This week (May 4) in 1961, in Washington, D.C., in what would later be called “Freedom Summer,” black and white college students boarded buses to begin their historic freedom ride through the most segregated areas of America’s Deep South. Their intent was to purposely violate state laws that prohibited whites and blacks from sitting in the same bus seats on interstate highways, or using the same bathrooms in the bus depots along the way.
To advance their cause, which they hoped would garner national attention, the students were prepared for beatings, arrests and jailings. They got all of that and more, including the firebombing of their buses.
But of all the indignities visited upon these freedom riders, perhaps the most memorable happened to a young black man named Frederick Leonard after he and his fellow freedom riders were jailed in Jackson, Mississippi — Mississippi being at the time the most racist state in America.
Allowed only one possession, the Bible, the young inmates began praying and singing, which so angered the prison guards that they removed the mattresses in their prison cells, forcing the students to sleep on the cold floor that night.
The next day the mattresses were returned, but when the freedom riders resumed their praying and singing, the guards ordered the mattresses removed again.
“So they came to take our mattresses, and by ‘they’ I mean the black inmates doing hard time,” Leonard recalled. “They did all the guards’ dirty work.”
Except that Leonard decided he was not going to give up his mattress, and so, holding on to it for dear life, Leonard was dragged out of his cell.
“So they had this one inmate named Pee Wee,” Leonard said, “And he was hard, man. He was this short, black, muscular guy. And the guards pointed to me and said, ‘Get him, Pee Wee!’ So Pee Wee came down on my head … BAM! BAM! He hit me hard.
“But here’s the strange thing … Pee Wee was crying! I mean tears were rolling down his cheeks! And I remembered all those times when my parents would say to me, ‘Son, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.’ Well, it hurt Pee Wee a lot more than it hurt me.”
No doubt. After all, in Leonard, Pee Wee saw a young black with more strength in one scrawny finger than he, Pee Wee, had in his entire muscle-bound body. Pee Wee also must have seen, and been saddened by, a vision of a future he knew he would never be a part of — a future that would include, as one result of Leonard’s strength and courage, this past February’s annual celebration of Black History Month.