Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
Charles Person was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1942. His involvment in the movement began in his college years and primarily involved sit-ins. He eventually went on to participating in the Freedom Rides.]
We would like to start off by asking you about your general family background, when and where were you born?
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia in September of 1942.
Next we'd like you to tell your story of what you experienced during the Civil Rights Movement. We will probably ask some follow up questions afterward but we are eager to hear about your Civil Rights experience so please begin telling us your story now.
In high school I was a science and math enthusiast. I really wanted to be a scientist. I applied to a local engineering school, Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech had a very difficult entrance requirement. They required that you be certified by the county as a bona fide resident. They also required that you have two members of the alumni recommend you. Being a black person in Atlanta at the time, that was not possible. So I applied to Emory University which was a very good school as well. I sent in my application on a Monday and received my rejection on Wednesday. That was before rapid mail or overnight mail. They processed my application that quickly. I then applied to MIT and Caltech. I was accepted at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on a preliminary basis. In those days they required a two-step application to MIT; you applied in your junior year and then you applied for your final acceptance in your senior year. Based on my SAT scores and so forth, I was accepted at MIT. However, the scholarships that were available at the time didn't cover as the tuition and you didn't have the elaborate set up that you had for financial aid that you have now. So I opted not to go.
I had scholarships to Morehouse College and to Tuskegee and so forth. I had a ton of scholarships. I elected to go to Morehouse because of its reputation as a good school for black men. I entered the freshmen class at Morehouse and one of the sophomores was Hamilton Holmes, who later became the first black male to enter the University of Georgia. It was an exciting time on campus because there were a lot of things going on; with the sit-in movement and so forth. I became interested in the sit-in movement in Atlanta. They had written an article called, "An Appeal for Human Rights" which you can find on the web. [Providing an] insight on all the inequities that existed in our society.
So, I became active in the sit-in movement. I participed in all the sit-ins and all the protests that the sit-ins were conducting at that time. I was in one of the sit-ins where we were arrested. I spent sixteen days in jail. While I was in jail I was put into solitary confinement for singing too loud. That was the time of our lives. Solitary confinement is a mind blow because you're in isolation; you have no contact with any other people. The cells were very dark and dim and dank. They had one light bulb in the cell, about 40 watts, so it was very dim and it was very depressing. But, it gave me time to entertain my own thoughts and helped me to stay focused. But it was probably one of the most difficult times of my life. I'd never been in such a situation.
When I was released from jail, we continued to march and so forth. Finally, in March of the next year, we were able to achieve our goal. They began to desegregate the lunch counters in Atlanta. They considered serving the black people for many more meaningful jobs like sales clerks and so forth.
I was then solicited to participate in the Freedom Rides. I sent in my application, gave all my important information and for some reason, I was selected. For many, many, many years I never knew why they chose me to become a Freedom Rider. I later found out that the reason I was selected at the age of 18 was because I hadn't lived long enough to do anything bad. I didn't have any skeletons in my closet. I barely had a closet at that particular time. So they wanted someone who was "squeaky clean" and I guess I fit the bill. And of course, the Freedom Rides started in May of 1961.
What circumstances and events in your past impacted your decision to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
The main reason I think is that in 1957 there were the Russians and Sputnik.
["Sputnik" was the first human-made satellite. It was placed into Earth orbit by the Soviet Union, beating the United States to be "first in space." The technology to put a satelliet in orbit could also be used to launch a nuclear missile strike anywhere in the world which meant that the USSR could directly attack the US with atomic weapons (and vice-versa once America developed the same capability). The failures of American space efforts were seen as evidence that the US had fallen behind in the sciences and higher-education in general. This led to a great increase in federal funding for university programs and college-scholarships, particularly in the sciences. As a result, high school graduates from lower-income families became able to attend college. This led to a huge increase in the number of Blacks attending university. In the 1960s, a majority of the Black college students who participated in the Freedom Movement were the first ever in their families to go to college.]
Our country said they wanted scientists and I thought I fit the bill. I felt that I had the requirements academically and intellectually to be a good candidate to enter the field of science. Being a young person, I did not know how far reaching segregation and prejudice was. I knew that our country wanted people to be interested in science and math, having entered the space race at the time and to compete effectively with the Russians.
Here, I was a good student; I had all the potential, and yet I couldn't go to a local school [because they were segregated]. The tuition at Georgia Tech at the time was about $375 a semester (equal to about $3000 in 2012), believe it or not, whereas at MIT, the tuition was a little over $2,000 (equal to about $16,000 in 2012). My father worked two jobs; he worked about 17 hours a day most of the time and within those jobs he made less than $100 a week. So for me to come up with the money to go to MIT plus the transportation was unthinkable. And the only scholarships available in those days were the scholarships. It was a lot different process for scholarships and financial aid than it is today. Scholarships and grants were totally separate from student loans. Many of the students during that period, their educations were funded by grants and scholarships especially if you had the academics.
Who were the leaders you were associated with in the Civil Rights Movement? Tell us about their personalities and why they were effective or ineffective as leaders.
Well locally, we had young men and young women who were in charge. Ronnie King, he was one of the leaders. Julian Bond who ya'll have probably heard of, he was also one of the leaders. We also had a young lady by the name of Herschelle Sullivan, who was one of the leaders. We also had a young lady who wrote the Bill of Human Rights. Her name was Rosalyn Pope and she was quite instrumental in leadership.
Also we had Dr. King as an adult act as one of the supervisors who assisted us. We also had his father, Daddy King. We also had quite a few local ministers who were involved, but mostly they tried to discourage us because they wanted to do things very slow and methodically and we, being young, were impatient and wanted things to happen in a more rapid fashion. As the movement progressed, of course Dr. King brought in his staff of Jesse Jackson, Reverend Abernathy, and a lot of the people that helped out in the Montgomery Campaign. That was his first major under-taking, Montgomery, but then he helped us here in Atlanta, too. He brought a lot of common sense to practice.
In the end, we had achieved success in our boycott of the local businesses and they had finally capitulated and decided to desegregate the lunch counters. Rather than do it abruptly and overnight, he gave them time to phase it in, which was great because he taught us how to compromise. In other words, we had won, but to get the opposition and opportunity to do it in a deliberate manner we phased it in over several months rather than overnight. It would have been a tremendous shock for the community. That's why we didn't have the kind of violence here in Atlanta that a lot of other cities had. Many times the changes were so abrupt and so rapid that people, black and white, were unable to accept it and to prepare themselves for the changes that would take place.
Did you think, in your own personal opinion, that they were effective or ineffective, and what were your feelings about Dr. King?
Well, I had great respect for him. But first of all you must understand as southerners we always have respect for our elders. Even when you disagree, you're still respectful. When there is any disagreement, you discuss things and you come up with a better idea. Most of our decisions were eclectic. In other words, no one person dominated the decision making. That's why I say it was really neat because men and women, young men and young women worked together to allow that consensus. I think this is one of the reasons we were not only successful but also the reason we had the powerful following. We could get at least 5,000 students and within an hour, conduct a march or sit-in, using differet kinds of social networking in those ages. You've got to realize there was no voicernail, no cell phones, no internet or any of that. It was just word of mouth. If you could turn out that many people for a march, that is remarkable. I mean you can do it today but you have to do it by using some of the social networking techniques that are available. We were able to achieve the same type of response using the archaic methods that were available to us then.
What does Black Power mean to you and how did the Black Power Movement after 1966 impact the civil rights work that you were involved in?
I was not a Black Power advocate. That came out of Mississippi and I think that Stokely Carmichael was one of the first to use the words. Stokely was a very nonviolent person like all of us. But after he went to Mississippi and he saw the violence and hatred that existed in Mississippi, he felt that there was no way that we could reconcile [and] change these people by being nonviolent. Especially after the deaths of the three civil rights workers and all these other events and the missing bodies that showed up throughout the delta, many who will never be identified and there was just so many who were missing. I think out of frustration.
It was not only an economic thing but it also limited the white kids who had helped us who had ulterior motives. As Stokely encouraged a lot of whites who had held positions to be removed from office. Things had gotten better then. Initially blacks had very little money to put into the movement. Many of the Jews and Caucasians provided a lot of the financial aid that was able to get us out of jail. They put up their homes for bond and so forth. The Black Power Movement was basically just a transition from total nonviolence and passive resistance, because a lot of people were frustrated because people were being killed.
Of course, the Freedom Riders, were beaten severely, one bus was burned. Then you had all those who were incarcerated in Jackson, Mississippi. For a lot of folks, they just didn't know where to go, and that was just the spin off. At the time the Black Panther Movement was available and they were frustrated. It was also difficult, but we didn't know it then. That a lot of the organizations had been infiltrated by the FBI. They were in to disrupt media and to try to lead a lot of people astray. We didn't know that then, but we know that now that a lot of people who did not have our best interest at heart were involved in the movement.
Going back to the bus, you were on that [Freedom Ride] bus you said was burned, right?
No, I was not on the bus that burned; I was on the other bus.
Did anyone you were close to or even yourself get severely hurt?
The bus that I was on was the Trailways. And there is a lot written about it, but there are very few images. There is only one picture that survived, and that's the one of me being beaten in Birmingham. I'm sending you a picture and the person that's being beaten, that's me. That was the only picture that survived. There were pictures taken on the bus in Anniston, Alabama, where the bus was burned that have never been published. We had a reporter and a photographer on our bus and they took pictures but for some reason [Jet Publications?] never published it, and I'm trying to get those images released because I think it would tell the other side of the story.
They called our bus — the Trailway bus — "the other bus." We also found out that had we not taken an alternate route into Birmingham, there would have probably been two buses burned. There was another group [of whites] that was waiting for our bus and we took another route into Birmingham. That's why our bus didn't get burned. On our bus, the oldest gentleman was Dr. Walter Bergman. He was 61 years of age. He was beaten to the point that he suffered a stroke and he spent the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair. James Peck, who was my partner for the day, he ended up receiving 53 stitches. I didn't receive any treatment because none of the black doctors would treat me [because they feared white retaliation]. And of course, I couldn't be treated at the local white hospital.
A nurse and Dr. Shull put a special bandage on my wound to kind of pull it together. Because I received no treatment, I developed a large knob on the back of my skull which was there 'til 1996, I think. I had it removed, but it was to be about the size of my fist. Because I had received no treatment, the wound just drained to the back of my skull, and there it formed this huge knob. I was afraid to have it removed sooner because I didn't know what was in there. In those days, back in the 60's, many times people were stabbed in the head with ice picks or knives and the blade would break off in their skull. Even at the top of my head, it never healed. So, with the advent of the MRI, I was able to get it looked at thoroughly before they would go in and remove it. In 1996, I had an MRI conducted and lance they found there was no metal or anything imbedded in my head, then I had it removed. I haven't suffered any problems since.
What was the scariest thing that ever happened to you?
Well, I think the most frightening thing for me was when we entered the [white] waiting room in Birmingham. When all the people that were in the waiting room came toward us, James Peck and I, they surrounded us and just began to punch us with their fists. They had pipes. I was hit in the head with a pipe; James Peck immediately went down. For some reason, I was able to maintain my balance. After a while, they stopped beating me, mainly because the photographer snapped their pictures. With the flash, you see in the picture, they all look up, and they stopped beating me to go after the photographer, which allowed me to walk away. I walked away from the scene. I didn't run. I didn't protect myself or cover up on anything like that, I just walked away.
Out into the street. As fate would have it, a city bus came by and I got on and I said to the driver, take me somewhere. The driver took me about three blocks and he said, "If you go across the street, there will be someone there who can help you." And if you understood the South and how segregation worked, normally blacks lived on the downside of the train tracks. The reason for this is the trains in those days in the South burned coal. The coal would create soot. This soot would get on the windows and all over everything. So generally there was no wind to where most of the whites lived but, on our side that's where all the soot was.
Did you want to start protesting or were you pressured into doing so?
No, it was all voluntary. It became a passion. In other words, we had to see that there were going to be good results. We wouldn't have been able to see any results if we wouldn't have devoted more and more time. You developed very good study habits when you were sitting at a lunch counter and in jail. You had lots of time on your hands. So, we became better students because of it as well, because we had more time to devote to our studies. At a lunch counter, they were not going to serve you so you would sit there and use whatever time that you had. When we were arrested, the students would get their assignments and they gave them to us. Jail was very nice because they allowed us to keep our textbooks while we were in the cell. We were able to complete our assignments and get them out to some of the clergymen who came to visit us on a regular basis.
[The above describes how the arrested protesters were treated in the Atlanta jail. Treatment of arrested demonstrators varied widely across the South.]
How many times were you arrested? Was it just that once?
Yes, for me it was just that one time.
Were you afraid to ever lose anything because you were protesting, like your family, your life, or education, or a job if you had one at the time?
I think for me, as an 18 year old, losing my life that was not an issue. When you're young you don't think in those terms. It always happens to the other guy or the other girl. Education, I didn't realize what was going to happen there because Atlanta was unique. It had a lot of schools. In Tennessee, they expelled the kids, but in Atlanta they're being politically correct. They see things in a different manner. What they did was they modified your grade to the point that even though you had a good GPA, you didn't have what we called quality points. So what happened was most of us would have had to extend our education by a year or more. It's like spending the year of money and time and getting no credit for it. Many people left like I did.
Finally, because of my family and fear of my being killed that I chose to go into the Marine Corps. I don't know if that makes any sense, but if you joined the Army the chances of you going to war are much greater than if you're on a picket line or in a demonstration. I didn't hear anything at the time because I was optimistic and most of us were optimistic that everything was going to be all right in the end.
It said on the sheets that you faxed us — thank you for those by the way — it said that you have your own family now. Did you meet your wife during your activity in the civil rights movement, or did you meet her somewhere else?
No, I met her when I came back to Atlanta after I retired. I lived in Cuba for awhile and ran a business there and then came back to Atlanta. It's amazing I hadn't met her before because she was a student in the Atlanta University Center. I played sports and her house was just blocks away from where I spent a lot of my time in the summertime. It just had to be the right time for us to meet.
Were there a lot of women that you know that actually played a big part in the Civil Rights Movement or was it mostly men?
We were in balance. One of the most notable women in the Civil Rights Movement — I don't know if you've heard of her — was Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson. She was very active in SNCC. She was a Freedom Rider. She was just a ball of fire. She was involved in a lot of things. Of course, you've seen or heard of Ella Baker. She was involved in the planning of the Tennessee state contingent of the Freedom Ride. There were a lot of women who were involved in leadership of the movement; it wasn't limited to just the men.
Do you think that because the women participated, do you think that they were hurt more severely, just because they were participating in it, or do you think that was equal too?
It depends on the campaign. In Alabama, they used water hoses indiscriminately on men and women. They would sic dogs on men and women. And of course, the police would rough them up. One of the things that we tried to do is try to put a man in position to take the brunt of the force because you see in those days you have to realize that women didn't wear pants when you went to school, they wore dresses and they had petticoats. I don't know if you're familiar with that term.
So, on there was a certain sense of modesty. Say if the police were picking on a young lady who was sitting in or what have you, a guy would come and more or less interpose so they would take him rather than do something to the girls. Early on there were very few women involved in arrests, and it was if we were being arrested or removed from a restaurant, it was only done by men.
Thank you for sharing that. Going back to the Martin Luther King topic, how did you think the assassination impacted the movement if it did?
The biggest thing in those days was getting the word out because most people who did not live in the South could not believe what was happening. Dr. King, having been so successful in Montgomery, had some star power. He was gaining fame for himself. For most of the demonstrators, that's why he was asked to go so many places and even to the last place that he went, Memphis, was because he brought a certain amount of star power but also the campaign needed money to run. You need bail money, you need food money because you are out on the picket line, where we come off the picket line generally food was donated or money was donated to buy food for the picketers. What he provided was credibility, I guess.
Also people would rather negotiate with Dr. King because he was nonviolent. You have to realize there were quite a few elements in the black community who were not nonviolent, he gave an alternative. You either deal with Dr. King in a nonviolent element, or you deal with the Black Panthers or you deal with the Muslim community or some of the other fringe groups. You play good guy, bad guy; good cop, bad cop in those situations. Also, he had great negotiating skills and a super intellect. I don't know if you've ever read his writings or heard interviews or speeches other than his "I Have a Dream" speech. Some of his other speeches, I think, are a lot more informative and a lot more powerful. They show tremendous intellect. He was well-read; he was quite knowledgeable about civil disobedience, Thoreau and Emerson and those guys. It was just a tremendous wealth of knowledge he brought to the rest of us.
Did you ever meet Dr. King in person or talk to him?
Oh, yes. It's unlike today, we didn't seek the photo-ops. Dr. King was doing things that were eventually going to make him famous, but at the time he was such a down to earth person. I remember we were conducting a march one day and we were coming down to the major street in Atlanta. He stopped and went into a poolroom and he talked to the guys in there to let them know the importance of what we were doing and how they [could] contribute in some small measure to our success. He was the type of guy who could talk to the guys on the block and not be condescending, and he could talk with presidents and kings. That was the unique ability Dr. King had was that he made everyone feel at ease and comfortable. Sometimes people in leadership positions are condescending in their talk and their mannerisms, and he never was that way. He was very down to earth and made us all, whether we were students or just a guy on the block, feel our own worth.
What did you think when you heard the news that Dr. King was killed?
There was anger because you don't know what's going to happen to the movement. I was initially disappointed when he got involved in the labor thing. The labor movements throughout our country have all had a hint of violence, whether it's people breaking picket lines and stuff like that. I felt personally that I wish he had stayed with civil rights and not so much that form of the economic aspect. I think that the Poor People's Campaign was being planned at the time. It was bringing together all the elements of a typical community. It was supposed to bring together the whites from Appalachia, the Native Americans from the Southwest, and Blacks. It was a unique undertaking because nothing had ever been done on that scale. I think everyone was frightened. Here's a guy who was pulling together all these segments of our society, because a lot of people were not aware that poverty in Appalachia was just as bad as it was in the inner city with the blacks and reservations for Native Americans.
What did you think of other events that took place like sit-ins or marches?
These were all forms of protest we called nonviolent actions. We also did petitions. There were all sorts of ways of getting our message across so that people knew there were other things we did not like. Marches were effective because you got a lot of people involved who may not have been involved. Marches were good because a lot of people could not do a sit-in. At a sit-in you could be spat upon, have cigarettes put out on you. They would pour ketchup or coffee on you, all kinds of stuff. A lot of people didn't have the temperament to do that. In Atlanta, if you were not nonviolent, then you could not participate in those kinds of activities. We had other things you could do. You could make sandwiches for the people coming in from a march or sit-in, or make signs and so forth. But, if you could endure whatever mistreatment was presented, then you were allowed to participate. We never had any violence in the marches or sit-ins that we conducted in Atlanta.
Who were some of the people that were always by your side?
I worked with two guys in particular. They were Frank Holloway, who also ended up being a Freedom Rider, and Leon Green. The three of us were called "the guerillas" because we could go into any restaurant or lunch counter and close it down, just us. Frank was tall and intimidating. I was a short runt. But together, we could get the job done. We closed a lot of restaurants and we caused them to lose a lot of money. Just the sight of us at a restaurant, we'd sit strategically at a 40-foot counter, just the three of us.
At first they would arrest us, but then they stopped arresting us because we'd fill up the jail. That's why we only had one arrest in Atlanta because they realized that it was costing the county and the city an awful lot of money to house us. They had to feed us and the thing is they couldn't feed us like they did regular prisoners. We ate well and lived well in jail. I don't know why they did it, but when we left jail, the normal inmates were a little upset because they knew the food would go back the way it used to be. They used to pipe music into us. It was just ironic. We were in a brand new jail. A lot of things changed while the students were in there and the regular prisoner population was a little disappointed when we left, because they knew things were not going to remain that way.
That's a lot of people if you filled up the jails.
We were having about 70 to 80 students a day. You have to realize in Atlanta at the time, we had five colleges, black colleges, that were actively involved. Most of the white universities that were involved did so under the table because they did not have responsible people on the staff or faculties who would support black liberation at that time.
Would you say that you have any regrets?
I guess if I had any regrets, I think that me, and my peers have lost focus. We used to be a people who treasured and loved education and now I think we take it for granted. We don't have the desire to excel. That was preached as we grew up, in church and in school; to do your best always and to seek more and more knowledge. I think the present generation doesn't have that as a goal. Somehow I think things happened so fast that we didn't consolidate our gains. We had ancestors who instilled in us the desire to be our best. I think as things got better and people began to make more and more money and were able to buy all the things that successful people do, that we lost focus on that intellectual guidance or inner accomplishment that you need to be successful not only materially, but also intellectually. I think that's the greatest regret.
If we could achieve what we did in a segregated society, today with computers and all the technology, if we had the same focus, can you imagine the same achievement that would be available? I don't think we have maximized what we have today, academically and technologically to realize how much more our country would be and how much more successful. Just think of it, you know Steve Jobs has died and you've got Bill Gates. You wonder why it is that two white guys have generated most of the technology that is used in the world, not just in America, but in the world. My mind tells me that there are women out there, black men out there, or Hispanic Americans that have the same brain power but somehow have not been able to harness it. So, I think that intellectually when we start maximizing our potential that we will not only be better as a country but we could be better overall.
How would your life be different if you had not been involved in the movement?
I probably would have been just a typical nerd on a typical college campus. Really, I would be part of the "me" generation; looking out for me and my own interests and not the interests of black people. For example, there are folks who think that girls can't learn mathematics, but in my class in my high school we had an equal number of men and women who excelled in math and science.
What advice would you give our generation on racial relations?
Well, two things. First, read as much as you can, learn as much as you can, and be open-minded. Just because I disagree doesn't mean I have to be disagreeable. Nothing says that I have to agree with you, but I think I owe respect. We all bring different aspects into a conversation. When we learn to respect one another and listen to one another and discuss things to learn and compromise, I think that you'd be surprised at how much we can achieve. You guys are our future.
The main thing is knowledge. And read! You really have to expand your horizons. Look at what we were reading in the 60's, the books that were important to us. When blacks and whites began to socialize, we used to share the books that blacks were reading and whites started reading and vice versa. I think it gave more understanding because we all realized that there is a commonality that exists among us. It's just amazing how now we are so narrow-minded because we don't want to read. We listen to certain talk shows or we watch certain programs, and the base of all our knowledge comes from these programs instead of reading. I know that magazines and newspapers are not the most popular things to read now, we're gathering stuff from the internet. We get snippets here and there, but it's still important that you read. Maybe a Kindle will work for you, but I still like the feel of a book in my hand. I guess that's the only wealth I really have is books. I own a lot of books because I want to know stuff and I want my kids to be able to know.
Thank you very much for that advice. We've been reading the book, Eyes on the Prize, and it's interesting to hear your stories about people that we've actually read about. We all read the papers you faxed us, and we found it all interesting that today you are involved in a lot of other organizations. Could you tell us about that?
Well, I think the most interesting thing that I've done is I'm involved with the Boy Scouts. I think it's a very good program. I think of my scouts, we are unique because I think my teaching lessons are rather unique.
Also, I was a tutor at my church. I think that's the most rewarding job because when you're raising your own kids, you know what their shortcomings are. But when you are tutoring other folks' kids and you see how lacking equality the schools are, or their home life is. You learn that all kids can learn, however, you have to find a way of reaching them. This last year I had the most interesting class. I was trying to interest my young people in reading and I couldn't find some genre or material that they would be interested in. I finally came up with the idea that they liked to read about rap musicians. After finding enough material for them to read, that was the way I was able to open the door. It takes work, and I know for a teacher that has a class of 20 or more students, it's very difficult to seek out a way to find what each student needs to get him or her motivated. But that's the kind of effort it takes when your kids come from different involvements and different background. They don't all start off the same, unfortunately. So you as a teacher or a tutor have to find a way to reach these kids. It's just remarkable how difficult it is to teach young people because they do have such varied backgrounds and such varied beginnings.
About the KKK (Ku Klux Klan), you said you were abused twice, or attacked. How did that happen?
Well, the Klan was one of several organizations that spread violence. But the Klan were generally the ones who instigated the violence. They were the active arm. You had the White Citizens Council which was generally upper-class whites who had a financial stake. The Klan was like these low-income, low-intellect in many cases who were convinced to go out and commit these crimes. We were confronted in Anniston, Alabama, which was the most violent element of the Klan. They had one of the most violent organizations in Alabama. But see, the word had gone out that for any Klansmen who wanted to beat up on blacks, all they had to do is come to Birmingham or to Anniston. They put these out to any Klansmen within the Southeast who wanted to take part to come to Alabama. So, it wasn't just an Alabama Klan, there were others from Mississippi, and I'm sure there were some from Georgia. They at times would put on regalia. They wore hoods, robes, and so forth. They would try to intimidate you. But they found out that the young blacks were not intimidated by them. I don't know if you know the story behind the Klan regalia, their hoods and their robes go back to reconstruction time. They were to resemble ghosts or something, and it was to frighten you, to intimidate you. But that stuff didn't bother us. I mean even the threat of firearms didn't stop us.
One of the endings is very interesting about the Freedom Rides. After the bus was burned and we were beaten, and then the Nashville kids came down. Jim Zwerg and John Lewis were beaten. I know you saw the iconic picture of Jim sort of leaning against the building bleeding horribly. In spite of that, kids continued to come from all over the country. What started off with 13 of us and the 20 kids out of Nashville, by the end of the Freedom Rides, we had over 400 people who had become involved. So they knew that something was gonna happen. We either were gonna get beaten, or burned, or were gonna be incarcerated. You have to keep continuing to come, and that's amazing, you know, that people came from all over the country.
We even had two foreign students who came and they didn't know what to do with them. We had one young man from Indonesia. They would separate you to put you in jail, and he got into the line with the whites. They say, "No, you don't belong with us." So he got in line with the other whites and they say, "No, you don't belong there." So he didn't know where to go. So they finally ended up letting him go. We also had a young white lady who was blind. Of course, they didn't want to lock her up because they would fear that this blind young lady was arrested for sitting-in with these black students. So they let her go.
There were a lot of things that were very unusual that the Klan and the FBI and law enforcement had to deal with. No, we were not intimidated by the Klan even though we knew they had the ability to kill. With the Freedom Riders from Nashville, they let them out of jail at night and drove them to the Tennessee border. That was frightening for them because they just could have easily been killed, and nobody would've ever known what had happened to them. Because, you know, when you let somebody out of jail at night in a small southern town, anything could happen. Law enforcement would have a good alibi, "Well, we let them go." It's especially dangerous when you have little money you know, and no means of transportation.
Were you old enough to understand what happened to Emmitt Till? I know you heard about it when you got a little older and you could actually understand it, but were you old enough to understand it at the time that it happened?
Yes, I think that's what started it all. I mean Montgomery was a movement, but when Jet Magazine published the picture of Emmitt Till in the coffin, I think that got to most of us. I mean, it made no sense. To whistle at someone — if that is the case, or even to make a cat call — does not give you the right to take someone's life. Emmitt Till was a catalyst in the old South because of those images. I actually have a copy of that Jet Magazine, that has those images in there. It was gut-wrenching, believe me. Have you seen the images of Emmitt Till?
A few in the book we are reading. The images that we saw were very excruciating, it was very gory. There was a lot of blood involved in it. We saw a picture of his mother when she found out that he was killed. I think that it was interesting to have her leave the casket open. I also think it was the right thing to do. What is your take on that?
I think so too. You have to realize, you had to explain everything because a lot of people did not believe it. The news radio played a very important part in our success because most of the country could not believe some of the things that were happening in the South. Like voting, we had literacy tests and they would ask some questions like, "How many knives in a bunch of knives?" "How many jelly beans in a jar?" Things that they knew that you did not know the answer to. The idea was to give you a test that they knew you couldn't pass. Ironically, most times the register had very little education themselves.
In Atlanta, one of the requirements as a [high school] senior was to go down and register once you turned 18. The only thing Georgia required is that you had to read a paragraph out of the Georgia or United States Constitution. If you successfully read and supposedly understood what that passage was, then you were allowed to register to vote. But in other places they had literacy tests and some places had a poll tax. Most black men in those days made less than $50 a week and money was very scarce. So where you spent your money was very important. That was one reason we didn't have a lot of guns. When you're that short on money to go buy a gun just to have for protection was nonsense. You may have had an old hunting gun, a shotgun or something like that, but you know you didn't have a lot of money that you could divert for stuff like that in those days. That was basically how it was.
Did your kids, when they were younger, ask a lot about your story and do you think they have a better education since you were actually involved in it?
I think as they got older. We hadn't talked about it for many, many years. I didn't talk about it. They would ask about the knot on my head and I would explain to them. Then with the internet, they would Google my name and they were calling out "Is this the same person?" And I said, "Yes that was me." Then they got to understand. I think as more information became available, more articles taken from the library and so forth, the internet made it very easy. Like for example, if you wanted to know what happened to most of us, Google Books has almost all the old black publications like Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine. Those books are alive today so you can see pictures and stories that were written then that normally you would have had to go to a library, to a good archives to locate this information. But see, Google Books makes it very easy. I saw pictures in there that I had never seen because we were still on the road during the Freedom Rides. I didn't get a chance to read those articles. There was only one picture that showed me with a bandage on my head which is in one of the Ebony Magazines. The June issue showed me and from the back, my wound was kind of unique. If you see the picture of me being attacked, I was bent over, and so it was more on the back of my head. So from the front you couldn't see anything except there was a little blood all. the back of my shirt. There was very little on the front of my shirt and so forth.
This is going to be our last question. How do you think America has been dealing with racism today, and do you think there is a need for more civil rights activism?
I think we still have our heads in the sand and there are still elements that do not give other nationalities and other races credit. I think that all kids can learn; I know that they can. They can excel. Many times the school system, for whatever reasons, is based on housing patterns. Usually you have one school that is predominately one race more than the other. And many times the resources are not allocated equally. Even today you find that kids are not prepared.You have situations where there's a gap in knowledge and in the end, there ends up being a gap in income because we are compensated based all. our knowledge and ability to work.
Another thing that I think has hurt and created a lot of bitterness is affirmative action. Affirmative action's intent was a good idea, but people don't understand human nature. For example, when I came back to Georgia, I wanted to go to a certain school and [the] minority scholarships required a SAT of 700, and the general scholarships required a SAT of 1100. Well I was not gonna take a minority scholarship because my SAT was a lot higher than 700. But you as the student said all you gonna need is 700, that's all you gonna get is 700, because hey, that's all I need. But if you set the bar higher and make it competitive, affirmative action was not to us, to dumb down a test and so forth. Affirmative action was initially, it was like, so if you got a student of equal ability, then you should be weighed that the ways in the past it was always given to whites even if they had a better score or better credentials or not they got it regardless. Also, affirmative action was to look at people based on all their abilities, not to tell this guy that, I'm gonna give you a 400 point advantage and you can see why people get upset.
Let's face it, when you guys get ready to go to college and they tell you, you got to have a SAT of 1800 to get into the school you want to go to, and then you're going in with somebody with 1000 or 900, you're going to be upset. So, I think the affirmative action problems in most countries have created this animosity between the races. Instead of bringing them together, it has created bitterness because if you're trying to get into a law school or a medical school or any one of the big disciplines, it's frustrating when you work just as hard as you can, and when somebody who doesn't have to work as hard gets that slot and you don't, it changes your feelings about them.
But most of us, all I've ever asked in most blacks is that if you give me a fair shake, I will succeed. I know I will because I will compete to the max with anyone. So, racism still exists and I think there are a lot of things in our country that we do that doesn't bring us together. First of all, we don't dialog enough. We don't talk, and you realize that we have more alike than we are different and we also realize that America works best when we work together. Look what happened after 9/11. People, all of us, worked together to get things done, and if we do that for an every day basis, whenever there's a hurricane or a tornado or something comes through, we will all pitch in, roll up our sleeves and we get the job done.
But lately, it just seems that we are finding fault in one another, and when you find fault it justifies your actions whether it's the right thing to do or whether it's the wrong thing to do, and we have a mood in this country. Now it's you don't do what's best for the country, you do what's best for your own group, or your constituency instead of doing what's best for the country because we have the brain power in this country to do any and everything. And my goal is that how can you unify the goodness that this country has because Americans can achieve anything, I know that, I mean we are a resourceful nation, and we have, it's just amazing what we are capable of doing when we work together.
Charles Person resides in Atlanta, Georgia, and has five children. He is a tutor with his church, and a member of the executive committee of the Atlanta branch of NAACP.]
Interviewed and Transcribed by: Tre Lemmer, Dustin Koppa, & Victoria Lemke
Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013
See Atlanta Sit-ins and Freedom Rides for background & more information.