Civil Rights Activists Mark 1961 Freedom Rides

RICHMOND, Va. – Two former Freedom Riders are helping to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the trip through the Deep South that challenged racial segregation in public transportation systems.

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and the Rev. Reginald Green appeared at the University of Mary Washington to honor the Freedom Rides and their organizer, the late James Farmer. Farmer was head of the Congress of Racial Equality during the civil rights era and later became a professor at the Fredericksburg school.

Mulholland and Green participated in an event to kick off the school’s three-month series of tributes to the demonstrations.

Farmer, six other Black people and six White people participated in the first Freedom Ride, traveling from Washington, D.C., in May 1961 to test whether southern states were implementing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred segregation in public-transportation facilities. They faced violent attacks from White mobs who opposed desegregation, and the first Greyhound bus was firebombed and the riders beaten in Anniston, Ala.

After news of the violence spread, hundreds of others including Mulholland and Green joined the Freedom Rides, and the two were among hundreds jailed that summer in Jackson, Miss. The demonstrations became a defining point in U.S. civil rights history.

Green was a student at Virginia Union University when he answered a call to students on Southern campuses to become Freedom Riders. He made it as far as Jackson, where he was arrested on June 7, 1961. He and other Freedom Riders were transferred to the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, a place known for its brutality.

He met Farmer at Parchman, and recalls his booming singing voice.

“It was the music that kept us going,” he said in a telephone interview. “He was a committed, dedicated, tenacious individual.”

Farmer was a history and American studies professor at Mary Washington from 1985 to 1998, the same year President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 1999 at the age of 79.

Green, now 71 and retired from the ministry, says the anniversary gives him a chance to look back and see what progress the nation has made since the summer of the Freedom Rides. He also says he’s getting a chance to reconnect with other Freedom Riders and meet some of them for the first time.

“It also gives you an opportunity to say, ‘But for the grace of God,’ ” he said. “Where would we be as a nation had it not been for these courageous individuals, rich, poor, Black, and White?”

Mulholland, now 69 and still living in Arlington, Va., where she grew up, joined the Freedom Riders after a colleague of hers was arrested during the initial ride. She was arrested June 8 in Jackson, spent about two weeks in the local jail, then spent the rest of the summer at Parchman.

Her mother wrote warden Fred Jones a letter asking if she could send some medicine to her daughter. He wrote back to her that she could, and questioned her parenting.

“What I cannot understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor White girl to gang up with a bunch of Negro bucks and White hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence,” Jones wrote in a letter, which appears in the book “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders,” by photojournalist Eric Etheridge.

Mulholland noted that her mother, a native of rural Georgia, vehemently opposed her efforts and nearly disowned her.

“What got me into the movement was my understanding of Christianity, to love my neighbor as myself, do unto others as you would have done to you, all those teachings of the brotherhood of man,’” Mulholland said in an interview. 

“We weren’t doing it, and I felt as a Southerner, we should work to improve things and live up to our religious teachings,” she said.