Minnesota Freedom Rider has remained true to the cause

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 10, 2011 - 10:13 PM

It was nearly 50 years ago and she was 19. The blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter of an Irish immigrant, she was riding the Greyhound Bus to Jackson, Miss., to get thrown in jail.

Claire O'Connor was the only woman on that bus, but she was not alone. O'Connor was one of seven Minnesotans, part of the delegation of "Freedom Riders," who descended on Jackson that spring to bring attention to the South's refusal to enforce new laws that forbade segregation at bus and train stations. Their efforts, and arrests, drew international attention to the issue and helped give new momentum to the civil rights movement.

The first photo of what was called the "Minnesota Six" appeared on page 5A of this newspaper: six young men, all white, dressed in suits and ties, carrying small duffel bags. They stood outside the Greyhound station, and one carried a guitar. The story implied that "a blonde woman" bought a ticket at the last minute, but O'Connor had been a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and planned to go on the trip all along.

It was not a decision anyone made lightly. Other CORE members had been badly beaten. One bus was stopped by a mob as it entered Alabama. The bus was set on fire and the crowd tried to hold members inside to burn to death.

O'Connor was concerned, but felt she had to participate in the protest. Her parents were active in the civil rights movement and her dad had been a union organizer, so they not only understood her desire to risk her safety, they supported it.

"I just felt like it was something I had to do," said O'Connor. "I was just a cog, following wonderful leaders who inspired me."

The group included Zev Aelony, Marv Davidov, Robert Baum, Gene Uphoff and David Morton. Peter Ackerberg was studying at Columbia at the time, and was on the second Freedom Riders bus from Montgomery to Jackson. He later moved to Minnesota and was a reporter for the Minneapolis Star from 1965 to 1982 before becoming a lawyer. He still lives in Minnesota. O'Connor, Ackerberg and Baum were on the Oprah show last week that celebrated the actions of the Freedom Riders.

"I was 22 at the time, and just felt the moral compulsion to go," Ackerberg said. "I thought I just can't stand by. I didn't realize until later how dangerous it was and how it could have easily gone [badly]."

In fact, violence almost stopped Ackerberg's trip before it began. The beatings of earlier Freedom Riders caused members of CORE to meet in Montgomery to decide whether to continue. Ackerberg joined Martin Luther King and others at a church while an angry crowd gathered outside. Before long, what smelled like smoke wafted into the church. It was tear gas. Authorities were fighting segregationists who were attempting to intimidate or harm Freedom Riders.

Ackerberg and the others were held in the church overnight for safety. He eventually rode on to Jackson, the only white person in the group. Ironically, he was arrested entering the "white" section of the Jackson bus station with the black protesters. Ackerberg stayed in jail five days, then bailed himself out as he was about to be transferred to the state prison, Parchman Farm.

"The prison had a reputation for people not getting out because they were killed," Ackerberg said. "I couldn't do that."

O'Connor was also arrested at the Jackson bus station for "breach of the peace," even though the activists and police were the only ones at the station. She ended up in the women's section with female protesters who'd come from other states. Her male companions were incarcerated in the men's section. Prisoners were only allowed to read the New Testament or racist literature.

The Minnesota governor at the time, Elmer L. Andersen, was concerned about the treatment of the Minnesotans, so he sent an investigative team down to ensure they were being held humanely.

"We sang songs in prison, but if we sang, they took away our mattresses," said O'Connor. "And we weren't even that bad."

She recalls it "as a fairly good time, except for the catfish with whiskers on it and molasses in your coffee. My memories were fairly positive."

O'Connor went on to work with several nonprofits, including those serving battered women and teen prostitutes. She also helped register black voters in Mississippi.

"I do believe we had an impact," she said. "The Freedom Riders were the fire built under the civil rights movement in general."

Still, O'Connor finds that many young people don't know anything about the movement: "When I say I was with the Freedom Riders, they say 'I didn't know you were a biker chick.'"

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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