Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese honors visiting Freedom Rider Charles Person

February 25, 2016

Three hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan entered an Elkhart City Council meeting on a Monday evening in August 1998.

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, who was council president at that time, recalled feeling intimidated by their presence. When they wanted to address the council, he told them they must first lower their hoods. In a move that probably only lasted a few seconds but felt like an eternity to Neese, the Klan members turned and left the chambers.

“What we saw that night was the worst in people,” Neese said Wednesday.

He turned to the man sitting next to him and said: “But what you are is the best in people.”

Neese was talking to Charles Person, a civil rights pioneer who was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders were a group of courageous men organized by the Congress on Racial Equality who rode buses into the south to challenge segregation in bus terminals.

Things turned violent for the Freedom Riders in Alabama. At one stop in Birmingham, Person was beaten with a lead pipe and the fists of Klan members. But the Freedom Riders’ mission was successful in the end.

Person arrived in Elkhart on Wednesday and will be here through Friday to work with groups of Elkhart Community Schools students. He will also share his personal story with the public during a free event, set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lerner Theatre.

Several city and school officials welcomed Person to Elkhart Wednesday afternoon — he made it through the snow, which he is not used to in his hometown of Atlanta — with a press conference. At that event, Neese declared Thursday as “Charles Person Day” in Elkhart and read him a proclamation in his honor.

Superintendent Rob Haworth was also on hand to welcome Person.

He said he is thrilled to have a man who changed the course of history working with Elkhart’s students.

“Not only do I hope they are inspired, I hope they are moved to action,” Haworth said.

And Person shared similar goals for his visit with Elkhart students.

“My thrust for the past two years has been to convince young people that they have the ability to change the world,” he said. “I have absolute faith in their ability.”