JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has apologized to dozens of civil rights activists who were carted off to the state’s notorious Parchman prison in the 1960s for attempting to desegregate interstate travel.
“We apologize to you for your mistreatment in 1961, and we appreciate this chance for atonement and reconciliation,” Barbour told the so-called Freedom Riders during a dinner at a Jackson hotel on Sunday.
The Freedom Riders, college students and other activists, who challenged segregation on commercial bus lines, are in Jackson this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 protest. Barbour is among the leaders hosting them.
At the dinner at the Marriott Hotel, Barbour thanked the group for their “courage, your commitment, your sufferings and your sacrifices of 50 years ago.” On Monday, the Republican welcomed them at a breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion.
The governor’s apology comes months after a string of remarks his critics have described as racially insensitive, and weeks after he announced he wouldn’t be a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.
Last December, Barbour defended comments he made to the Weekly Standard magazine about how the Citizens Council helped to prevent violence during the integration of public schools in his hometown of Yazoo City. Critics had said Barbour’s account skimmed over the segregationist role of the councils in Mississippi.
Hezekiah Watkins said Barbour’s comments on Sunday reflect how times have changed in the last five decades.
“Fifty years ago, I was arrested for marching around the Governor’s Mansion. This morning, I was able to go on the grounds,” Watkins said. “I applaud the governor for his efforts, although it should have been done some time ago and it wasn’t.”
In 1961, a biracial group of activists boarded interstate buses to expose the segregation in travel despite a Supreme Court ruling outlawing it.
A project of the Congress of Racial Equality, the strategy was simple: Blacks would sit in the front of the bus and Whites stayed in the back. At stops, Blacks would use White-only restrooms.
Traveling from Washington, D.C., into the Deep South, one of the group’s buses was stoned and firebombed and many of the activists were attacked by angry racists in Alabama. As the journey continued, the nation’s eye was turned to the racial strife in the South.
U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called in hundreds of federal marshals to protect the riders. When they made it to the bus terminal in Jackson, the activists were arrested and sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The riders were charged with breach of peace.
Watkins was 13 when he was mistaken for one of the riders and arrested. He said the experience put him on a path of activism.
“I was arrested over 100 times for marching,” said Watkins, now 63.
Bill Harbour, 69, of Atlanta, said “it took a lot” for Barbour to make the remarks.
“I think one of the things we’re looking at now is the healing process. We know that everything is not all good right now,” said Harbour, who was a Tennessee State University student when he participated in the rides.
Harbour said the riders have presented Barbour with a petition supporting a pardon for Gladys and Jamie Scott, two sisters who had served 16 years in prison for armed robbery before the governor suspended their life sentences last year.
Jamie Scott suffers from kidney failure, and Gladys Scott offered to donate the organ before Barbour made it a condition of their release.
Barbour has said he won’t grant a pardon.
“I think the governor is going to make some changes on things. We’re hoping he would go ahead and pardon the Scott sisters,” Harbour said Monday.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson contributed to this report.