By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writerwith graphics from Rhiannon Koh
Six decades ago, in 1961, systemic segregation darkly dominated the Deep South of America.
Police officers, along with with the courts, brutally enforced the Jim Crow laws. These laws segregated and disenfranchised African Americans to preserve the racial order as an institution. The laws mandated segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants. The Ku Klux Klan, a White supremacist group, terrorized Africans and Jews, across the South.
The United States Supreme Court decided and Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. The Southern states ignored the federal decisions and rulings. The federal government did not enforce them.
Midst the growing Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Riders were civil right activists, Africans and Whites, mostly students, who challenged the racial status quo. They rode Interstate buses in the South. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sponsored the Freedom Rides. They were trained in nonviolence tactics.
From May 4 to December 10, 1961, the Freedom Riders rode over 60 Freedom Rides. They suffered ugly mob violence. White mobs assaulted them, while the police officers conspired with Ku Klux Klan. Americans were shocked by the vicious civil unrest on segregation in the Deep South.
Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders : 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, wrote their history. He reported 436 Freedom Riders: 230 Americans, 204 Whites, 1 Asian, and 1 Asian American.
The Asian American Freedom Rider
As Jackson, Mississippi, Mary Magdalene Harrison was a student at Tougaloo College. Born in the Philippines, she was adopted and raised in an Asian American military family.
On June 23, 1961, Mary participated in the Freedom Ride at Trailways terminal at Jackson. At the waiting room, police officers arrested Mary, along with Elnora Price, Thomas Armstrong, and Joseph Ross.
In a 2011 interview, Mary remembered the her Freedom Ride:
On November 1, 1961, Interstate Commerce Commission ruled to prohibit segregation in interstate transit terminals. Passengers can sit anywhere on interstate buses and trains. Freedom Rides inspired rural southern Africans to use civil disobedience as a strategy for regaining their civil rights. Three years after the Freedom Rides, Congress enacted the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlawed segregation in public facilities across America.
For Mary Magdalene Harrison, she married Gene Lee. Mary pursued a career in education. She became principal at Boyd Elementary School in Jackson. Mary and Gene raised three children. Angelique C. Lee, daughter, serves on the Jackson City Council. Mary died on September 26, 2016, at age 77.
Fred Clark, a fellow Freedom Rider, recalled:.
Asian Americans will proudly remember Mary Magdalene Harrison as our Freedom Rider of 1961.