The Freedom Riders

Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

By land and by sky, Black and white Freedom Riders boarded buses, trains and planes, together, to protest racial segregation on public transportation in the South.

Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr. spoke to the audience following a performance of the play Freedom Rider at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. could see himself as he watched the matinée performance of “Freedom Rider,” an Alabama Shakespeare Festival play in April about civil rights activists whose 1960s travels put them behind bars and into hospitals.

The “Freedom Rides” was a campaign by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1961 to desegregate public transportation throughout the South out of Washington, D.C. 

As portrayed on stage, LaFayette could remember his father not signing his permission form to participate in a Freedom Ride, “because I’m not going to sign my son’s death warrant.”

LaFayette remembers writing his will during his bus trip into the Jim Crow South.

The Florida native remembered writing his will during his bus trip into the Jim Crow South. And he remembered his Freedom Rider moment, when he and others – including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis – were savagely beaten in Montgomery.

Hezekiah Watkins arrived late in his effort to see the Freedom Riders in his hometown. But being late made him right on time to become part of the family of Freedom Riders.

And Kredelle Petway and her brother, the Rev. Alphonso K. Petway Sr., were part of a family affair as they took to the air to venture into Freedom Rider history.

The journeys of the men and women who braved passage to the Deep South in pursuit of civil rights for all are as varied as the cities and towns from which they came. Here are some of those stories.

Kredelle Petway’s Freedom Rider experience is literally her calling card. She proudly displays her business cards that include her arrest mugshot from her days fighting segregation at airports. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Broken Silence, Broken Bones

LaFayette remembers an eerie quiet as the Freedom Ride bus rolled into Montgomery. No one was on the street despite having people scheduled to pick them up.

The silence was broken as a mob burst through the doors of the bus station. The mob initially targeted journalists, throwing them down in the streets, stomping them and breaking their cameras over their heads because they didn’t want this story told.

They just were wild—they had pitchforks and hoes and all kinds of stuff like that.

“They just were wild,” says LaFayette. “They had pitchforks and hoes and all kinds of stuff like that.”

LaFayette wanted someone among the Freedom Riders to survive, so he tried to get the female riders into taxi cabs to escape what was to come. They refused to leave their compatriots behind.

“I decided okay, we’re all going to go down together,” LaFayette recalls. “I said, ‘Join hands, form a circle, and sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ That’s what happened.”

Now a professor at Auburn University, LaFayette remembers sustaining three cracked ribs from the savage attack. But the lingering wounds come with the memories of the mob-inflicted injuries of his fellow riders.

“That was the nearest I came to getting permanently injured, or killed,” LaFayette says “They were pretty rough.”

LaFayette’s most vivid memory was the attack on William Barbee, a student at the American Baptist College in Nashville. Attackers threw him down on the bus station platform. “They put a brogan shoe on his chin and his face and his neck and forced a lead pipe down his ear,” LaFayette says. “That was the worst thing I saw.

“They hit John Lewis (the late U.S. Representative) in the head with a Coca-Cola crate, and the metal strip on the edge of the crate was the thing that put the gash in his head,” he says. “And then Jim Zwerg, they knocked him over the rail where the buses come in.”

Zwerg, a white exchange student at Fisk University, was repeatedly knocked over that rail, although he couldn’t swear to it.

They would pick him up, stand him up and knock him over the rail again. They knocked all of his teeth out.

“It was only about 12 years ago that Zwerg acknowledged he didn’t know that they had knocked him over five times,” LaFayette says. “When they hit him the first time, he was knocked out. They would pick him up, stand him up and knock him over the rail again. They knocked all his teeth out.”

LaFayette actually became a Freedom Rider during the Christmas holiday of 1960 when he and Lewis desegregated buses, riding on the front seats from Tennessee to Alabama and Florida.

Parental permission was required for persons younger than 21 to participate in the Freedom Rides; Lewis was old enough, LaFayette was not.

Freedom Riders Bernard LaFayette Jr. (center) and Kredelle Petway (right) pose with Henry Lewis (left), brother of the late civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

LaFayette sent the form to his father, but he got no reply. He called his father, who confirmed that he had indeed received the form. “I said, ‘Could you sign that and send it back to me as soon as possible, because I need to get my application in?’

“‘Do you think I didn’t read it?’” LaFayette recounted his father’s reaction, acknowledging his hope that his father had mistaken the form for something he needed for college. No such luck.

“He understood it quite well,” says LaFayette. “’Do you think I’m going to sign your death warrant?’ That was closure right there that he was not going to sign it.”

The father’s concern proved to be warranted, as the bus carrying Freedom Riders was attacked and burned in Anniston. There was a subsequent attack in Birmingham, which prompted CORE to cease its rides.

But the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took the baton from there. Lewis and LaFayette – by then old enough to not need parental permission – led separate groups to Birmingham with Lewis’s group, traveling by car, and with LaFayette’s group by train.

Freedom Rider Bernard LaFayette Jr.’s mug shot following his arrest in Jackson, Miss. in 1961. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Lewis’s group would be arrested by Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor and abandoned at the Tennessee state line. Once that group rendezvoused with the other, the Freedom Riders had to wait before they could finally board a bus to continue their journey.

“They didn’t immediately take us because we sat-in at the white waiting room in Birmingham,” LaFayette says. “They didn’t allow us to catch the bus. Every time we would approach the bus, a Greyhound bus bound for Montgomery, bus drivers refused to drive.”

The Freedom Riders spent the night at the Birmingham Greyhound station. LaFayette would fall asleep, only to be awakened by cold water thrown onto his face by a Klansman wearing a black robe.

That was the Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton. He had a big serpent on the back of his robe; all the rest of them wore white robes.

“That was the Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton,” LaFayette says. “He had a big serpent on the back of his robe; all the rest of them wore white robes.”

If LaFayette was surprised by the water that awoke him, Shelton was just as surprised by LaFayette’s response.

I was genuinely thankful that he poured the water on my face because I didn’t need to be asleep surrounded by the Klan.

“We looked at each other, I nodded my head to the Klansman and said, ‘Thank you,’” the Freedom Rider says. “He didn’t know what to do because he wasn’t expecting that response. But I was genuinely thankful that he poured the water on my face because I didn’t need to be asleep surrounded by the Klan.”

A heavy federal law enforcement presence provided by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy spared LaFayette anything worse than a wet face, at least until the aforementioned arrival in Montgomery.

Freedom Rider Bernard LaFayette Jr., signing copies of the book he co-wrote with Kathryn Lee Johnson, In Peace and Freedom – My Journey in Selma. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

A Push into a New Future

At age 74, Hezekiah Watkins is one of the younger members in the family of Freedom Riders.

It’s a family he didn’t plan to join. He was literally pushed into it.

Watkins was 13 when he saw a television news report about the Freedom Riders. The pain and suffering they endured in pursuit of desegregation made him think they must be much more than mere mortals.

How come you let a man hit you upside the head and you turn away and do nothing?

“I’ve got to go see them,” Watkins remembers saying. “I just want to see what a Freedom Rider looks like. I want to see what type of person could take this punishment that was inflicted on them. How come you let a man hit you upside the head and you turn away and do nothing? How can you let one spit on you, and you do nothing? You’ve got to be like a super person.

“If I got an opportunity to reach out and touch one of them, that would be cake and ice cream all together,” he says.

As fate would have it, Freedom Riders were coming to the city where Watkins lived: Jackson, Mississippi. He and his friend were so excited that they did something they had never done before—they went downtown without their parents.

The two made their way to the bus station but found no one. Watkins would learn later that the Freedom Riders had been there, but police had taken them into custody.

And soon Watkins would be arrested, too.

“We were playing, jumping, running up and down the sidewalk right in front of the bus station where the white folks go in,” Watkins says. “We did that for a minute or two and my friend, as a joke at the time, pushed me inside of the bus station.”

Watkins turned to run out, but before he could exit, a police officer put his hand on his shoulder.

“He carried me back into the bus station, and I was asked two questions—my name and my birthplace,” he says. “I gave him my name and told him I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That was it.

“I was automatically arrested,” says Watkins. “They assumed I was a Freedom Rider, but I was only 13. If I had known that I was going to be arrested I would have told the officer any place other than Wisconsin.”

Jailed at 13 for entering a Jackson, Miss., bus station’s Whites Only door, Hezekiah Watkins (right) later became a civil rights activist against racially segregated  bus stations. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

The 13-year-old wasn’t afforded the rights that normally go to someone who’s been arrested. “No due justice, no due nothing,” he says. “They just put me in the back of that paddy wagon. I think it’s about 125 miles from Jackson. It seems it took us all day and all night to get there.

“When I got out, I didn’t know where it was. It kind of looked like a college campus, an old college campus. They put me in a cell with two other inmates. Those inmates were there for murder. That’s where my worst treatment came from, from the two other inmates.”

Watkins was imprisoned at Parchman Farm for five days, during which time his mother didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

Once she got him home, “my mother beat the hell out of me for disobeying her more or less,” he says. “I didn’t have any other dealings right then with the Movement until I met this man named James Bevel.”

A civil rights leader, Bevel convinced Watkins’s mother to let her son participate in the Movement. About a year after being mistaken for a Freedom Rider, Watkins was actively involved in efforts to desegregate bus stations.

“Probably my first 10 arrests took place at the two bus stations,” he recalled. “We had a Greyhound and a Trailways bus station, and we would go into the white area and walk up to the ticket counter and try to purchase a ticket.”

Watkins tells his story in the book he wrote with Andrea Ledwell, Pushing Forward, based on his friend pushing him inside the bus station.

By pushing me forward, it led me on the journey that I was on, and I am still pushing forward on that same journey as we speak.

“By pushing me forward, it led me on the journey that I was on, and I am still pushing forward on that same journey as we speak,” says Watkins. “Nothing has changed in terms of going forward.”

Today, Watkins leads tours at Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson. In a sense, he’s as much history as the historic and civil rights exhibits there.

Watkins and his boyhood friend are no longer friends. But he’s glad his former friend pushed him through that bus station door, he says.

“If he hadn’t, then I never would have made this journey,” he says. “I never would have experienced some of the things that I did. I never would have met some of the people that I met, never would have gone to some of the places that I’ve been able to go.”

The Few Who Flew

The Rev. Alphonso K. Petway Sr. and his sister Kredelle Petway are unique in the family of Freedom Riders.

“I fondly refer to us as the stepchildren of the Freedom Ride Movement because everybody knows about the buses,” says Kredelle Petway, 81, of Apollo Beach, Florida. “Few know about the train rides and almost nobody knows about the flights.

“We also refer to ourselves as the Few Who Flew,” she continues. “There was not as much media blitz on our Freedom Ride as there was on the buses.”

 Rev. Petway, 77, of Mobile, Alabama, adds, “We didn’t have the kind of confrontation and violence that they experienced.” 

There also were a lot more of those bus rides, and a lot more riders, Kredelle says. “You’re talking about 400-plus compared to five people,” she says. “We were a minority-minority.”

At one of the reunions, organizers gave Freedom Riders a plexiglass bus as a memento.

“Where is our airplane?” Kredelle asked. “They said, ‘Delta didn’t send one.’”

Freedom Rider Rev. Alphonso Petway shares his story at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

The Freedom Ride flight from Montgomery to Mississippi was designed to be a family-style trip. The siblings – she was 20, he was 16 – traveled with their father, the Rev. Matthew Petway. Another father and son also participated.

“After we boarded the flight, there was no designated seating,” she recalls. “The flight itself was uneventful in terms of any disturbances.”

The Petways planned to have lunch at the airport, but they were denied entry.

“They locked the terminal and hustled us from the tarmac straight to the waiting paddy wagon they had,” Kredelle says, “except we stopped to have a drink of water.”

The Rev. Alphonso K. Petway Sr. remembers “Captain Ray” standing at the door. “When we went to enter, he said, ‘Move on. Move out. Move on, move out. Move on. Move out. I now place you under arrest.’”

Kredelle Petway remembers their father saying they had done nothing wrong, that they just wanted a drink of water.

The fountain from which he sought water was designated for whites only.

A photograph of Freedom Rider the Rev. Alphonso Petway was on display during performance of  Freedom Rider at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Freedom Rider Bernard LaFayette Jr. endured arrests by police and beatings by white mobs while fighting to desegregate public transportation. Photo on display at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

“He went to drink, and so did I,” she says. “With that came the tug on the arm or the shoulder to pull us away from the water fountain and take us to the waiting paddy wagon. They apparently had known to expect us.”

An unapologetic Daddy’s girl, she never hesitated following her father’s lead.

“He never told us to do anything wrong, and we never saw anything that he did wrong,” she says. “I had faith in what he was doing and trusted him in his decision-making.

“My dad was a man of few words. But I used to refer to him as E.F. Hutton. When he spoke, we listened.”

The experience became real, she said, when she heard the (jail) cell door clink.

Kredelle Petway thought the Freedom Ride experience wouldn’t be that bad. But the experience became real, she said, when she heard the cell door clink.

“They really did put us in jail,” she says. “We were doing nothing wrong but trying to get a drink of water. A drink of ‘white water,’ that is.

Police arrested Freedom Riders the Rev. Alphonso Petway, his sister, Kredelle Petway, and their father, the Rev. Matthew Petway after they tried to drink from a Whites Only fountain at a Jackson, Miss., airport. (Photo credit: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

“The fact that someone could actually be arrested, locked up for a few days and sentenced for a trumped-up charge called breach of peace?” she says. “It was just unimaginable; and even though I was a young adult, I still had no mature clue that it would result in such an astounding change in our societies.”

The Rev. Alphonso K. Petway Sr. remembers his brother telling their father he would tear the head off anyone who tried to block their Freedom Ride. Their father decided that that son was too volatile and could not go. The father’s other son, who would follow him into the ministry, gave a different response.

“I told him I wanted to participate in my own liberation, my own struggle,” he says, recalling having seen TV reports of civil disobedience in other places. “It got down to us, so I was sort of anxious to participate—and do whatever necessary to liberate myself.”

Explore More
Nims Gay
Bending the Arc: The Vote
The Bus Boycott