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Democracy demands memory, action – just ask a Freedom Rider – Leader-Telegram

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Columnist B.J. Hollars, center, spends time with Freedom Riders Charles Person and Joan C. Browning. Person and Crowning were two of the subjects in a book Hollars wrote about the 1961 Freedom Rides.
B.J. Hollars

Columnist B.J. Hollars, center, spends time with Freedom Riders Charles Person and Joan C. Browning. Person and Crowning were two of the subjects in a book Hollars wrote about the 1961 Freedom Rides.
B.J. Hollars
“And now, without further ado, allow me to introduce Mr. B.J. Hollars!”
My heart sinks as the crowd claps politely.
Me? Why me? What business do I have being here?
I take a deep breath, then manage what appears to be a confident stride toward the stage at Wausau’s UW Center for Civic Engagement.
“Thanks again,” whispers the event’s organizer as he directs me toward the podium.
“No problem,” I say.
Big problem, I think.
Of course, I’m flattered to introduce a pair of my personal heroes — Freedom Riders Charles Person and Joan C. Browning. It’s just that … who gets to introduce a pair of their personal heroes?
Yes, I’d written a book about the 1961 Freedom Rides but that’s about all I’d done. Meanwhile, the people seated just feet away from me on the stage boarded those buses, risking their lives and livelihoods in the process.
Beads of sweat line my forehead as I’m stricken with an acute case of imposter syndrome. Researching and writing for a couple of years doesn’t seem worthy of an honor such at this. I clear my throat, shuffle my papers, click my heels three times. When these tactics fail to transport me back to Kansas, I continue with my introduction as best I can.
“History doesn’t just occur,” I manage at last, “it is made. It’s shaped and spun and lost and won by the people who make it so.”
Probably I say some other things, too. Like how the story of the Freedom Riders is the story of people like Charles Person of Atlanta, who joined the Congress of Racial Equality’s Freedom Ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans on May 4, 1961. And that it’s also the story of people like Joan C. Browning, a white woman from rural Georgia, who for years picked 200 pounds of cotton a day alongside hired Black workers on her family farm.
I point out, too, how the symmetry of their stories is striking. While Person holds the distinction of being on that first Freedom Riders bus, Browning holds the distinction of taking her seat on the last.
Together, their individual stories serve as bookends for a crucial moment in civil rights history, one that inspired not only the social justice movement to come, but also the environmental justice movement, the women’s rights movement and the movement for rights for people with disabilities.
All this fundamental change set into motion because 400 or so folks took their seats on some buses.
I conclude my introductions, retreating hastily backstage as the crowd cheers for the Freedom Riders themselves, both of whom proceed to share their harrowing stories with quiet, understated grace. Charles begins by noting the violence he endured at the hands of an angry mob in Birmingham, adding too, that those injuries healed long ago. What hasn’t healed, he continues, is the long-term effects of being exposed to Agent Orange during his time as a Marine in Vietnam. Charles fought for his country both stateside and abroad and paid a price for it. But he has no regrets.
“The Freedom Rides was an adventure, it was a test, and in the end, it was successful,” Charles says. “I think if you get to know the (Freedom Riders) still alive today, you’ll learn to love them the way I do. Even in our old age, we have a desire to work for our country to make it stronger, and to make it better.”
Next, the crowd turns its attention toward Joan, who — in the aftermath of Charles’s story — appears momentarily as uncomfortable as I’d been during my own remarks.
“I really didn’t want to talk about myself,” Joan begins, “because I didn’t think I was very important in the Freedom Movement. But (civil rights leader) Julian Bond convinced me. He wrote an article in which he said we need to do this work because democracy itself demands memory. He wrote how (in the civil rights movement), ordinary men and women were moved to extraordinary acts of courage, and what may be done once may well be done again.’”
I nod from my place in the back of the room.
“That is why I bother to tell you about myself,” Joan says, “not because I’m that important, but because young people today hold the key to our future.”
My mind leaps to May 21, 2016 — the last time I’d spent time with Charles Person. We’d been milling alongside several other Freedom Riders in the parking lot of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. It was the 55th anniversary of the night when many of those Riders were trapped in that church while a white mob hurled bricks and bottles through its windows. All those years later, while standing alongside Charles, one of the Freedom Riders had turned to me — the resident youngster in the group — and said “Well kid, we did our part. Now the torch is yours.”
Then, the Freedom Riders receded into the night, leaving me alone in the shadow of the church steeple.
Listening to Joan speak at the UW Center for Civic Engagement, I know for certain that she’s right. Young people do hold the key to our future. But I am no longer that young person. In fact, I’m about twice as old as Charles and Joan were when they first took their seats on the bus.
Suddenly the reason for my introduction anxieties pulls into sharp focus: If an 18- and 19-year-old fundamentally changed the world, shouldn’t a 37-year-old have something to show for himself? What have I done beside write about other people’s heroics?
Time, I worry, is running out. And the proverbial bus might be leaving without me.
At the presentation’s conclusion, I find Charles seated behind a table signing books for his fans.
“I’ll let you get down to business,” I say, as a long line of people gathers before him. “But I want to say thank you. One last time. For all you’ve done and continue to do.”
“Same to you,” Charles says. “For all you’ve done.”
I smile, though what I’ve done feels wholly insufficient.
I move toward Joan, who graciously signs my copy of her own book, scrawling a message to me inside the book’s flap.
“Thank you,” she says, handing back the book, “for your warm introduction.”
“It was nothing,” I say, which feels like the truth.
Back in the parking lot, as I prepare for the drive back to Eau Claire, I take a moment to read Joan’s inscription inside the book.
“Thank you,” she wrote, “for passing on the lesson of the ongoing Freedom struggle.”
Thank you, I think, for living it.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently ‘Go West Young Man: A Father and Son Rediscover America on the Oregon Trail’ and the editor of ‘Hope Is The Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic.’ He is a professor, arts advocate, husband, father, son and dog walker. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook @bjhollars.
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