at the gathering inside of Queens Borough Hall. 

“We are here because 61 years ago, 436 brave souls left their schools, houses of worship, homes, friends, and family and decided they would risk their lives to change ours,” said Queens Borough President Richard Donovan. 

Percy Sutton is the former president of New York City’s borough of Manhattan, who is photographed here with his wife Leatrice. Sutton was a Freedom Rider, Tuskegee airman, the first Black JAG military lawyer, and a member of the NAACP. (AP Photo)

Rabbi Moshe Shur opened the ceremony with a song and recalled his time preaching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He credited Dr. King’s legacy with being the inspiration for him becoming a rabbi.

Freedom Riders were an intensely diverse group of protesters, Black, White, young, old, Christian and Jewish, that ended up arrested and viciously beaten by racist mobs on their historic bus rides in the South. The national attention the riders drew became yet another major linchpin in the movement for civil rights.

Donovan was especially appreciative of the political impact of the riders, he said, being the first Black man elected in Queens County to the borough president’s office. He commended the heroes in the front row who as young adults boarded buses to the South with determination to make change. 

“Despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision to outlaw racist practices, some states decided to follow their own set of rules. Those states’ rules ignored the end of Jim Crow,” said Donovan. 

Honorees include Lew Zuchman, Luvaghn Brown, Bob Heller, and Paul Breines. Manhattan Deputy Borough President Keisha Sutton-James told the story of her grandfather, Percy Sutton. 

The elder Sutton, when he was 40 years old, was a Freedom Rider, Tuskegee Airman, the first Black JAG military lawyer, a NAACP member, and a former Manhattan borough president, she said.

Sutton-James said that her grandfather was from San Antonio, Texas and had been beaten bloody by police officers before eventually making his way to New York City. 

“He had witnessed neighbors and friends being forced to cower frankly to White domination in the South,” said Sutton-James.

Freedom riders stand at ticket counter of the bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, May 24, 1961 as they purchase tickets to continue their ride through the south. At center is integration leader Rev. Martin Luther King. (AP Photo)

She said that her grandfather was by no means “fearless” on those harrowing bus rides. That he was in fact terrified, but facing his fear by going back into the terror of White supremacy he had experienced in his youth. 

“It was a mission for him to effectively face the fear and muster the courage,” said Sutton-James. “I remember him talking about entering hostile territory and how the fear mounted and mounted from all those prior experiences of being terrorized were mounting on this hours-long bus ride from Atlanta to Montgomery.”

Councilmember Nantasha Williams in New York City’s District 27 was excited to speak before the honorees. 

“I know that I stand here because of people like you and if it wasn’t for people like you putting their lives on the line, I would not have the opportunity to serve the great 27th council district as a council representative,” said Williams. “We still have so many injustices right here in our city. Whether it’s police brutality, the continued attack on voting rights or the continued attack on our body—it is still important that we continue to highlight living legends like yourself.”

Councilmember Selvena Brooks-Powers in District 31 added that defying a “regressive and racist government” is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s, referring to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and an end to the federal law that protected legal abortions. 

“An unrepresentative Supreme Court has taken away the rights of women. We have seen upticks in violence and hateful rhetoric against racial and ethnic minorities as well as LGBTQ+ communities. These fights are interconnected,” said Brooks-Powers. “When one group is denied justice, we all know what the saying is, others are not far behind that.”

The event was co-sponsored by SCAN-Harbor, Queens College, Queens Jewish Community Council, NAACP Jamaica Branch, and the Brandeis Association.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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