50 years ago, a local man rode into history as a Freedom Rider in the Jim Crow South

Sometimes I'll tackle a white-hot topic in this space that inspires readers to become writers.

Amid the slings and arrows of rejoinder, some gracious letter-writer might offer an attaboy for my "courage."

And I smile. But not for the reason you might suspect.


I appreciate the sentiment. But I sit in an air-conditioned office, pounding out thoughts that occasionally cause conniptions.

It's not like I stared down bloodthirsty mobs aboard buses winding through the Jim Crow South in the early '60s.

Something Allen Cason Jr. knows something about.

Monday will mark 50 years since the former Orlando resident rode into history. Cason participated in the Freedom Rides, a national movement that, in 1961, inspired groups of blacks and whites to challenge the Deep South practice of herding blacks into the back of buses and trains and corralling them into substandard "colored" accommodations at depots.

PBS will chronicle their journey Monday night in "Freedom Riders."

Early on, Cason developed a thirst for freedom. Growing up in Orlando's Washington Shores, he witnessed segregation's soul-sucking malevolence. He'd watch his father swallow and answer to "boy" — or worse. Never "sir." Never "mister."

And he says he never forgot the grocer who demanded that he buy not a few grapes, but the entire bunch because "I had my hands on them."

The 1960 Jones High graduate walked onto the campus of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University primed to end American apartheid. There, he joined the Nashville Student Movement.

"My father's generation wasn't going" to spur change, he says. "It was time for young people to do something."

By the time the Freedom Rides ramped up, Cason had been through sit-ins and stand-ins to integrate Nashville's lunch counters and movie theaters. He was a seasoned practitioner of nonviolence techniques. A perfect resume for a job sure to court violence.

The U.S. Supreme Court had twice struck down racial segregation on interstate buses and ruled against segregation for waiting rooms, lunch counters and restrooms at facilities for interstate travelers.

The Supremes' insistence on desegregation met with the Deep South's resistance.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) solicited recruits to ride southbound buses to test whether the high court ruling had taken hold. A trip participants understood could be a one-way ride.

Cason and others wrote their wills before the trip.

"I told my parents I loved them, and that I thought I might be killed, but don't worry because what I'm doing is for the fate of our people," he says.

Those fears were confirmed after a Freedom Ride bus was firebombed outside Anniston, Ala., and riders on another bus were mobbed by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham.

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