They all stared in disbelief at what they had just heard. The man who had become the center of the civil rights movement had quietly told them that he would not be joining them. Despite their protestations and questions, he said that he didn't want to risk being arrested again. They chuckled derisively as many of them had been arrested several times. Worse, many of their group had just been beaten and were hospitalized.
Yet, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr would not be swayed. The Freedom Riders would continue without him.
The initial two groups had no idea what was waiting for them when the got into Alabama despite warnings from Dr. King who urged them to call of the rides or at least postpone them until a later date. His organizaton, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), had heard that the Klan had mobilized and was going to stop them by any means necessary. After the two buses had been halted by the Klan and various mobs of people, the group tried to reorganize and met with Dr. King. Nashville student and Freedom Ride leader Diane Nash felt that if violence were allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years. But Dr. King still thought it would be better to wait.
And he refused to join them for the second wave.
It was only later in the week, on May 21, 1961, when that Dr. King organized a rally at Reverend Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church to honor the Freedom Riders. This rally drew a crowd of more than 1500 people who became trapped in the church as a mob of 3,000 angry whites surrounded the structure. Hours went by as President Kennedy continued to pressure Alabama Governor John Patterson to send in the National Guard. He finally did and the rally attendees were able to leave the church relatively unscathed.
I tell this story because this year, on Dr. King's day, I want to point out that the man wasn't perfect and he certainly isn't the myth that has been created around him. Usually, I post something that contributes to the legend of Dr. King and, no doubt, he was a legendary figure who contributed an enormous amount of service to this country in terms of social justice.
But he was just a man and this year I wanted to illustrate that, like all of us, sometimes even legends have their moments when they have feet of clay.
For more information on the Freedom Riders, check out this documentary that aired on PBS's The American Experience.