Civil Conversations: Day 1, Atlanta and a Freedom Rider


Charles Person, the youngest Freedom Rider, speaks to a crowd about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. © 2018 Erica Jones

Michael St. Ores

At 18, Charles Person was the youngest Freedom Rider during the summer of 1964 when hundreds of young people from across the nation rode public buses deep into the South in an attempt to protest segregation.

“America is at its best when we work together,” Person said of his protest experience. “And this needs to happen every day.”

Person spoke at Georgia Technical Institute on Saturday, March 17, to nearly 100 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students participating in the 10th annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage takes students through 10 southern cities and communities allowing students to learn the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and make a personal connection to contemporary social justice issues.

Person described being brutally beaten and tormented by white men and members of the Ku Klux Klan during his journey on the bus, and how mobs of 200-300 people waited at bus stations for the Freedom Riders’ arrival in Birmingham. In response to a question from a student about ever being afraid, Person said he was too young to know better.

But Sidney Barnette, a student on the trip was impressed with Mr. Person’s bravery.

“If I was put into that position,” Barnette said, “I would not have been able to do that. Seeing that he was able to fo that was really inspiring to me.”  

Person went on to serve in the Marine Corps during Vietnam. In his later years, he now devotes time to speaking to student groups about his activism he called Atlanta the “central nervous system” of the movement and encouraged students to stand up for what they believe is right, and “get on that bus” when it comes along.

Person’s time with students capped the first full day of the pilgrimage for students. After driving through the night to reach Atlanta, students had some free time to explore downtown Atlanta and made a special trip to The Center for Civil and Human Rights. Some participated in an interactive display that re-enacted the abuse young activists encountered as they sought to desegregate lunch counters throughout the South during the early 1960s.