As remembered by Joan
February 28, 2010
Remembering Hellen O'Neal McCray
In 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 17,900,000 African American citizens. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public transportation across state lines unconstitutional, none of them could sit anywhere they wanted on trains and busses in the South, nor could they use lunch counters or restrooms in train stations and bus depots. They could not share a seat on a train or bus or lunch counter with any of the other 179,323,175 Americans. Over my dead body if necessary, Freedom Riders said. In small groups dedicated to nonviolently resisting evil, they bought tickets, boarded busses and trains and left the safety of home to plunge into the heart of Southern segregation. Jailed, beaten, abused in inhuman ways, the Freedom Riders persisted. They took down those "whites only" and "colored" signs. As Diane McWhorter later wrote, the Rides seemed to be "one of history's rare alchemical phenomena, altering the structural makeup of everything they touched."
Few Americans chose to be Freedom Riders. The best list names 436. Nineteen year old Jackson State College sophomore Hellen O'Neal [McCray] was arrested and tried and jailed along with Freedom Riders.
The 40th Freedom Rider reunion in Jackson, Mississippi, had a space to talk about women. My 15 minute speech was whacked down to 2 minutes — the preceding speakers, all men, had used up all the time. Never mind, we said. And so through the two days, we women Freedom Riders held our own sessions — on busses, at receptions, over coffee. Another woman who didn't make the official Freedom Rider roster, Mary Sibley Little-Vance (Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley's daughter), didn't make the official Freedom Rider roster. She was in Montgomery ready to board a bus for Jackson when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told her that she was too young. Mary did get herself arrested picking up her friend, Margaret Leonard, the first blonde, blue-eyed white female Southern Freedom Rider. With Rose Gladney, a southerner born too late to go Freedom Riding, and others, we talked about those days. We talked about how our mothers never raised us to go to jail, but did raise us to know evil and to stand against it. Above all, we had that quiet satisfaction of knowing that when the call came, we answered.
Even in the Freedom Rider group, young people and women were in the minority. Only a fourth of the Freedom Riders were women and a fourth and fastened again that special bond, we realized that we who were brave when we were young grew to be bold women.
Helen O'Neal McCray's passing shortens the always brief Freedom Rider roll call. She will be sorely missed at the 50th Freedom Rider reunion next year. You will always be present in our hearts, dear Helen. May learning that she held a special place in the hearts of all Freedom Riders bring to her family a measure of solace.