BY PAUL HARVEY
Methodist minister George M. Houser was there in 1947, on the Journey of Reconciliation (also discussed here and in Ray Arsenault's recent Freedom Rides: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice), the prelude to the Freedom Rides of 1961. In my experience, few know of this event now, in spite of its coverage in civil rights scholarship. He's still here, nicely profiled in today's New York Times, one of two survivors of the 1947 ride. An excerpt:
The Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that segregation in interstate commerce — as distinguished from local transit — was unconstitutional, a ruling largely ignored in Southern states.
To test it, Mr. Houser and the pioneering civil rights leader Bayard Rustin organized the first freedom ride into the South, dubbed the Journey of Reconciliation. In April 1947, 16 blacks and whites exchanged proscribed seats on interstate buses over two weeks, blacks in front, whites in back, from Washington through the Upper South.
Sometimes they were ignored or even supported. Sometimes they were arrested and even attacked. Mr. Rustin and two other protesters served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina after being arrested for violating Jim Crow laws.
The pillars of Jim Crow did not immediately tumble and fall. But Mr. Houser figures they didn’t have to.
Instead, he said, the experience taught him first that a small group of people with an idea can have a huge impact over the long stretch of history.
Second, he said, it taught him that you have to take the first steps even if you don’t know where they will lead.
“I have kind of a theme, which comes from an old hymn,” he said. “‘Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom/Lead thou me on/The night is dark and I am far from home/Lead thou me on.’ And then it goes: ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene/One step enough for me.’
“And I believe that,” Mr. Houser said. “I believe one step is enough and you take it, as long as you have faith you’re doing the right thing to begin with.”