WARSAW — Over 600 people of all ages and all walks of life, came to the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center on the campus of Grace College not only for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, but to hear Charles Person, one of three surviving original Freedom Riders of 1961.
It was the largest year ever in attendance for the event, according to Bryan Lowe III, president of the Committee to Commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who welcomed those in attendance for the 28th annual celebration. The day also recognized three students with the presentation of the Academic Excellence and Community Service Award.
Recipients of the award are: Ophpelia Luu, daughter of Cir Luck Luu and Guo Hui He; Luoji Helser, son of Ryan and Veronica Helser, and Paul Marandet, son of Dr. Noe and Honorine Marandet. Luu plans to attend Indiana University to study health sciences/biology. Helser would like to attend Ivy Tech Community College or Grace College to study French to become a French teacher. Marandet would like to attend IUSB to study business/entrepreneurship and play basketball at the next level overseas. All three are seniors at Warsaw Community High School and received $300 each.
Person was introduced by Zack Rooker who, as an eighth-grader, participated in a competition, titled “National History Day.” He studied one topic in history and made a documentary about it. He wanted to study a topic about the Civil Rights movement, and after looking at all the events, he chose the Freedom Rides. “What stood out to me was the diversity of those involved and how young the people were …,” he stated. The crowd was shown his documentation.
“As a 14-year-old in the eighth grade it was amazing to interview Charles Person, who at 18 became the youngest original Freedom rider. But now at 22, it resonates with me even more and his courage and sacrifice and what he did 55 years ago, is really even more amazing to me today … great honor to introduce who hasn’t just had an impact all of our lives, but an impact on my own life …”
Person, using a walker due to the effect of Agent Orange was given a standing ovation when he took the stage. He told his story, much of what was never reported in the events of that day. The group consisted of two retired professors, 12 students, one minister, one entertainer, three journalist, one photographer and two mediators. The group, who went to Washington, D.C. for training departed on May 4, 1961.
“We were optimistic we would be successful,” he said. “The most danger we anticipated was squirting ketchup on us, spitting on us or putting cigarettes out on us. That was the extent of violence anticipated.
He shared what happened on the Trailways bus he was riding. That bus arrived an hour behind the Greyhound bus which was set on fire. When they arrived in Anniston, the station was closed and no one was around. The driver told his passengers of the fire, how passengers were being taken to the hospital by car loads. They had no idea of the extent of the injures. The driver also said he would go no further until they went to the back of the bus.
Person spoke of being hit by a metal pipe which caused a growth at the base of his skull the size of his fist, that was removed in the 1990s and of his suffering from affect of Agent Orange while serving with the Marines in Vietnam.
“It’s very humbling being disabled … it’s very difficult depending on someone to do those things you’d do for yourself … there are thousands of teenagers who cannot read, cannot write, no marketable skills, those are the people who are far more disabled than I will ever be.”
The presentation included an interview of Person by Dick Rooker. Person was asked to share where his strength came from, his early experience with sit-ins and to share information about the Congress On Racial Equality. In addition, he was asked to share how he was chosen and how the choice affected family relations. He was asked what role faith played in the civil rights movements, the meaning of nonviolence, both in regards to then and today, and the disappointments he has felt.
Person noted he has chosen nonviolence as a way of life and is just as at home behind an AK47 as behind the Bible, but knows the Bible will work and it worked for him.
He stated, “freedom comes with responsibilities. We live in a society were there are bad guys in our community.” He stated there are too many people not contributing to make the community better and there are a lot of things needing correcting.
“There is so much stuff to be afraid of — Ebola, Isis… I don’t understand why people are so afraid.” He stated he believed police need to understand every kid is not the enemy while reminding the public that police are also not the enemy.
“I hold no resentment,” he stated with no animosity. However, he continued with, “before I leave this earth I would like to sit down and talk (to his attackers) … ‘what were you thinking?’ I could not imagine. What does it take to motivate someone to beat up a kid. I weighed 135 pounds soaking wet. ‘What were you thinking?'”
The couple was presented with a number of gifts, including a presentation of “Cage Bird Sings” by five West Noble High School students, and models of Freedom ride monuments created by Dave Bailey’s social studies class.
He will be speaking with fifth-graders, eighth-graders and juniors Tuesday in the Warsaw School Corporation.
Also participating in the program were members of the fifth, eighth and junior choir students from Lakeview, Edgewood, Lincoln, Washington, Madison and Warsaw High school.