Fifty years have passed since the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the immortal words of his dream.
King’s vision of a color-blind society was something upheld in the years prior by the Freedom Riders, who rode interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups beginning in 1961 to challenge segregation in seating.
Nevada County is home to two Freedom Riders, one of whom had the opportunity to meet King during her time in the civil rights movement.
Mary Jorgensen, a current Nevada City resident, grew up in a white, rural town in Indiana. She said she had never seen a minority until she attended Manchester College, one of the three peace churches in the country.
“People were exploring and growing in their thinking on war and peace,” she said.
Jorgensen and her husband joined the Quaker religion at the age of 24, drawn to the messages of nonviolence and inclusivity of all people.
“I wanted all races to be part of it,” she said. “It didn’t take long in this country to learn what you had as a white person and what you have as a black person is different.”
Jorgensen said she had the opportunity to meet King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, through mutual friends, who were “just wonderful people,” she said. “I didn’t see them that often but did have an occasion to sit and talk, usually about peace and interracial things.”
Jorgensen said she could not afford to attend the March on Washington but participated in a Nevada County protest that consisted of about 100 people.
“A lot of people didn’t have money to go to protest in Washington, but they were protesting in their own community, which was probably good in that respect because it was throughout the country,” she said.
Jorgensen said she was in total agreement with King’s speech and found the attention and publicity it received to be “wonderful.”
“It began carrying a lot more weight, which brings more people together,” she said.
Jorgensen called the news of King’s death when she was on her way to a Quaker meeting in Berkeley a blow to the movement, though it survived.
“You need those people so badly,” she said. “It’s hard to pass on, and at that time, the movement had gone strong, so it could continue.”
In her 97 years of living, Jorgensen said she realized it is better to work on the side of peace rather than violence.
“You make a lot more progress if you speak to the peace side,” she said. “If you go onto the war side, you build up more hate and distrust and unhappiness.”
“The Freedom Rides were the catalyst for the whole movement 52 years ago,” said local author, poet and Freedom Rider Steve Sanfield. “I think my experience was one of the most moving and difficult in my life.”
At the age of 22, Sanfield embarked on a racially mixed bus of men and women from Hollywood throughout the south. In Houston, the group was arrested for disturbing the peace after integrating a lunch counter at the union station.
Sanfield was beaten for four days while in jail, always upholding the nonviolent ways of Mahatma Gandhi the movement championed.
“We were segregated, and I was beaten up by white inmates who knew we were coming,” Sanfield said. “They were all waiting for us, and that’s when the beating was started that was encouraged by the guards, by the sheriff himself. We were rabble-rousers in their eyes. But we survived.”
Sanfield and others were made honorary citizens of Texas a few years ago, “an amazing turnaround,” Sanfield said, and invited to the Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago, which gave Freedom Riders from around the country a chance to meet each other.
“Many people were able to go who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to because Oprah paid for airfare and put people up in hotels,” Sanfield said. “It was wonderful to come together after all that time. Many of us had never met each other. It was very inspirational to see how those gestures and that commitment as young people affected our lives all for the better.”
After the swathe of media attention, the group became heroes, a title Sanfield felt was unnecessary.
“People tried to make us heroes, and none of us felt like heroes. At least, I didn’t,” he said. “It was just the right thing to do, and I’m still grateful to this day for the opportunity to do it.”
Sanfield was motivated to take action after hearing of regrets from those who failed to participate in the Spanish Civil War, he said.
“It was a great regret in their life that they didn’t do it,” he said. “I thought, ‘I didn’t want to regret this opportunity.’”
Sanfield and others were released from jail because of the severity of their injuries, but they were forbidden by court order to leave Houston for a month.
They lived in different homes, mostly of black people, where they took part in civil rights projects and continued to witness racist threats.
“I remember the first or second night we got out of jail they burned a cross on the lawn of the house we were staying in,” Sanfield said. “It sounds like a bad movie now, but it was actually happening.”
The efforts were worth it though, Sanford said.
“It was part of this whole movement of civil rights,” he said. “We all felt that it was for a change. That if the world was going to change, we had to change it ourselves with our own actions.”
Sanfield said the March on Washington increased exposure of the civil rights movements to those who had shoved the issues under the rug.
“If they didn’t live in places or communities where there was a problem, they just ignored it,” he said. “The March on Washington brought the problem into the faces and homes of all Americans.”
Sanfield knew and respected one of the men who spoke at the March on Washington, John Lewis of Georgia, 23 at the time, who is a congressman today.
“He was simply a young man like many of us who believed passionately in equality, and he’s still at it,” Sanfield said.
Both Sanfield and Jorgensen said the current generation has lost its passion in lieu of passivity, which can only be changed with action.
“If you think today we’re equal, you have another thing coming. We’re not equal,” Jorgensen said. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still work to be done.”
Sanfield echoed the sentiment.
“It is all still going on, really, just in a different form,” he said. “There’s a need for everybody to speak up whenever faced with prejudice. People have to stand up (against) it.”
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
“People tried to make us heroes, and none of us felt like heroes. At least, I didn’t. It was just the right thing to do, and I’m still grateful to this day for the opportunity to do it.”
on being a Freedom Rider