A son of Piedmont continued the Rides
by Eddie Burkhalter
May 11, 2011 | 3719 views |  0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On May 14, 1961, as the Greyhound bus with the first of the Freedom Riders was burning on the side of the highway outside of Anniston, Bill Harbour and his friends were elsewhere, celebrating with a picnic. They had just integrated Nashville’s lunch counters and movie theaters.

Harbour, a native of Piedmont, was a student at Tennessee State University and a member of the Student Central Committee of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council.

When it became clear that the first wave of Freedom Riders could not continue, the students in Nashville took up the gauntlet. Three days later, Harbour was on another bus headed toward Birmingham with nine other battle-hardened students, all trained in non-violent demonstration techniques.

“We felt that if we let the violence stop the Freedom Ride, then anything else we’d do, they could use violence to try to stop us,” recalled Harbour. Aware of the dangers ahead, they all wrote last-minute wills to their families and friends.

Harbour grew up in Piedmont, the son of a cotton mill worker. His father also owned the only black barbershop in town, where a young Harbour shined shoes and learned to cut hair.

His mother worked in the kitchens of whites in town. She and her husband taught their eight children to “do what was right,” Harbour said.

“Before the Freedom Rides, here in the South, black people knew their own place,” Harbour said. “It was not that black people didn’t want something better, but they knew that if they started doing something that was out of the ordinary, they would cause trouble.”

Harbour bucked his father’s wish for him to take over the barbershop and instead applied in 1960 to Jacksonville State University, where he was denied admission.

That was a turning point. “We had a college right there, 11 miles from home, and he had to go to Nashville,” recalled his younger brother, Jerry Harbour. “They didn’t have any blacks at JSU in 1960.”

Harbour’s Freedom Ride ended in Parchman state penitentiary in Mississippi, where he and hundreds of other riders were sent after being arrested at the bus station in Jackson, Miss. Harbour spent 30 days in the prison farm.

His mother asked him to stay away from Piedmont until things calmed down. He stayed away for five years. When he returned, he found proud parents who were living in a changing world.

Harbour spent a career working as a civilian employee for the U.S. Army, and now has a scholarship named after him at Tennessee State. He’s retired and living in Atlanta.

Earlier this month, Harbour was one of 178 former Freedom Riders reunited on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He often talks with students, warning them that the ride is far from over.

“Every year when my scholarship goes out, we have very few young black men applying for it,” he said. Last year, 22 students applied. Only two were black.

“We still have a lot of work to do.”

Eddie Burkhalter is news director for the Piedmont Journal.
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A son of Piedmont continued the Rides by Eddie Burkhalter

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