It is not often that I’m left speechless and with tears in my eyes. But that is what happened several days ago when I went to one of the senior buildings here in Austin to meet with a resident. The first thing he handed me was his mug shot. Now finding people in this community who have a mug shot, no matter their age, is easy. But finding someone whose mug shot is from participating in the Civil Rights Movement and being one of the earliest Freedom Riders is rare.
It was back in 1961 when Johnny Ashford, just 22 years old, got on a Greyhound bus to travel to Jackson, Mississippi to protest against many of the injustices against black people. Segregation was a way of life and even though the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional to segregate in terms of travel across state lines, Southern states continued to segregate buses and the federal government failed to intervene.
The Freedom Ride organizers had warned participants that they would be arrested and could possibly be killed. Mr. Ashford was scared but, after seeing how old black people, tired from a day of hard work, would have to give up their seats on a bus just so a white person could sit down, he went ahead and stood up for what was right. About that time, he said, “This has got to change. Sometimes you have to be beat. Sometimes you have to die in order to accomplish your goal. So we Freedom Riders were prepared for that.”
He had barely stepped off the bus when he was arrested for violating the state’s segregation ordinances. He was initially placed in the local jail for 25 days. The strategy of Freedom Rides was to overwhelm the local jail with so many people, there wouldn’t be room to take in another. Four hundred and twenty Freedom Riders would later follow. The local authorities countered that action by arranging to have the prisoners transferred to the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary, aka Parchman Farm. Mr. Ashford was thus sent to the prison where he spent another 15 days, for a total of forty days’ incarceration.
Life was rough in the penitentiary. Many of the Freedom Riders were placed on Death Row, not allowed to exercise, not given underwear or allowed to get mail. In response, many began singing freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome,” which made their jailers take away their mattresses, sheets and toothbrushes. One of his worst memories is being served food that was already rancid.
After his release, he was given a one-way plane ticket to Chicago and told to never come back.
Just as he went to jail for our right to sit anywhere we want on a bus, he also fought for our right to go to the polls and vote. Early voting began on Feb. 9 and runs through Feb. 21. It is every registered voter’s opportunity to vote for candidates 2 through 5, while at the same time firing the current mayor the same way he fired all those children from their neighborhood schools.