Freedom Rides remembered

Posted: July 22, 2012

The anger that led Lewis Zuchman and Luvaughn Brown to self-destructive moments as teenagers ultimately fueled their dedication to a movement.

Zuchman grew up white and Jewish in New York. He quit college and served time in jail before he was 19. Brown, an African-American in segregated Mississippi, ran away from an abusive family life and was prone to raise his fists in an instant.

They met as teenage Freedom Riders in the early 1960s, part of an historic non-violent movement that helped force the desegregation of the transportation facilities in the South.

"It was a reasonable way to fight what I wanted to fight all along, but didn't know how," said Brown, now 67.

Brown and Zuchman, 70, reminisced on Saturday at a discussion and film screening about the Freedom Rides at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. The event was part of programming associated with an exhibit of 82 mixed-media portraits of Freedom Riders by New York artist Charlotta Janssen.

Four of the Riders recounted their protest experiences before an audience of 85.

In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) challenged the segregation of transportation facilities in the South. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the segregation illegal, but southern states continued the practice.

Thirteen protesters - black and white members of CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) - boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., and traveled south.

One bus was firebombed. Riders were beaten with bats and denied treatment at hospitals. The violence ended the ride and President Kennedy sent federal officials to fly the demonstrators to New Orleans, their final destination.

News of the Riders' efforts inspired others and more Freedom Riders took up the cause. One of them was then college-student Terry Perlman Hickerson, of New York City.

"I'd seen the students on television and it just seemed like the natural thing to do. It was the sixties," said Hickerson, 70, now retired from a career working with at-risk youth and recently-released prisoners. "I went down to CORE's offices and said I wanted to be part of the Freedom Rides. They put me on a plane and I was in jail the next day."

Hickerson recruited fellow student Stuart Wechsler, who became a field officer for CORE. Between 1962 and 1968, he was arrested 30 times.

"It was the most vital and important time in my life," said Wechsler, 70, who now works in affordable housing finance with the state of Maryland.

For Brown and Zuchman, now a youth advocate in New York City, their involvement in the movement was a game-changer.

Zuchman's father had committed suicide and he became an angry troublemaker who ended up in reform school and jail.

But after hearing his idol Jackie Robinson talk about the Freedom Rides, he signed up, headed south on a bus and was arrested in Jackson, Miss.

When Zuchman got out of jail, he met Brown, who had become an activist at 16.

A runaway, Brown had lived with friends while working at an ice house. He couldn't use the bathroom; it was for whites only.

He was inspired when he met several Freedom Riders who stayed in Mississippi to organize local residents. Brown joined up. He was arrested for the first time at 16 when he tried to integrate a lunch counter. He was beaten in prison and nearly shot.

By the fall of 1961, the protests were having their intended effect. The government began to enforce the desegregation of transportation facilities.

Brown continued his work in civil rights and later moved to Hartsdale, N.Y., where he served on the school board, worked in risk management, and mentored at-risk youth.

"I'm no longer that angry person," Brown said. "No less committed, but I'm not angry."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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