1960s Freedom Riders to tell story at Polk Museum of Art

(April 9, 2019)

Tampa native, the Rev. Bernard LaFayette Jr., came face-to-face with an attacking mob of Ku Klux Klan members in the summer of 1961 as he and a group of other students rode a bus to challenge racial inequality in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was arrested for breaking segregation laws.

Kredelle Petway, along with her father and her brother, flew into the Jackson, Mississippi, airport that same summer, where they were also arrested for trying to integrate the airport restaurant.

On Wednesday evening, LaFayette and Petway will speak at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College in an interactive panel discussion titled “Art & Social Justice: The Legacy of the Freedom Riders.”

“We are truly honored to have two members of the Freedom Riders on our Florida Humanities Council grant-funded panel discussion,” Museum Executive Director Claire Orologas said. “These important individuals from the 1961 Civil Rights Movement group courageously challenged the Jim Crow segregation laws through nonviolent resistance. Our two panelists are American heroes who helped forge the path to greater social justice for all Americans.”

LaFayette and Petway were Freedom Riders, two of more than 400 young people who risked their lives, and endured near-death beatings and imprisonment in the early 1960s for traveling on buses and trains to test the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public interstate transportation facilities unconstitutional. It was a time when black and white people did not eat in the same areas of restaurants, blacks were forced to use separate back entrances into buildings and when the Ku Klux Klan continued to lynch people.

On Mother’s Day 1961, the Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus was met by a mob in Anniston, Alabama.The riders were pulled off the bus and beaten with pipes and the bus was set on fire. Three Civil Rights workers who had gone to Mississippi to register voters — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were murdered in the summer of 1964 by Ku Klux Klan members.

The Freedom Riders’ legacy changed the way people lived in the American South, and influenced others who followed worldwide, including Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

“Bernard met with Dr. King a few hours before he died,” Arsenault said of the 1968 assassination. “In their last conversation, Dr. King told him, ‘Please promise me you’ll work to internationalize the non-violent movement.’ And that’s what Bernard has done — taken it all over the world. Nothing stops him.”

In addition to Wednesday’s program, which starts at 6 p.m., the Museum has now scheduled a free admission, full-length screening of the Freedom Riders documentary on Saturday, April 13, from 2-4 p.m. Both programs are supported in part by a grant from the Florida Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Ledger