Oprah Winfrey’s show on May 4 honored the Freedom Riders on the 50th anniversary of their historic bus ride to desegregate public areas in the South.

Thirteen young people, many students, both black and white, boarded two Greyhound buses in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961 with the goal of riding to New Orleans. They were organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

The mission made it as far as Alabama without incident. There the first bus was firebombed outside Anniston, Ala., and passengers only barely escaped with their lives. After mob violence in Anniston and Birmingham, a group of students, mostly from Nashville, Tenn., continued the ride to Jackson, Miss., where local authorities decided to avoid violence and possible action by the Kennedy Administration Justice Department by simply arresting all the riders as they integrated the bus station. CORE and the Nashville student leaders decided to flood the Mississippi jails with new waves of freedom riders.

Among this group was Woollcott Smith of West Tisbury, then a sophomore at Michigan State, who summered on Lambert’s Cove Road.

Mr. Smith’s plan for the summer of 1961 was quite tame. His friend Adellar Norton had secured him a summer job at the Holmes Hole Store in Vineyard Haven selling mattresses, but when the call came that he was approved as a Freedom Rider, he went.

In his initial venture, Mr. Smith, accompanied by a group organized by CORE, including a minister, three rabbis and a postman, sought to test interstate bus stations and restaurants in the border states of Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas. An innocuous note in the Vineyard Gazette reported: “Woollcott Smith suffers no ‘Southern Discomfort,’ ” referring to his ride from New York through Virginia.

He then joined another group of CORE riders bound for Mississippi. On July 29, 1961, he was arrested in Jackson, Miss., for refusing to leave a waiting room designated for Negroes. He was sentenced and served nearly a month in jail. His prison number was 21255; he had just turned 20. Some of his time was spent in the maximum security unit; his prison attire was stamped MSU. As a student at Michigan State University, he reveled in the abbreviation.

Prison was no picnic; in fact it was brutal, and he said the experience has remained with him for his entire life. But there were some light moments, including when they followed the Mantle and Maris home run derby on a radio smuggled behind bars and annoyed the guards with their singing. Later that summer, the Gazette noted Mr. Woollcott “had time for a brief sojourn on the Island, after his freedom order stay in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, before he had to fly back to appear at the appeal of his sentence.”

A few of the Freedom Riders went on to earn fame in their own right. Tom Hayden was a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), later husband to Jane Fonda and a California state senator. John Lewis, after a brutal beating during the ride, marched with Martin Luther King and is a U.S. Congressional representative from Georgia. Bill Svanoe formed the Rooftop Singers and achieved fame for his 1963 hit single Walk Right In.

Mr. Smith graduated from Michigan State, earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins and taught statistics for three decades at Temple University in Philadelphia. Currently he consults and does research on statistical issues in environmental science. Of his cell mates, he said: “I’ve kept in touch with Rick Sheviakov and Ellen Ziskind. We were on the Nashville-to-Jackson leg of the ride.”

For Oprah’s show, 178 of the original 436 Freedom Riders were flown into Chicago and put up in a hotel. Mr. Smith was among them. Many of the riders had been arrested and jailed in Parchman, Miss.

Ms. Winfrey had a tear in her eye as she recalled growing up in Mississippi (she was born in 1954), and praised the riders for use of nonviolence to achieve major social change. She noted a direct result of the ride was that the federal government ordered the removal of all signs that separated blacks and whites in public areas. The Freedom Riders accomplished a great deal.

Hank Thomas was a leader in Parchman. He organized another reunion of Freedom Riders, in Jackson, Miss., last Sunday, May 22. Following his traumatic experience on the first bus, the one that was firebombed, he served as a medic in Viet Nam, again surviving a near-death experience. Following his army discharge, he worked at a McDonald’s in Georgia; today he owns three McDonald’s and two Marriott hotels.

A group of students joined the reunion of Freedom Riders as part of the Mississippi Freedom 50 National Youth Summit for Social Justice, which aims to improve fairness and quality in public education in Mississippi. The event included a screening of the French film Grandpa Was a Freedom Rider. (Mr. Smith and his wife, Leah, have two grandchildren, Nova, three and a half, and Christopher, eight months.) Another event planned was a tour bus ride to Parchman Penitentiary, where the former inmates could view the maximum security unit prior to its demolition.

With the tension-wracked Freedom Rides half a century behind him, Mr. Smith can sit back and relish the role of hero in his quiet, understated way. He was recently recognized at a luncheon meeting on contributions of African Americans to the culture and history of the Vineyard organized by the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living. He appeared on Oprah. He went off to Jackson. Most important, however, is that deep down he knows he did the right thing, all those years ago. That took courage and determination. How many of us can say that?


Gazette contributor Tom Dresser lives in Oak Bluffs.