Remembering Freedom Riders: 50 years later

Genevieve Houghton remembers her time as a Freedom Rider
Genevieve Houghton remembers her time as a Freedom Rider

CARBONDALE, IL (KFVS) - It's been 50 years since a group of young black and white civil rights activists boarded buses headed South in the name of desegregation.

One member of the original group called the "Freedom Riders" now lives in Carbondale. She and others are featured in a new documentary film detailing the effort.

In 1961, Genevieve Houghton and many other Freedom Riders undoubtedly helped to get the civil rights movement rolling.

"There was a Supreme Court decision that said buses, trains, any form of transportation that was interstate couldn't be discriminatory," said Houghton. "None of these southern states ever intended to implement the law, they weren't implementing the law, and something had to be done."

So Houghton and 12 others boarded a bus bound for the Deep South.

"When we got to Birmingham, we met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and he acted very gloomy about our prospects," said Houghton. "I couldn't understand why he acted as if he'd never see us again; I didn't have a full comprehension of what was lying in wait for us."

Houghton learned why he'd been so gloomy at the bus depot in Anniston, Alabama. An angry white mob attacked some of the Freedom Riders and slashed the buses' tires.

"Although the bus finally got out of Anniston, it didn't get more than a few miles because the tires were ruined," said Houghton.

The mob followed. Houghton and the others were still on the bus when someone broke a window and threw a firebomb inside.

"There was no explosion, but there was certainly a fire, and pretty soon smoke on the bus obscured everything," said Houghton. "I didn't know the front door was being held shut, essentially they thought they would barbeque us."

Houghton says the mob beat up a number of the Freedom Riders as they escaped the bus. She was spared.

Then she says a man fired shots into the air which scared off the mob and she and the others were taken to a hospital. Still, she says, after smoke inhalation and taking a literal beating - the group continued its travels in the name of civil rights.

"Everybody voted to go on," said Houghton. "Which I think shows some guts."

You can meet Genevieve Houghton Saturday, April 2 and learn much more about the Freedom Riders by attending the southern Illinois premier of the new documentary about the group.

The showing starts at 3:00 at the varsity theater in Carbondale. The movie is free and open to the public.

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