Charles Person: Freedom Rider Encourages Others To Get On Board

For the youngest of the original Freedom Riders who boarded buses in 1961, the quest for justice continues.
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“In every generation, some do not enjoy the full citizenship, the full freedom, we each want.”
—Charles Person

Special Series: Interviews With Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement

Learning for Justice is proud to introduce a series of interviews with individuals who were actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, particularly throughout the South. As part of LFJ’s commitment to inclusive and honest history, this endeavor was undertaken to provide direct insight into this time period that, among other things, resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These interviews are especially significant in contemporary society—as an increasing number of the gains made toward the creation of a more just nation are under deliberate assault and subject to dismantling. Every interested person, especially young people, can gain insight into the motivation behind the monumental personal sacrifices people made in the fight for the end of a legally upheld segregated society that violently, lawfully and literally denied Black people access to space in the public realm other than typically in the most miserable of conditions.

These interviews provide the chance to listen and learn about the experiences of people whose direct participation was instrumental in changing our nation’s trajectory. Their stories can provide inspiration for activism and engagement in the ongoing push for a just future in the form of a genuine and multiracial democracy.

Mr. Charles Person
Atlanta, Georgia

Charles Person is one of the most generous people one could ever meet. As the youngest of the 13 original Freedom Riders, and one of only two still living, he is constantly willing to provide a detailed account of his involvement in the Atlanta Student Movement and his subsequent departure from Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 18 to board a bus bound for Washington, D.C. There Person joined 12 others for two days of intensive, immersive training in nonviolent resistance under the project leadership of James Farmer from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The group that met in Washington, D.C., to prepare for the Freedom Rides—seven Black people and six white people of varying ages—then boarded buses headed for the Deep South, where segregation, although unconstitutional, remained rigidly in place.

Their goal was to test the Supreme Court ruling striking down segregation in interstate bus terminals, restaurants, waiting rooms and restrooms across the United States. And in the process, the Freedom Riders were met with extreme brutality and horrific, near-fatal attacks at the hands of vicious white mobs determined to keep their white supremacist social order intact. The Freedom Riders all risked life and limb as they rode interstate buses in their quest for an equitable society. Person was one of the 13 whose lives were nearly extinguished during that 1961 bus ride—on Mother’s Day in Anniston, Alabama.

Now 80 years of age, Charles Person, along with co-writer Richard Rooker, details in his book Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider some of the ways everyday people engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, putting their lives on the line and insisting that the United States hold to its ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In addition to providing a firsthand, intimate account of some of the most notable endeavors during the movement, Person encourages young people and others committed to social justice to use their individual gifts to help the nation continue to progress toward its ideals of democracy and freedom.

“Make the country better for those yet unborn who will never know the seat you took, the ride you rode, the risk you accepted, the fare you paid, the change you made,” Person writes in his memoir. He encourages people to “board your [metaphorical] bus when it stops near you … The ride you accept, no matter the risk—in fact, because of the risk—may have the force to lift and uplift millions.”

The Freedom Riders faced the ultimate risk on that Sunday morning in 1961 when white mobs in Alabama unleashed racial terror in gruesome attacks upon the group that were egregious to the extent that they gained national attention. That attention mobilized others willing to take on the inherent risk of that journey through the Deep South. Diane Nash at Fisk University and other student organizers demonstrated their refusal to let the work of the original 13 Freedom Riders go in vain and quickly resumed the rides, increasing the number of people participating in the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961 to more than 400. After numerous arrests—just one of the constant threats Freedom Riders faced that summer—intervention by the federal government resulted in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s order to remove “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs from bus terminals across the nation and to end separate and unequal accommodations in interstate travel.

For his ongoing contributions to the nation—as a Freedom Rider and beyond—Charles Person was recently recognized with an acknowledgement of a long-held dream that society denied him as a young man. Person, whose life’s journey also includes service in United States Marine Corps, remains generous with his contributions, particularly when it comes to investing in the future. He regularly shares his experiences as a Freedom Rider by answering the questions elementary school children pose to him, in the last few years during appearances on Zoom. Additionally, Person regularly lends his support to the efforts of individuals of all ages as well as organizations engaged in a wide range of endeavors to make this world a better one.

In the fall of 2023, Mr. Person displayed his generosity once again as he and his wife opened their home to Learning for Justice for a remarkable afternoon of conversation wherein Person recounted parts of his story, imparted wisdom and offered suggestions for ways everyday people can engage themselves in the pursuit of what is just. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, the first in a series of Learning for Justice interviews with veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.

Related Resources

Buses Are a Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider
In this recently published memoir, Charles Person and Richard Rooker provide an intimate look at Person’s thoughts, feelings, observations and motivations as the youngest of the original 13 Freedom Riders.

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
LFJ's Civil Rights Movement framework for grades 9 to 12 supports facilitating a solid understanding of the struggle for Black equality, tracing the movement from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s to the present.

Civil Rights Movement
This timeline from provides contextual information about the Civil Rights Movement.

Civil Rights Act of 1964
This Learning for Justice classroom resource (which includes text-dependent questions) highlights the Civil Rights Act of 1964 section on desegregation.

The Voting Rights Act, 1965 and Beyond
This Learning for Justice classroom resource (which includes text-dependent questions) addresses the complex history of voting rights in the United States as more citizens gained access to the ballot.

The True History of Voting Rights
This Learning for Justice classroom lesson plan (which includes handouts) can be helpful to anyone—inside or outside of the classroom—interested in learning the history of voting rights in the United States.

“The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies”
Recent academic scholarship outlines the importance of understanding the specificity of the Civil Rights Movement.

“How Hip-Hop Conquered the World”
This article from The New York Times Magazine marking the rise of hip-hop suggests its outgrowth in the context of the “national abandonment of the post-Civil Rights movement.”

About the Author

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Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

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