Auburn man recalls 1961 arrest for sitting in wrong section of train station

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AUBURN – Gordon Harris is no stranger to a jail cell.

He was arrested “time and time” for sticking up for the rights of others.

For that work Harris and others will be honored on the Ophrah Winfrey Show May 4.

Harris, 73,  is one of 400 Freedom Riders, who in 1961 went to the deep south, risking their lives and freedom, to challenge local segregation, or Jim Crow, laws.

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Fifty years ago Harris was sentenced to six months behind bars for sitting in the “colored” section of a Mississippi train station.

Being a Freedom Rider “took a tremendous amount of courage,” said Nathan Godfried, history professor at the University of Maine. 

“The Freedom Rides were very important in the civil rights movement, in part by galvanizing people like Mr. Harris to get directly involved,” Godfried said.  “Those people in turn would spread the word, which led to a greater mass movement.”

Becoming a Freedom Rider, especially for someone like Harris, who is white and from the Northeast, “took a great deal of idealism about the disconnect in American society,” all the rhetoric about equality versus “the actual conditions of discrimination,” Godfried said.

After Freedom Riders were beaten and jailed, President John F. Kennedy sent  federal troops to the south to protect them.

Harris, a former Quaker minister who retired when his illness, Huntington’s Disease — a progressive, degenerative disease that causes certain nerve cells in the brain to deteriorate — prevented him from continuing.

In 1961 Harris was 23, a college student in Rochester, N.Y.

He grew up in a household concerned with human rights. His mother was an officer in the NAACP. “I was part of the junior NAACP when I was in high school,” he said.

Jim Farmer, a passionate leader in the Congress of Racial Equality, came to town to speak about the planned Freedom Riders, asking for volunteers to go to the south.

Harris was moved. He joined and headed south. Farmer’s call generated volunteers from all over the country.

“More and more people volunteered,” Harris said. “By the time by the time I got there Freedom Riders were spreading out to other forms of transportation,” not just buses but trains and planes.

He was assigned to ride the train from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss.

There were 15 to 20 in his group, a mix of whites and blacks.

The group rode the train to Jackson. When they got off they sat in the train station. The whites sat in the “colored” section; blacks sat in the “whites only” section, ignoring the “whites only” and “colored” signs.

Doing that meant scary encounters with southern law officials who looked the other way as buses were set on fire, and civil rights workers were intimidated, beaten and killed.

“I was arrested, and dragged to the paddy wagon and taken to jail,” Harris said. His crime was “breach of the peace. I was sitting on the wrong side of the train station.”

The group appeared before a judge who swiftly ruled they had broken segregation laws. He sentenced them to six months.

People in Jackson, Miss., were angry about the Freedom Riders in their town. The riders were intimidated, yelled at, threatened, insulted.

“One jailer kept coming to the window of the jail telling us how we had them all wrong. They ‘did not hate their niggers.’ He said it a could of times. We reached out to him non-violently.”

Harris wasn’t at the Jackson jail long. The number of people jailed for violating Jim Crow laws was mounting.

In a week or two, “we filled up the jail to call attention to the evil,” Harris said. “They had us carted up to the penitentiary. More and more people were coming in behind us. They kept me there two months.”

Meanwhile, the media began covering the Freedom Riders, making it national news. That captured the attention of Washington, D.C.

The movement was successful, Harris said.

“A year later a law was passed, finally, that segregation in interstate traffic was illegal,” he said.

Harris said he wasn’t angry about being arrested. He expected it.

He did it because he was frustrated that blacks were denied basic rights like eating in public restaurants, drinking from certain water fountains, taking public transportation and voting.

“I thought how stupid it was that people were treated this way. I wanted to do something about it,” Harris said.

Becoming a Freedom Rider “got me started,” Harris said. It changed his life. He spent years advocating the rights of others.

After, he worked as a civil rights worker for CORE in Mississippi, helping blacks register to vote and gain access to rights they were denied. He worked for CORE in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, taking part in demonstrations, and “was arrested again and again.”

He worked for the NAACP in Mississippi, and marched to Montgomery, Ala., with Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 1970s he spent a year in Ireland working in the peace movement, “trying to see how what I heard learned working with different groups” could work in Ireland. In the 1980s he worked with Native Americans at the Wounded Knee trial.

One way to change a mass culture mistreating a group of people is “by speaking truth to power.” Showing up and being there says a lot, he said.

Eventually he came back north, joined the Quakers, went to a seminary and began pastoral work, “which is what brought me to Maine.”

He served as a Winthrop pastor for five years until Huntington’s Disease began to take over. “It’s inherited. My dad had the same thing.”

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, belongs to the same Lewiston Friends Meeting, known as the Quakers, as Harris

Rotundo called Harris a person “of great courage and integrity who’s lived his values.” Despite his illness “the giving has never left him,” Rotundo said, recalling how he’s volunteered to read to children and be a mentor in Big Brothers-Big Sisters.

Harris said his move to Maine was “just in time to welcome the Somali’s. You see some of the same discrimination, the same anger,” he said. It happens “for no good reason.”

What can be learned from the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, Harris said, is that “non-violence works. You just have to keep at it.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

Freedom Rider television programs

May 4 – The Oprah Winfrey Show will highlight the Freedom Rides of 1961. Auburn’s Gordon Harris will be on the show along with others who stood against discrimination.

May 16 – PBS will air “Freedom Riders,” called a powerful harrowing and inspiration story of six blacks who changed American forever.

Blogger lambasts Trump

On April 27 Baratunde Thurston, a New York City comedian and writer, posted a video on his blog that is anything but funny. Thurston made an emotional condemnation of Donald Trump for his racists demands that President Barack Obama show his birth certificate to prove he is a citizen.

What Trump did is an insult, Thurston said, to all the Americans who sacrificed their freedom, their ability to earn money and their safety to become Freedom Riders “and intervene on behalf of those who they also saw as Americans. … They got on buses, sat in protests and died in waves of domestic terrorism so someone like me” could voting without paying a racist poll worker a tax, or prove his grandfather wasn’t a slave.

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