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Freedom Riders: The 5 who forever changed Arkansas

A little more 50 years ago, Little Rock was still segregated. Even after the Little Rock Nine, separate bathrooms, lunch counters, and public facilities were common.

The Freedom Riders drove to Little Rock in July of 1961 with the goal of desegregating public transportation facilities.

After the very widely publicized desegregation of schools in 1957, Dr. John Kirk, Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and Director of UALR's Institute of Race and Ethnicity, said the city knew what it was like to be in the national spotlight.

"People in Little Rock were very much on the back foot. They didn't want to be in the headlines again. They had just gotten out of the headlines for negative publicity. The economy had been hit badly because of that negative publicity," Kirk said.

The St. Louis branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) formed a team of five young people from across the country to go on the ride of a lifetime through the south.

Benjamin Elton Cox, 30, was a reverend from North Carolina and the veteran Freedom Rider of the group. 18-year-old Annie Lumpkin was a student from St. Louis. Janet Reinitz, 23, was an artist and homemaker. Bliss Ann Malone, 23, was a teacher from St. Louis. John Curtis Raines, 27, was a pastor and Fulbright Scholar from New York.

All five boarded a freedom bus in St Louis with the goal of desegregating public transportation facilities throughout the south, from St. Louis to New Orleans.

Raines vividly remembers his freedom ride experience.

"I was naive. I didn't know what the heck I was getting into to be honest. I said, 'Sure I'll go.' I went out to St. Louis and was joined there by two black people and another white woman from New York City. An artist," Raines said.

In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Boynton vs. Virginia ordered integration of all bus terminals.

The Freedom Riders kept this in mind during their voyage to Little Rock.

"I am obviously a white guy, but not so obviously, I was born in a class of privilege. I went to private schools, I went to elite universities. I went to elite graduate schools and all the way through that, no teacher ever told us privileged white males that we lived life and understood life from a tiny bubble," Raines said.

Kirk said the group under estimated the environment of Little Rock.

"They expected things to be fairly peaceful in Little Rock. They were on their way to New Orleans, which is more in the death south. They expected to pass through Little Rock with ease," Kirk said.

The Freedom Riders arrived at the Trailways Bus station, which is currently where the Stephens parking lot is.

"We got there early in the morning. There was a mob. We went the four of us together. Black and white together, into the white waiting room together, and we sat down," Raines said. "We were arrested promptly. The charge was a threatened breach of the peace. I had never been arrested before. I was entering very interesting territory," Raines said.

A six month prison sentence and a $500 fine was what their crime equated to in Arkansas, which was common, according to Kirk.

"The Arkansas General Assembly passed a whole range of laws that were directed to do a variety of things. One of them was to forestall non-violent direct protest. That law was passed as a raft of laws to try to stop civil rights demonstrations," Kirk said.

Their fight for freedom was just beginning.

"The next day we were brought before Judge Quinn Glover. A man like me. A white male of class privilege," Raines said. "He said 'I have to take you into chambers. I want to talk with you before I find you guilty.' He took us in his chambers. This is a direct quote: 'I am going to find you guilty because if I don't, I won't get reelected. The guy I am running against is worst on negroes than I am.' That is a direct quote."

"Eventually, the judge relented and admitted that he didn't have the legal authority to stop them from continuing on the freedom ride, and he relented and he gave them another talking to and he had to let them go," Kirk said.

Little Rock became the lesson to prepare the Freedom Riders for more tough trials ahead.

"I was entering into the deeper and deeper south. From when we left Little Rock. Therefore entering deeper and deeper into the territory of [the] Klu Klux Klan, who wanted to kill me. Thank God they didn't," Raines said.

More than 50 years later, John Raines is now Dr. Raines. He's a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

After battling for civil rights firsthand, Raines said communities are still pleading for justice.

"American's are mad today. They have every right to be mad today. If you are a patriot, you are a mad American today. The answer is not less government, the answer is better government," Raines said. "We all should struggle to be a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, not just the special people at the top."

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel has an exhibit dedicated to the Freedom Riders. For information on the exhibit click here.

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