Sixty years ago, a group of hopeful young people fought hard against apartheid in the southern United States. Among them were Lewis Zuchman, 19, and Luvaghn Brown, 16, who became friends during the Freedom Rides campaign in the summer of 1961. He is now in his 70’s, and no one is sure.
“I was the youngest rider on white, and Luvaghn was the youngest black rider,” Zuchman told Al Jazeera. “We met in a different way.”
Brown said the two met in Jackson, Mississippi but as he spoke – “we can’t understand it,” he laughed.
From May to November of that year, more than 400 young people – black and white – boarded city buses in the United States. Their role: to oppose discrimination that was still enforced in the Southern Hemisphere even though the Supreme Court ruled last year that the practice was unjustified.
The reception he received was brutal. The Freedom Riders, as they are commonly known, often face aggression with southerners. There were many violent incidents in Alabama and Mississippi, often frequented by local police. Even with the opportunity to avoid beatings, many freedom fighters spend weeks in prison.
Zuchman recalls the arrests when he was arrested shortly after arriving in Jackson, Mississippi.
“I remember being chained, walking with other prisoners, and the judge, who was judging me, saw me and spit on me. Judge! Zuchman said. “That’s why you began to realize how dangerous it was there. It wasn’t just any America we thought we were.”
He spent 40 days in the infamous Parchman State Prison in Mississippi.
“I remember a young man who provided breakfast, who was a great white trustee with tattoos. And one day he said, ‘If it were up to me, I would have killed any of you MFs.’ And believe me, because for the next few days, we were sure to eat, ”Zuchman added.
They were far from their home in New York City. Zuchman was encouraged to join the club by former baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball. He saw Robinson on a radio video discussing Freedom Movements and whether the campaign should end because of violence.
“At the end of the show, (Robinson) said, with tears streaming down his face, ‘Look, if these young people think it’s time for them to stand up, who are we to tell them not to?’ So I decided to volunteer to be a Free Rider the next day.
‘They were determined to risk their lives’
The young people who volunteered for Freedom of Movement were incredibly brave, according to Raymond Arsenault, Professor of Emeritus of Southern History at the University of South Florida and author of the book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and The Struggle for Racial Justice.
“Obviously, he was afraid that the Ku Klux Klan and other whites in the South would ban them,” Arsenault told Al Jazeera. I’m arguing. ”
The campaign also forced former President John F Kennedy’s supervisors to focus on US apartheid at a time when it was more affected by Cold War weapons than the Mississippi.
Upon first hearing about Freedom Rides, 16-year-old Brown was not impressed.
“A lot of them were talking nonsense and all these things. I didn’t like it, to be honest,” Brown told Al Jazeera, “I saw that in order to change things, you have to hurt people. That’s who I was at the time.”
Growing up Black in Jackson made Brown an angry young man. He recalls how the assassination of Emmett Till in 1955 on the Money Road at the age of 10 sent shockwaves through his homeland, as well as realizing that “whites can kill anyone who wants to survive.”
Until the age of 14 a black man was beaten and killed by whites who thought he had spoken ill of a white man.
But as more riders came to Jackson, Brown began to change his mind.
“I thought it was amazing for people to come from all over,” he said. “He described the journeys as high. I said it’s fine. We must be doing something.”
Although Brown does not ride buses, he has been a major part of the Jackson campaign; resisting discrimination, organizing protests, spending time in prison and exposing himself to what he calls dangerous.
“The Klan pursued us one night with the help of local police. And that’s why we survived by jumping off the roof of a house next door, ”Brown recalls. “Klan came up the stairs, he was in the front door. We were about to be killed.”
‘I didn’t think we should give up’
Zuchman and Brown had a great time in Jackson this summer. And despite the fears and fears of the American past, the two were determined to keep going.
“Do I think we can make a difference? I didn’t know one way or the other, “Zuchman said,” But this was in my blood. I would never allow people to treat me like that. ”
“I always thought we were telling the truth. And I think we can change things by appealing to American conscience, ”Brown said. I never thought we would give up. ”
Despite the dangers, the Ride Rides are coming up and in the end, people’s attitudes began to change. And when they heard of their torture, it forced Kennedy’s supervisors, according to Arsenault.
“Kennedy was going to his first meeting in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev and he was embarrassed on the whole newspaper page about this,” Arsenault said. “People who can’t even sit in front of the bus, in a country that they say is free.”
The United States government finally banned discrimination between central buses in November 1961, and Kennedy’s human rights move moved beyond the reality of the Cold War.
“There is no way in the world that John Kennedy would have reached in June 1963 as he spoke, to promote the full establishment, a free human right without Rider’s freedom,” Arsenault said.
‘Opinions are closely linked to change’
As for Zuchman and Brown, they continue to relate their experiences, appearing together at meetings in prisons and schools, and before the new generation fought for their human rights. So what advice do they have for modern-day freedom fighters?
Brown, 76, recognizes the interest of some young freedom fighters to pursue other deep-rooted tactics from his childhood, but today, he advocates a more moderate approach.
“It could be as simple as holding on to someone. That could be a change, depending on where you are, depending on what the person is doing, ”Brown said. “That’s why we try to make young people understand that their attitudes are strongly linked to change.”
At age 79, Zuchman is still working to improve the lives of racists, as director of Scan Harbor, a non-profit organization that helps disadvantaged children in New York. But he doubts the exaggeration of the success of the Free Movement.
“On our 50th anniversary, people ask me, ‘Aren’t you proud of what has been accomplished?’ And I said, ‘No.’ We did well. But I have been working in the city since then and I have just seen things getting worse for African American and Latino youth, “he explained.
But he acknowledges one victory: “I think the special thing is that it brought together young people – whites, African Americans, men, women – all over America. It was a very special time when we met as a country.”
Arsenault, however, says the impact of the Uprising was significant.
“Not only did it change the system of human rights, but it did change the political landscape of the 60s,” he said, “the Freedom Movement has transformed into a global military.”