Before Rosa Parks, there was Irene Morgan
On Saturday, February 28, 2009, the Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP, the Town of Chapel Hill, and the people of the Chapel Hill community gathered for a dedication of a highway historical marker to commemorate the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation (also known as the first “Freedom Rides”). The dedication included a march from Hargraves Community Center, down Franklin Street to the site of the marker at the southeast corner of Rosemary and Columbia Streets.
Attending the ceremony was George M. Houser, organizer of and key participant in the 1947 freedom rides. Houser, a spry 92-year-old World War II era pacifist, spoke eloquently about his experiences and even broke out a lyric sheet to give a nice rendition of the song “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow.”
This new historic marker in Chapel Hill commemorates a pivotal moment in the late-1940s struggle to desegregate interstate bus, air, and train travel across the United States. The Journey of Reconciliation sought to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia case – a ruling which outlawed the enforcement of state Jim Crow laws over interstate travel. An interracial group of 16 activists, including George Houser and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, embarked from Washington, D.C., traveling through the upper South. They met with strong resistance throughout, with resistance turning to violence during their stopover in Chapel Hill.
Rather than just recount the whole story myself, I’ll let Houser and Rustin tell it in their own words. To document the experience of the Freedom Rides the two co-wrote the pamphlet, “We Challenged Jim Crow” (published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality). The Southern Historical Collection happens to have a copy of it, as a part of the Charles M. Jones Papers. We gladly reproduce it below. The Chapel Hill portion of the story occurs on pages 5 and 6.
[Stay tuned for tomorrow's Part 2 post. You'll hear more about Rev. Charles Jones's involvement in this moment in history and you'll get to hear some of the audio from an oral history with one of the freedom riders...]