Merlene Davis: Students can relive history in Freedom Rides

Riders gathered with authorities next to their burning bus outside Anniston, Ala. Joseph Perkins of Owensboro is second from right.
Riders gathered with authorities next to their burning bus outside Anniston, Ala. Joseph Perkins of Owensboro is second from right.

One of the leaders of the first Freedom Rides of 1961, a dangerous, mostly student-driven effort to end segregation in the Deep South, was from my hometown, Owensboro.

I never knew that. My aunt who still lives in Owensboro was surprised to learn that as well, especially because he was a classmate of hers.

Joseph P. Perkins Jr., son of a prominent Owensboro educator, was a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which sponsored that first freedom ride. He was among the seven blacks and six whites who boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses in Washington, D.C. to test a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended segregation on interstate trains and buses.

Perkins was 27 when he was arrested after attempting to get his shoes shined at a whites-only shoe-shine chair in Charlotte, N.C. He spent two days in jail before he could rejoin the group. He became the leader of those riding on the Greyhound bus, which was firebombed in Anniston, Ala.

Perkins' sister, Sherrie Perkins Turner of Cincinnati, said she learned of her brother's involvement only after the fact.

"He was to the left of things somewhat," Turner said. "He was concerned about equality and joined the band for that wherever he could."

To commemorate that ride and the dozens of others that followed, PBS is recruiting college students to retrace the first Freedom Ride of 1961.

Forty college students will join some of the original Freedom Riders May 6-16 as they revisit their dangerous journey from Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Miss. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that effort to end segregation on interstate transportation.

The deadline for applications, which includes an essay, is Monday, Martin Luther King Day. So time is short.

With the exception of Perkins, the riders were met with little more than angry looks as they traveled from Washington to Virginia and North and South Carolina and on to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, the groups split, with Perkins in charge of the first group that left Atlanta headed for Anniston. Outside of Anniston, Perkins' bus was firebombed, and the riders were barricaded inside for a while as it burned.

The second bus made it to Birmingham before many of the riders were brutally beaten by an angry mob. The brutality and lack of police protection made national news.

The bus drivers, however, refused to travel with the groups after that. Many riders boarded airplanes to New Orleans, their destination. Some stayed.

They were joined by hundreds of other students from May to November 1961, traveling from Nashville, from Mississippi, and even California to demand an end to segregation on trains and buses.

PBS will broadcast Freedom Riders, a documentary that features some of the original riders, government officials, and journalists who witnessed the events, in May. It will be a chance to recognize a Kentuckian who, without fanfare, tried to bring about change.

Perkins left Owensboro to attend Kentucky State University, where he studied for four years before enlisting in the Army. He later earned his graduate degree from the University of Michigan and moved to New York, where be was a biology teacher.

"He continued to put out papers and newsletters concerning equality," Turner said, "and he visited each one of the (U.S.) senators. He had a file on each one" and their stance on civil rights.

"It wasn't that he was a radical," she said. "He thought maybe he should be a part of the effort to turn things right."

Perkins, an avid runner, was killed during a confrontation at the elevator of his apartment building in 1976. He was 43.

"He was hit with a bottle," Turner said. "We, the brothers and sisters, went to investigate. But the police department had so many deaths to investigate, they just considered it another one."