Friday, July 29, 2011

Freedom Riders honored in return to Mississippi

Freedom Riders were honored this week in their return to Mississippi, a half-century after their initial arrival in Jackson:

By 1961, Mary Jean Smith had been a part of sit-ins and received training for nonviolent protest, but she wasn't ready to challenge segregated travel in the Deep South until she sat behind two white passengers on a city bus in Tennessee.

"They had a transistor radio and were listening to reports about the Freedom Riders. One of them said, 'I hope all those niggers die.' It did something to me. I went into another world," she said Tuesday.

Smith, a Tennessee State University student, volunteered to be part of the next group of riders who would head south through civil rights battlegrounds in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. Along the route, they were beaten and their buses were burned. Eventually, they were arrested and thrown into the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

On Tuesday — 50 years to the day after the first wave of riders arrived at the Jackson terminal — a celebration was held for them in Mississippi's capital. They were welcomed by Gov. Haley Barbour, Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and hundreds of high school and college students, who called them heroes.

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