“A few individuals, if they believe something deeply enough, can change things in the world. That’s all it takes, is to stand up for what you believe in. Never turn a deaf eye, or a deaf ear to injustice you see,” said Steven Sanfield at the Tuesday opening of “Get on Board: Stories of the Los Angeles to Houston Freedom Ride,” a new exhibit at the Mayme A. Clayton Library in Culver City.
Talking to a standing-room only crowd at the library, Sanfield and the small group of brave souls with him shared stories of the Los Angeles to Houston Freedom Ride—one of many Congress of Racial Equality sponsored rides around the country in the 1960s designed to protest the segregation of public travel facilities in the United States.
On Aug. 9, 1961, Charles Berrard, Marjorie Dunson, Robert Farrell, Robert Kaufman, Ellen Kleiman (now known as Ellen Brooms), Pat Kovner, Ronald LaBostrie, Steven McNichols, Beverly Radcliffe, Steven Sanfield and Joseph Stevenson boarded a train headed to Houston with a goal of desegregating the Houston Union Station Coffee Shop via a nonviolent sit-in, and then moving on to Jackson, MS, to join other Freedom Riders also protesting segregated travel in the south.
Instead, they were arrested for unlawful assembly in Houston, booked and sent to jail for 10 days. As a mixed-race crew, they were sent to segregated jails, where several of the men were severely beaten.
“We were lying in each others' blood,” Stevenson said regarding his beating in jail. At the time, Stevenson was only 18 years old.
At the Tuesday night event, many local dignitaries appeared to honor the group, including Culver City Mayor Micheal O’Leary, U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass and former Congresswoman Diane Watson.
“To me, it’s very exciting that one of the treasures of our nation is right here in Culver City. The history that is here is a source of pride for everyone,” said Bass, who also mentioned the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C., later this month.
“Thinking about these two on both sides of the country is pretty amazing and very timely,” she said.
O’Leary passed out “Certificates of Appreciation” to each of the Freedom Riders present, all the while standing in front of a shell of a bus that was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1961 in Anniston, AL. The group that gathered in Culver City was surrounded by original artifacts from the Riders, including programs from civil rights rallies, Brooms’ dress that she often wore to protests and a replica of the Houston jail cell where the Riders were kept.
As for the bus itself, it was traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in May 1961, carrying white and black Freedom Riders committed to ending segregation on transit systems.
Later in the evening, Janie McKinney gave a particularly moving account of her experiences. She was 12 years old when the bus—riding only on rims because a mob had slashed its tires—stopped in front of her home. As she saw people pouring out of the bus, vomiting and gasping for air, she did the only thing she could think of at the time: fill a bucket with water and bring it to those in need.
“I am very glad that I did what I did that day,” McKinney said about her impact on the civil rights movement. Her simple act of kindness has never been forgotten when the Freedom Ride is recounted.
“It’s as if I planted a tree, and didn’t tend it very well, and then I came back and there was a forest,” she said.
The Mayme Clayton Library seemed the perfect venue for such an exhibit. Clayton was known for collecting artifacts that showcased African-American life, such as films, photographs, recordings, personal papers and even mementos of slave life. Watson said she remembered going to the research university librarian’s home in Los Angeles and looking at her collection, which at the time was housed in her garage. The collection is now 3 million items, collected over a span of 40 years.
At the end of the night, there were few dry eyes in the museum as Clayton’s son Lloyd talked about the exhibit and the museum, which opened in early 2010. “What an opportunity to show what African-Americans have done to shape this country," he said. "And here is an institution with a history, so let’s go forward.”
The “Get On Board” exhibit will be on display until Oct. 16. The museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 310-202-1647 for more information.
Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, 4130 Overland Ave., Culver City, CA, 90230