On this day in 1961: The “Freedom Riders,” headed from Washington to Jackson, Miss., to challenge the South’s segregated bus facilities, incur their first arrest during an overnight stop in Charlotte.
Joe Perkins, a 27-year-old New Yorker, refuses to leave after being denied a shoeshine in the bus station’s white-only barbershop and is jailed for trespassing.
“We had expected this sort of thing in the Deep South,” says James Farmer, executive director of the Congress on Racial Equality, “but not in Charlotte.”
The Freedom Riders will experience much worse treatment, starting with beatings in Rock Hill, S.C., and ending with bread-and-water imprisonment in Mississippi. Their mission, however, not only brings the bus system into compliance with the law but also arouses widespread public sympathy and paves the way for more civil rights workers to come South.
Footnote: Although I’ve never seen it confirmed, Chuck Berry apparently was alluding to the Freedom Ride when the “poor boy” protagonist of his “Promised Land” (1964) “stopped in Charlotte, but bypassed Rock Hill.” Berry wasn’t exactly Woody Guthrie, of course — he wrote the lyrics with the help of a prison atlas while serving time for a Mann Act conviction.
Footnote footnote: Elvis’ 1974 cover of “Promised Land,” which 23 years later resurfaced prominently in the “Men in Black” soundtrack, ” omits mention of Charlotte, Rock Hill and Georgia — the whole second stanza.