PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / email@example.com
At 19, Ellen Broms was a Los Angeles City College student devoted to the civil rights cause. Now 69, a grandmother and retired state worker, Broms lives in Sacramento, where a collage recalls her days as a Freedom Rider.
PUBLISHED SATURDAY, MAY. 21, 2011
The first time she was in Texas – 50 years ago, as part of an 11-person Freedom Rider group from California – Ellen Broms was thrown in jail for unlawful assembly after trying to desegregate the Houston train station's coffee shop.
The second time, earlier this month, she received a Texas State Senate proclamation naming her an honorary Texan.
"I'm so ordinary," said Broms, 69, a retired state worker who lives in Sacramento and returned to Houston for a Freedom Riders conference.
"I sew. I go to the Y. But people in Houston wanted their picture taken with me. They wanted my autograph."
They're aging now, their numbers beginning to dwindle, but as young people in the 1960s, Broms and 435 other Freedom Riders helped transform the nation.
In this landmark anniversary year – commemorated by a series of events, from a late April "Oprah" taping to the Houston conference to a national Freedom Rider reunion that begins Sunday in Mississippi – they remember their part in a defining era for civil rights.
America has changed enormously in the past half-century, evolving from the staggering repression and violence of the segregated Jim Crow era to a more open and tolerant society.
It's astonishing now to imagine that well into the 1960s, under restrictive Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation in the South, people of different races weren't allowed to sit together in a waiting room, sip from the same water fountains or attend the same schools.
"It's astonishing and very sobering at the same time," said Larry Earl, executive director of Southern California's Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, which created an exhibit on California's Freedom Riders.
"We're just 50 years removed from that time. What we need to remember is, we can slip back if we don't stay vigilant. It's always a quest, becoming American and being part of a more perfect union."
The point of the freedom rides, which took place from May to August 1961, was to push the Kennedy administration to enforce a recent Supreme Court ruling making all interstate travel facilities – waiting rooms, restrooms, coffee shops and water fountains – available equally to whites and blacks.
The Freedom Riders were in large part college students, both black and white, who were members of the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE. As they traveled on buses and trains through the South, they endured abuse, imprisonment and horrific beatings.
Their efforts acted as a bridge between the lunch counter sit-ins in the South a year earlier and the voting rights movement still to come.
More than 125 Freedom Riders were from California.
"They were very heroic," said the California Museum's Brenna Hamilton. "But the California riders never really get any mention."
Even so, they helped change what America would become.
In August 1961, the train was bound for Mississippi, but the California contingent – including Broms, Robert Farrell, now 74, and Steven McNichols, now 72 – got off in Houston to relax in the coffee shop along with a group of Texas Southern University students. They never got back on.
Farrell was a recent UCLA graduate and student activist.
"Life changed for me after the arrest in Houston," he said. "Coming back to L.A. with an arrest record, things were closed to me. Back in the day, to be a young Negro college graduate with an arrest record, no employer was interested in that."
Instead, he became involved in public service and politics, eventually going on to a 17-year career as a Los Angeles city councilman.
McNichols, now a retired attorney in San Francisco, was also a UCLA student. In the segregated Houston jail, he and the three other white male Freedom Riders were harshly beaten over two days' time by other white prisoners.
"The guards told them to beat us up, which they did," he said. "We thought we were dead. I still feel lucky to be alive."
When he was released, he dedicated himself to the civil rights movement, at one point working for the Ford Foundation making grants to civil rights groups.
"Being a Freedom Rider changed my life," he said.
Broms returned to Southern California, married, had two children and became a social worker. She remains an activist as a member of Grandmothers for Peace and Jewish Voices for Peace.
"I ask students about their participation," she said. "Maybe they've walked in a march. A few have. A very few. I tell them, 'The next time you see people standing on the street corner holding a sign, it might be me.'
"I don't think I'd want to be arrested now," she added. "I'm a little too old to sleep on the floor. But I don't rule it out."