Black History Month 2016: Freedom Rider Charles Person to speak at Lerner Theatre Thursday

February 23, 2016

Charles Person was just 18 when he stood in the middle of a bus station in Birmingham, Ala., and was beaten with lead pipes and the fists of Ku Klux Klan members.

Nearly 55 years later, the civil rights pioneer will visit Elkhart to share his personal battle against segregation and his pursuit of equity, inclusion and hope.

Person, the youngest of the original Freedom Riders and one of the few still surviving, will share his experiences with the community at a Black History Month event set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lerner Theatre. The event is free and open to the public.Person will also spend the day working with Elkhart Community Schools students.

On Wednesday, Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese will welcome Person to the city in an afternoon event at City Hall.

“He is an amazing man,” said Tony England, the school district’s assistant superintendent for student services. “His commitment to peaceful involvement in the civil rights movement changed the course of our country.”

The Freedom Riders were a group of civil rights activists who rode buses into the segregated south in 1961 to challenge those states to enforce the Supreme Court decisions which ruled that segregated bus terminals were unconstitutional. The riders, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, traveled from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, stopping at bus terminals along the way.

The group — there were 13 original Freedom Riders — arrived on two buses in two Alabama towns on May 14, 1961. Mobs met both buses and both groups were brutally attacked.

The bus that arrived in Anniston, Ala., was set on fire and the activists aboard were able to escape — but barely.

Person was on the bus that stopped at a terminal in Birmingham. Inside the terminal, the activists were beaten by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members.

Those attacks caused the Congress on Racial Equality to end the rides, but the movement was picked up by black college students who paired up with middle-aged whites. More than 400 people filled more than 60 buses to continue the rides, which were successful in enforcing desegregation of bus terminals.

“This is what we were all working towards, is to make things better,” Person, who carried a knot on the back of his head for many years as a reminder of the attack, said in an interview with PBS. “Nonviolence is the only way.”

On Thursday, Person will spend his morning and afternoon working with Elkhart students and will later address the larger community.

Neese will deliver a welcome message to kick off the event at 6:30 p.m., and several other community and school leaders will share brief remarks. Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Rob Haworth will then interview Person, who will share his story.

The district worked together with the city of Elkhart, the Elkhart Education Foundation, the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, Premier Arts and the Lerner Theatre to bring Person to Elkhart.

“His message regarding local change through strength of character and belief in your fellow human beings is paramount when we work with our students,” England said.