Finding Freedom Riders in Manatee County, 50 Years Later

ELLENTON (2011-4-18) -

Fifty years after they happened, the legacy of the "Freedom Rides" has brought together an elderly white couple, African American teacher and 11-year-old Hispanic boy – all living in Manatee County.

Johnson Middle School history teacher Sharon Jefferson believes many tend to forget that people of all colors, races and creeds participated in the Civil Rights movement.

“That’s what the Freedom Riders taught us as well,” Jefferson said. “It was not just black people fighting the fight.”

One of Jefferson’s prized pupils at is sixth-grader Alex Quinones. He became enamored with the Freedom Rides after watching Denzel Washington’s movie, The Great Debaters and picked it for his multi-media history project.

“I saw that James Farmer Jr. was in the movie, so I looked up more on him,” Quinones said. He discovered Farmer was a key organizer of the Freedom Rides. Intended as non-violent, the “rides” were met with brutal responses. A bus was burned. Riders were beaten. Hundreds were arrested.

“Everybody knew this would be life or death,” Quinones noted. “Even though they knew that, they still wanted to help.”

His teacher, Mrs. Jefferson, was not yet born in the summer of 1961. She wonders how the Freedom Riders prepared themselves psychologically.

“How do they get themselves ready for that because it was pretty much a life and death situation,” Jefferson said. “They had this resolve that it had to be done.”

Quinones captured what was behind the Freedom Riders resolve after talking with two of the 438 riders who happened to retire about 10 minutes away from the sixth-grader’s home.

“I really didn’t understand most of it until I interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Myers,” Quinones said. “So I didn’t understand what the whole feeling was until I started talking to them.”

You’re 19 years old and you’re angry,” said Winonah Myers, now 69. “You’re looking at this bus burning. You’re looking at people who have been beaten with pipes and you’re looking at policemen who are standing around watching this happen. And these people, what crime have they committed? They sat down on a bus next to someone.”

In 1961, Winonah Beamer Myers was a young white college student attending Central State University, a predominately black college in Ohio. She met her future husband there, David Myers.

For more than 40 years, Winonah and David lived pretty much in anonymity. But, that changed after University of South Florida history professor Dr. Ray Arsenault published his book, “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” which featured the Myers among others.

As the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Ride nears, the Myers have received numerous requests for interviews. They also are part of the PBS Documentary, Freedom Riders, which will premiere at Tampa Theater tonight.

Despite the passage of time, Winonah remains passionate on why she joined the “rides” - defying her mother and David’s wishes.

“These were our counselors, our friends and our heroes and these were the people who broadened our outlook and introduced us to the world,” Winonah said, her voice wavering with remembered anger. “They were the ones who couldn’t sit down or drink out of a fountain. That was just, that was too much.”

When the violence escalated, organizers suspended the rides. So college students like the Myers carried on. David’s ride took him through Montgomery, Alabama where he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the home of Ralph Abernathy.

“When we got to the house there, it was surrounded by National Guard troops,” David Myers said. “There were probably 20 or 30 soldiers and they had sandbags around the house and machine guns.”

He laughs about the scene now, but back then he understood the severity of what it meant to volunteer as a Freedom Rider.

“One feeling that I had for weeks while I was in jail, while I was on my way to jail or even on my way home, am I ever going to get home alive?” David questioned. “I was familiar with the lynchings and killings that had taken place.”

David was arrested for Breach of Peace in Jackson, Mississippi. He spent about three weeks in jail before getting bailed out.

Winonah refused to take bail. To her, it was important for the official record that someone serve their entire sentence. She was jailed June 11, 1961 and not released until Dec. 24, 1961 She served the longest jail sentence of any of the 438 Freedom Riders.

“I just felt that there ought to be a historical footnote somewhere that this was the punishment for the crime of sitting down in a waiting room next to a fellow student,” Winonah said. “I thought, if there wasn’t a single person that stayed the time, then it wasn’t, there was no way to prove the punishment.”

Dave and Winonah got married, had kids and grandkids who rarely asked them about that summer of 1961. Unlike young Alex Quinones who’s become like family.

“I thought they would be people who had a bunch of information,” Winonah said. “But they were really kind and welcoming and they really enjoyed my being there. I just thought it was amazing.”

On the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Ride, May 4th, Alex Quinones will be competing in the Tallahassee statewide history competition.

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