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Freedom Rider shares journey
from privilege to protest

Fifty years ago, John Raines boarded a bus for a journey that changed his life.

It was the summer of 1961, and he was one of the 400-plus freedom riders who rode into the American South, white and black together, risking their lives to challenge legalized segregation.

The journey took Raines, professor emeritus at Temple University and an AFT member, from privilege to protest. A white boy who grew up with live-in maids and a governess, he says he was tremendously naïve about the civil rights movement. “I just had no realistic grasp on the degree of violence that we would face down south,” he says. “For the first time in my life I found myself on the other side of power.”

John Raines

John Raines at the Little Rock, Ark. bus station in 1961.

Raines, a 27-year-old Methodist minister at the time, headed south on a Trailways bus from St. Louis. In Little Rock, Ark., police escorted him and three other Freedom Riders (one other white, and two black) through a large mob to the white waiting room, where they were all arrested for breaching the peace.

They were sentenced to six months in prison, and it was only politics that saved them: After the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School by the Little Rock Nine, the city wanted to avoid more bad publicity and persuaded the judge to cancel charges. 

Back on the road, the riders next tested Shreveport, La., where Raines and his colleagues faced a threatening group of “very large and very angry white men.” A local television person with a camera “stepped between us and this line of angry white men, and with his camera went down their faces,” Raines recalls. It gave the riders just enough time to escape.

Raines made three more trips south, including one inspired by the violent 1965 protests in Selma, Ala. After seeing TV accounts of marchers “beaten up by policemen in gas masks, with horses and ambulances and tear gas all over the place,” Raines left his young family in New York and joined “hundreds and hundreds” of like-minded folks crowding airports on their way south, determined to oppose the violence against and suppression of civil rights activists. “We had come to the same conclusion,” he remembers thinking: “This we have to stop.”

John Raines

During another trip, Raines marched for black voters’ rights in Newton, Ga., where he was arrested and held in an isolated jail cell with only open bars in the windows—a cell, he was sure, that could easily be firebombed by the local KKK. To save him from such a fate, a black man put his farm up as collateral to pay his bail, and Raines escaped safely.

These sorts of experiences shaped not only Raines’ personal convictions, but the course of his career. “I became quite radical on the issues of race and gender and social class justice,” he says. He registered black voters, protested housing discrimination, wrote books and papers about civil rights and, during 45 years as a professor of religion, animated his classes (including one titled Political Protest and the Culture of the Sixties) with his stories of standing up for what is right.

Raines is still passionate about social justice. “Inequality is worse today than it was in the sixties,” he says, citing statistics that show 33.3 percent of personal wealth in the hands of just 1 percent of the population. “The country never got over industrialization,” explains Raines. “Those well-paying, unionized jobs that disappeared were not replaced by anything like equal pay and equal benefits.”

 Perhaps if there were a Freedom Ride to help right this particular injustice, Raines would climb aboard.