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Leaders and Speakers

Professor Raymond Arsenault

Author, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice

Raymond Arsenault is the author the acclaimed 2006 book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, widely recognized as the definitive work on the Freedom Rider movement. He has led more than a dozen journeys for students and adults, revisiting the major sites of the Freedom Rider movement. Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and Program Advisor of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he has taught since 1980. Arsenault has served as a consultant for numerous museums and public institutions, including the National Park Service, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum, and the United States Information Agency.

Lecia Brooks

Southern Poverty Law Center, Director of Outreach

Lecia Brooks joined the SPLC staff in 2004 as director of Mix It Up at Lunch Day, a program designed to help break down racial, cultural and social barriers in schools. Previously, she worked for 12 years in a number of capacities for the National Conference for Community and Justice in its Los Angeles office. She is the founder and principal consultant for Diversity Matters, an independent consulting firm that develops customized education and cultural workshops for non-profits, institutions of higher learning and government entities. She earned a political science degree at Loyola Marymount University and began her career as an elementary school teacher.

Catherine Burks-Brooks

Freedom Rider
A Birmingham, Alabama native, 21-year-old Catherine Burks was a student at Tennessee State University when she volunteered for the Nashville Student Movement Freedom Ride in May 1961. Catherine was arrested along with other Riders in Birmingham and defiantly bantered with the ultra-segregationist Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor as he drove the Nashville Riders from jail back to the Tennessee state line. In August 1961, she married fellow Freedom Rider Paul Brooks. They were later active in the Mississippi voter registration movement, co-editing the Mississippi Free Press from 1962-1963. In the decades following the Freedom Rides, Burks owned a successful jewelry boutique and worked as a social worker, teacher, and Avon cosmetics sales manager. She now lives in Birmingham.

Larissa Smith Fergeson

Larissa Smith Fergeson is Associate Professor of History at Longwood University, where she teaches courses in twentieth-century American history, African American history and Virginia history. Before joining the Longwood faculty in fall 2000, she taught at Virginia State University. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Emory University in Atlanta. Professor Fergeson has published articles on Virginia civil rights lawyers and labor activists, and she is at work on a book manuscript, titled Where the South Begins: The Civil Rights Struggle in Virginia, 1930-1960.

Yvonne J. Johnson

Yvonne Johnson was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. She attended public schools in Greensboro and graduated from Dudley High School in 1960. In 2007 she was elected the first black mayor of Greensboro. Her present position as Executive Director at One Step Further, Inc. has afforded her the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of some of the people she’s worked with both in Alternatives to Incarceration and in Mediation/Conflict Resolution. She’s a proud grandmother of wonderful young people who make her even more determined to make Greensboro a safe, viable community.

Bernard Lafayette, Jr.

Freedom Rider
Bernard Lafayette, Jr. was twenty-two and enrolled as an undergraduate at Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary when he took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides. Lafayette endured jail time in Birmingham, Alabama, riots and firebombings in Montgomery, an arrest in Jackson, Mississippi, and jail time at Parchman State Prison Farm during June 1961. The Rev. Dr. Lafayette, an ordained minister, is a longtime civil rights activist, organizer, and an authority on nonviolent social change. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, and he was a core leader of the civil rights movement in Nashville, TN, in 1960 and in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962, and he was appointed by Martin Luther King, Jr. to be national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

Reverend James Lawson

Freedom Rider
Thirty-two-year-old Rev. James Lawson introduced the principles of Gandhian nonviolence to many future leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Born in western Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, he spent a year in prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, as well as three years as a Methodist missionary in India, where he was deeply influenced by the philosophy and techniques of nonviolent resistance developed by Mohandas Gandhi and his followers. When the original CORE Freedom Ride stalled in Birmingham, AL, Lawson urged the Nashville Student Movement to continue the Freedom Rides. He conducted workshops on nonviolent resistance while the Freedom Riders spent several days holed up in the Montgomery, AL   home of Dr. Richard Harris. Throughout his career and into retirement, he has remained active in various human rights advocacy campaigns, including immigrant rights and opposition to war and militarism. In recent years he has been a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University.

John Lewis

Freedom Rider
By the time 19-year-old John Lewis joined the 1961 CORE Freedom ride, he already had five arrests under his belt as a veteran of the Nashville Student Movement. The son of hardscrabble tenant farmers from Pike County, AL, he attended American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, TN where he was deeply influenced by Rev. Kelly Miller Smith and Rev. James Lawson. Lewis would become the best-known among the youthful Freedom Riders, serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, and playing a pivotal role in the 1965 Selma — Montgomery March. In 1986, John Lewis was elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives where he currently is serving his 12th term.

Jerry Mitchell

Since 1989, the stories of Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), have helped put four Klansmen behind bars for unpunished killings from the civil rights era. He has won more than 30 national awards. In 2006, the Pulitzer Board made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist, praising him “for his relentless and masterly stories on the successful prosecution of a man accused of orchestrating the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964.” In 2009, he was named a MacArthur fellow, receiving a $500,000 grant. He is currently writing a memoir on his experiences.

Joan Mulholland

Freedom Rider
A 19-year-old Duke University student and part-time secretary in the Washington office of Senator Clair Engle of California, Joan Mulholland (then Joan Trumpauer) arrived in Jackson, MS by train from New Orleans, LA as part of the June 4, 1961 Mississippi Freedom Ride. The group was promptly ushered by Jackson police to a waiting paddy wagon; all nine Riders refused bail. Mulholland was transferred to Parchman State Prison Farm. After the Freedom Rides, Mulholland studied at Tougaloo College and was a Freedom Summer organizer in 1964. She later worked at the Smithsonian with the Community Relations Service and at the Departments of Commerce and Justice before teaching English as a second language at an Arlington, VA elementary school.

Diane Nash

Freedom Ride Coordinator

By 1961, Diane Nash had emerged as one of the most respected student leaders of the sit-in movement in Nashville, TN. Raised in middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Nash attended Howard University before transferring to Nashville’s Fisk University in the fall of 1959. Shocked by the extent of segregation she encountered in Tennessee, she was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960.
When the students learned of the bus burning in Anniston, AL and the riot in Birmingham Nash argued that it was their duty to continue. Elected coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Ride, Nash monitored the progress of the Ride from Nashville, Tennnesse, recruiting new Riders, speaking to the press, and working to gain the support of national Movement leaders and the federal government.
Nash played a major role in the Birmingham de-segregation campaign of 1963 and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965, before returning to her native Chicago to work in education, real estate and fair housing advocacy. She received an honorary degree from Fisk University in 2009.

Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson, recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, is an award-winning filmmaker best known for his groundbreaking historical documentaries that illuminate critical but overlooked history. Nelson’s work for American Experience includes Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, and The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson has been honored with the Sundance Special Jury Prize, Peabody Award, Primetime Emmy, and an IDA Award. He directed Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, which won a duPont-Columbia Silver Baton and the Sundance Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Award. His 2004 film, A Place of Our Own, a semi-autobiographical look at the African-American middle class, screened at the Sundance Film Festival and later on PBS’s INDEPENDENT LENS. In 2005, PBS’s AMERICAN MASTERS debuted Nelson’s Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice, which went on to become a top-selling concert film. He produced and directed Wounded Knee, one of the five films that formed part of the We Shall Remain series for American Experience. Nelson is the executive producer of Firelight Media, a non-profit production company dedicated to telling the stories of people, places, and issues that are underrepresented in popular culture.

Ernest “Rip” Patton

Freedom Rider
On May 24, 1961, Freedom Rider Rip Patton traveled to Montgomery Alabama, where he joined other Freedom Riders in boarding a bus to Jackson, Mississippi. There, the 21-year-old activist was arrested and held in the Hinds County Jail before being transferred to Parchman State Penitentiary, where he was imprisoned for 62 days. Prior to his involvement in the Freedom Rides, Patton was a member of the Student Central Committee of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. This involvement led to Civil Rights workshops, lunch counter sit-ins, pickets at local stores, demonstrations, and arrests. Following the Rides, Patton returned to Tennessee and again participated in local civil rights activities. He was soon invited to New York City where he worked at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) from 1961 through 1962. Along this journey, there was one element that was consistently forged and reinforced – an undying, relentless spirit, and a life committed to securing civil rights for all. Dr. Patton has been a professional musician, playing with a symphony orchestra, and a professional long haul driver. Dr. Patton is now retired. He continues to be a passionate storyteller of actual events that are part of the history of civil rights in the United States. Rip Patton is a native of Nashville, Tennessee.

Charles Person

Freedom Rider
Charles Person was a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia when he was selected to take part in the 1961 Freedom Rides. While he was the youngest of the thirteen original Riders who departed from Washington, DC, Person had already proven his commitment through his participation in the sit-in movement in Atlanta. While taking part in the original CORE Freedom Ride, Person and fellow Riders were beaten by Klansmen on a bus in Anniston, Alabama. Unwilling to succumb to violence, Person and other battered Riders pressed on, eventually making it to New Orleans, albeit with the help of the Kennedy Administration. After the 1961 Freedom Rides, Person joined the Unites States Marines, where he served twenty years of active duty. Following his military service, Person worked for the Atlanta public school system. He is now retired and lives in Atlanta.

Mark Potok

SPLC, Director, Intelligence Project
Mark Potok leads one of the most highly regarded non-governmental operations monitoring hate groups and extremism in the world today. In addition to editing the SPLC’s quarterly investigative journal, The Intelligence Report, and its Hatewatch blog, Potok acts as a key SPLC spokesman for issues involving extremism. He has testified before the U.S. Senate, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and in other venues. Before joining the SPLC staff in 1997, he spent almost 20 years as an award-winning journalist at newspapers including USA Today, the Dallas Times Herald and The Miami Herald. While at USA Today, he covered the 1993 siege in Waco, the rise of militias, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of Timothy McVeigh. He has appeared on numerous television news programs and is regularly quoted by journalists and scholars in both the United States and abroad. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago.

John Seigenthaler

Assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy
In the 1960s, John Seigenthaler served in the U.S. Justice Department as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. His work in the field of civil rights led to his service as chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides. During that crisis, while attempting to aid Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, he was attacked by a mob of Klansmen and hospitalized. Seigenthaler went on to work on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign before returning to a career of journalism. He later became editor, publisher, and CEO of Nashville’s The Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today. He founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 1961 with the mission of creating national discussion about First Amendment rights and values.

Robert and Helen Singleton

Freedom Riders
Dr. and Ms. Singleton were involved in the Civil Rights movement as activists in the early 1960’s, challenging Los Angeles’ discriminatory practices in restaurant service, apartment rentals, barber shops and department stores.  In 1961, as students, they recruited and joined the Freedom Riders to test unlawful discrimination in travel accommodations in the south.  On July 30, they were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi and, along with more than 300 Freedom Riders were tried, fined and incarcerated at Parchman Penitentiary.  Their actions challenged Mississippi and other southern states to comply with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions ruling racial segregation unconstitutional in interstate travel.  This and other civil rights strategies led to enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which helped, bring down the barriers to equal protection and opportunity in America.

William ‘Smitty’ Smith
National Center for Race Amity
William H. Smith is the founding executive director of the National Center for Race Amity based at Wheelock College in Boston, Ma. His prior higher education assignment was as executive director of the Center for Diversity in the Communication Industries at Emerson College in Boston, MA. Smith’s initial college career began in integrating division one football in the old Confederate South at Wake Forest College. He was profiled in a 2005 Sports Illustrated cover story as one of the pioneers who changed the face of college football. He left Wake Forest to work as a community organizer in the Civil Rights Movement and was drafted into the US Army. After serving as a medic in Vietnam, where he was awarded two Bronze Stars and the Combat Medic Badge, he graduated with honors from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Smith has his doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Joy Cabarrus Speakes
Moton Student

Born in Darlington Heights, Virginia, Joy Cabarrus Speaks attended elementary school in New York. She later returned to Darlington Heights to live with her grandparents George and Emma Morton. She was a student at R.R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County in Farmville, Virginia. She joined the student strike and walkout on April 23, 1951. She was also a plaintiff in the case Davis v. Prince Edward Co. Board of Education. Joy attended New York University and currently serves on the R. R. Moton Museum Board.

Hank Thomas
Freedom Rider

Nineteen-year-old Hank Thomas joined the 1961 Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Ride at the last minute after his roommate John Moody dropped out with a bad case of the flu. “When folks ask me what incident led me to ride,” he said years later, “I can’t say it was one. When you grow up and face this humiliation every day, there is no one thing. You always felt that way.” Thomas overcame an impoverished childhood in southern Georgia and St. Augustine, FL to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) affiliated Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). After participating in the May 4 CORE Freedom Ride, Thomas returned to the Deep South to participate in the May 24 Mississippi Freedom Ride from Montgomery, AL to Jackson, MS, and was jailed at Parchman State Prison Farm. After being released on bail, he went on to participate in the July 14 New Jersey to Arkansas CORE Freedom Ride. On August 22, 1961 Thomas became the first Freedom Rider to appeal his conviction for breach of peace. He was released on appeal, pending payment of a $2,000 bond. Following the Freedom Rides, Thomas served in the Vietnam War, returning home after being wounded in 1966. In recent years, Thomas has owned and operated several hotel and fast food restaurant franchises in the Atlanta metro region.

C.T. Vivian
Freedom Rider

A 36-year-old Baptist minister from Howard, Missouri, the Reverend Cordy “C.T.” Vivian was the oldest of the Nashville Riders. A close friend of James Lawson, he had gained the trust of the students involved in the Nashville Movement by participating in the 1960 Nashville sit-in campaign to end lunch counter desegregation. On May 24, 1961, he was arrested in Jackson, MS on the formal charge of breach of peace and imprisoned at Parchman State Prison Farm. One of the Civil Rights Movement’s most respected and revered figures, he was named director of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) affiliates in 1963, and later founded and led several civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, the Center of Democratic Renewal, and Black Action Strategies and Information Center (BASIC).

Lacy Ward

Director of Moton Museum
Lacy Ward, Jr. is director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Virginia. Ward, a recognized leader in heritage tourism, serves as president of Preservation Virginia. In 2010, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell appointed him to the boards of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. In 2002, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission. Ward considers himself a semi-native Virginian; although born in Philadelphia his family has lived continuously in Prince Edward County since the Colonial Era and he is a graduate of the Prince Edward County Public Schools, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech.

Jim Zwerg

Freedom Rider
Jim Zwerg was a 21-year-old exchange student from Beloit College in Wisconsin who became active in the Nashville sit-in movement after attending one of James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolence. As one of the two whites selected for the May 17 Nashville Movement Freedom Ride, he expected that he would be targeted for violence as a “race traitor.” On May 20, his predictions proved accurate when he was beaten savagely during the riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station. Photographs of a bloodied, beaten Zwerg made headlines around the world. ”We will continue our journey one way or another. We are prepared to die,” Zwerg told reporters from his hospital bed in St. Jude’s Catholic Hospital. After the Freedom Rides, Zwerg worked as a United Church of Christ minister until 1975. Later, he worked as a personnel manager for IBM and at a hospice in Tucson, AZ, where he later retired.

5 responses to “Leaders and Speakers”

  1. Dodah yirusha

    11th May, 11

    They are blessed to be among messiahs messengers for Freedom

  2. Valerie

    13th May, 11

    Thank you for dedication to the destruction of injustice, which has helped to make life better for me. Your sacrifices have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated and I am glad you are getting your well deserved praise.

  3. Ewa Kimes

    16th May, 11

    Thanks for sharing.. Best Regards.

  4. Carolyn Bullock

    17th May, 11

    God is so good, he blessed you brave young men and women to endure the hardships you all had to endure to run that race. I didn’t know about the Freedom Riders, so I thank you all for telling your story. You paid the price for those of us to be able to sit at counters, get an education and to be sisters and brothers regardless of the color of our skin. You all were part of the Dream.

  5. D. A. Howard

    22nd May, 11

    thank you for airing such a pivotal documentary of the Freedom Riders and violence against African Americans and those who dared to help. It dispels the history of deceased President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, that they were initial supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. I am glad that they finally came to the assistance of African Americans (even though it came because they were getting bad publicity around the world).

    It seems so backward and base that grown folk wore white sheets and robes to advertise their hatred of African Americans. We have come a long way as Americans, even to the height of an African American President Obama leads our country.

    We still have discrimination but we have made progress. African Americans are not ignorant of the racism directed toward them and other groups such as the Jews and the Muslims.
    D. A. Howard