18-year-old Charles Person was the youngest Civil Rights Freedom Rider in 1961 and was one of the first 13 riders to encounter violence as his Trailways bus entered Alabama. Immediately after the Freedom Rides, Charles joined the Marine Corps, serving in Vietnam in 1965-1966 at Chu Lai south of Danang.
Enrolling in Atlanta’s Morehouse College in 1960, Person participated in numerous lunch counter sit-ins, enduring a 16-day jail sentence for his activism. His involvement caught the attention of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) recruiters seeking a Freedom Rider to represent Atlanta. The goal was to challenge the system of segregation in interstate travel in the South. It wasn’t Civil Disobedience. Interstate transit was declared un-Constitutional by the US Supreme Court. The Freedom Riders merely wanted authorities in the South to enforce the law.
Persuading his parents to sign a permission slip, as he was under 21, Person embarked on the historic Freedom Rides in 1961. The Freedom Rides aimed to challenge segregation in interstate travel, despite earlier Supreme Court decisions declaring it illegal. The response was immediate and violent.
The bus carrying Person was met with hostility in Anniston, Alabama, where a white mob firebombed one of the buses. In Birmingham, Person and fellow riders faced brutal attacks by Klansmen and a white mob, with local doctors refusing to treat the injured black riders. Charles’ wounds were life-threatening, but a nurse with Rev. Fred Shuttleworth’s Bethel Baptist Church saved him.
When Charles returned home, his mother said, “You should join the Army. It would be safer.” Instead, he joined the Marine Corps.
The Freedom Rides persisted, garnering national attention and ultimately leading to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s order to end segregation in public transportation.
Charles Person’s life took another turn as he went on to serve a 20-year career in the Marine Corps. Charles is a living legend and American hero, and his story is a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who fought for Civil Rights and justice during tumultuous times in American history.
Thank you to Tobacco Free Adagio Health and UPMC for Life for sponsoring this event!