FREEDOM RIDERS board buses in Atlanta for 40th Anniversary commemoration

Saturday, May 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ Marcus Hill wasn't even born yet when the Freedom Riders _ 13 black and white civil rights activists _ boarded interstate buses in 1961 to test a new federal law against segregation.

On Saturday, the 37-year-old drove the lead bus in a caravan of original Freedom Riders for the 40th anniversary of the event.

``It's awesome,'' said Hill, who is black. ``I probably wouldn't even be driving (buses) if it wasn't for them.''

About 150 people, including several original Freedom Riders, left Atlanta Saturday morning to retrace part of the historic route where 40 years ago violent mobs of segregationists awaited them in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala. Commemorative events were planned in each city.

``I am a bit anxious,'' James Moody said before boarding the bus that would carry him to Alabama and possibly to old, painful memories.

Moody, 70, joined the cause in 1961 after a mob outside Anniston firebombed a bus carrying four Freedom Riders and beat the riders as they escaped the burning bus. Moody was arrested and beaten in Jackson, Miss., where the rides ended.

The Freedom Riders, mostly college students, set out to ride from Washington to New Orleans to test a Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation on interstate public transportation. At segregated bus stations, black riders tried to use white waiting rooms and bathrooms, while whites tried to use facilities set aside for blacks.

When the riders were beaten and arrested along the way, hundreds more joined the campaign. Eventually more than 1,000 people took part.

Ed Blankenheim, a 27-year-old student at the University of Arizona at the time, lost four teeth in the melee in Anniston. He knew what he was getting into when he joined the ride, he said Saturday, but that didn't deter him.

``I was in the Marines in South Carolina when Truman desegregated the military, but I knew my black friends and I couldn't go into town together,'' said Blankenheim, who is white. ``It just struck me as too terrible for words. So when the call came for riders, I went.''

Jim Zwerg was a young, white college student from Wisconsin when he and a young black student from Nashville _ now U.S. Rep. John Lewis _ were beaten as they tried to integrate a white waiting room in the Montgomery bus station. Zwerg provided a light touch amid the seriousness of the event.

``I don't recall our buses being air conditioned, do you?'' he joked. Zwerg also joined friends in singing anti-segregation songs before boarding.

Although he remembers the blows that fractured his teeth and cracked three vertebrae, Zwerg does not focus on them now as he reunites with some of his fellow travelers.

``The bond of love that we had then,'' he said, ``it's still with us.''