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Remembering the Freedom Riders 50 years ago

May 1, 2011 - Mel Toadvine
Public Television Station WGCU plans to air a documentary on May 19 that touches on the days of segregation in the U.S. and especially the days of the Freedom Riders. That group of black and white college students and others rode buses across the south and Mid-Atlantic states and stopped at restaurants to see if they would be served.

It's been a half century since the Freedom Riders make their treks across parts of America that had never allowed blacks to enter white restaurants. The Freedom Riders were making such runs before the Civil Acts Bill of 1965 was passed.

Meanwhile during that era, blacks were prevented from entering movie theaters that catered only to blacks or for those that accepted black admissions, they had to sit in segregated areas such as the balcony in many towns.

Blacks couldn't drink from public water fountains and drinking fountains for whites carried signs above them that read "For Whites Only."

Schools were segregated throughout the South and most of the Mid-Atlantic region and in most cases, schools of blacks were run-down and in ill repair. The black students got the hand-me-downs in supplies such as text books. And blacks were not allowed to try to enter white elementary, middle or high schools. Blacks were not allowed to teach in white schools to white students. And black teachers were paid less than white teachers.

Many Americans today, both black and white, have no idea how much racial hatred existed between the races.

In many towns, blacks had to cross the street if they saw whites approaching on the sidewalk and there were lynchings of blacks who were accused of crimes or for just being black. They were not brought before juries and in some cases they were innocent, as in the case of the town in which I grew up.

There had been a lynching of a black man on the courthouse lawn. A white mob pulled him from the nearby hospital, against the wishes of hospital personnel. The man was dragged through a window. His crime? Gossip in town was that he had sexually attacked a white woman.

Maybe a hundred white people gathered on the lawn of the Wicomico County Courthouse in Salisbury Maryland in the mid-1930s and pulled the man up on a tree limb and left him there to choke and die. Then some in the mob tied the rope to the man and dragged him through town and finally set his body on fire. Sometime later, it was proven in a death bed confession that the sexual assault had been by a white man.

Jobs were scarce for blacks and usually the lowest paid and the dirtiest were divvied out to the blacks, but not before poor whites could get the jobs first. It is a history that many people below the age of 50 have no memory nor knowledge of having taken place.

I bring this up because the public television station at Gulf Coast University called me a few weeks ago to ask if would agree to be interviewed because they had heard that I had been a reporter for a Salisbury, Md., newspaper and that I was also a member at the same time of the Maryland Army National Guard during the civil strife.

They asked about the Freedom Riders and had I been involved in any way of covering them as a reporter.

My reply was that I had been sent by my editor to the restaurant where the Freedom Riders were to stop one particular night. I was told to take my camera, but to sit in the car and wait and see if any trouble started. My answers are in the interview to be televised. What happened may surprise you.

As a young member of the National Guard, I was sent to a few places where racial strife was taking place. I remember our Guard unit even being called up in our own city when blacks and whites were planning a march toward each other on a street near the city's park.

We formed wedge operations, pushing each group back with our bayonets mounted. Each side was throwing stones with most of them landing on the helmets of my fellow Guardsmen.

We were sent to Cambridge, Md., when some stores in the so-called black section of the town had been set on fire. Mostly they were owned by white business men. We witnessed H. Rap Brown, a black activist, scream out before us, "Burn baby burn."

And we were sent to Baltimore following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and were put on street corners to keep racial strife from occurring and where there were problems, we were sent out to toss gas grenades to break up small riots.

Of course, all of this is history now. I have no idea how accurate it is portrayed in the history books. My grown children were never taught much about the civil strife of the 1960s and about segregation and how blacks were denied their rights.

I have no idea what else the TV special will carry. But it may be interesting for those who have little idea of what it was like -civil strife at home and American boys dying in Vietnam at the same time. My brother was in Vietnam. Some have asked me if the racism of those years has disappeared and my reply has been that I see great improvements, but I also see racial hatred carried out in other ways, such as in the politics of today.

One last thought: When American citizens were rioting on the streets against their government, we didn't kill them like in Libya where the government has killed perhaps thousands of its own citizens.

We tried to contain them through the efforts of the Reserves and the National Guard and through legal means in a Democracy, and it worked with legislation that outlawed segregation.

We were ordered as Guardsmen never to shoot at someone unless our lives were threatened. We carried gas grenades to break up riots and we mounted bayonets from time to time to push back both sides, but we didn't kill anyone in the Maryland National Guard as far I can remember.



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