Bishop’s begins Black History Month with speech by local ‘Freedom Rider’

By Pat Sherman

Students at The Bishop’s School are receiving a first-person education on the Civil Rights movement from men who played key roles in this tumultuous, yet triumphant period in American history.

On Feb. 2, students heard from Congressman and mayoral candidate Bob Filner, who recalled his participation in the Freedom Rides of 1961. The demonstrations resulted in the two-month incarceration of Filner and other Freedom Riders, ultimately paving the way for the demise of existing segregation laws in the Deep South.

On Feb. 22 and 23, Dr. Clarence B. Jones, a Scholar-in-Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University, will visit the Bishop’s campus. The 86-year-old civil rights pioneer and attorney served as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legal council, adviser and draft speechwriter.

A free presentation by Dr. Jones will be at 6 p.m. Feb. 22 in the Geier Family Presentation Hall at Bishop’s School. Reservations are required.

“This is living history,” said Veronica Phillips, a Bishop’s parent and UC San Diego employee who organized the presentations. “These kids have no concept of Jim Crow laws, segregation … or of not being able to sit in the bus terminal or get a sandwich at Woolworths. As a parent, I think all children need to learn about this.”

Speaking to students in the school’s gymnasium, Filner recalled being a shy, 18-year-old engineering student at Cornell University when he boarded a bus to challenge segregation laws in the South.

Though he said his father was supportive of his activism, Filner joked, “He didn’t like it when I stole his credit card” to do this.

Though courts in several southern states had found segregation to be legal and constitutional, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Boynton v. Virginia, 1960) outlawed racial segregation in restaurants and waiting rooms that served buses that crossing state lines.

“The idea was to send busses across state lines in integrated groups — black and white — and walk into a waiting room or a restroom that was segregated,” Filner said. “You, therefore, would be arrested. …

“We tried to fill up the jails and then appeal the convictions we had for breach of peace and inciting a riot.”

Filner said he did not know whether he would be met with violence, though added, “I knew something was a little more serious than we had thought, (because) before we got on the bus we had to sign our last will and testament.”

The first bus of Freedom Riders was firebombed on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961, near Anniston, Ala. The attacking mob tried to block the door so the Freedom Riders could not escape.

“Eight to 10 students inside were grabbed out and almost beaten to death,” Filner said. “I looked at that and said, ‘This can’t be what America ought to be about.’”

When Filner’s bus arrived in Alabama, he and other passengers were prohibited from exiting. In Jackson, Miss., when they were finally allowed to disembark, an angry mob awaited.

“They were almost your stereotype redneck guys with ax handles and sticks and rocks,” Filner said. “The police decided it would be best to arrest us quickly, to get us in jail and away from the violence.”

Though Filner and his companions were sentenced to six months in jail, most of them were there for about two months.

The Freedom Riders eventually appealed their case to U.S. Supreme Court, where they prevailed.

“In the end, the Supreme Court said you cannot segregate in the United States of America,” Filner said. “If we could change segregation, which was so vigorously defended with violence and death, we can change anything.”

The presentation ended with a gospel performance by the Freedom Singers, which included a moving rendition of Sam Cooke’s 1964 classic, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Prior to the presentation, Head of School Aimeclaire Roche read a letter from First Lady Michelle Obama, commending The Bishop’s School for its Black History Month celebrations.

Earlier in the day, students in the school’s African American Honor Society lunched with Filner, enjoying a host of traditional African-American cuisine, from gumbo and ribs to collard greens to red velvet cake.

Vivian Phillips, a junior, presented Filner with a thank-you gift bag from the honor society.

Up next

What: Presentation by Dr. Clarence Jones

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 22

Where: Bishop’s, 7607 La Jolla Blvd.

Cost: Free

RSVP: (866) 981-5898

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