BookBrowse Reviews Buses Are a Comin' by Charles Person, Richard Rooker

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Buses Are a Comin'

Memoir of a Freedom Rider

by Charles Person, Richard Rooker

Buses Are a Comin' by Charles Person, Richard Rooker X
Buses Are a Comin' by Charles Person, Richard Rooker
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2021, 304 pages

    Jan 2022, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book



Charles Person's memoir is an enthralling account of the American Civil Rights Movement and an impassioned call to action.

Charles Person was just 18 years old in 1961 when he became the youngest of the first wave of "Freedom Riders" – men and women who boarded interstate buses in America's South with the intent of challenging segregationist policies and practices. His memoir, Buses Are a Comin', is a chronicle of the events in his life that led up to his participation in the Civil Rights Movement as well as his experiences on the trip. Along the way he draws parallels to today's Black Lives Matter movement, and ends his account with a call for readers to continue the fight for racial equity.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1942, Person was a happy child with a loving and supportive family who gradually became aware of how racism was impacting him and those around him. The turning point came in 1960, when he decided he wanted to become an engineer, and with exemplary grades and SAT scores applied to Georgia Tech; he was refused admittance based solely on his race. He vented his rage at his grandfather, who replied with words that changed his life, first asking what the young man's next move would be. "I did not have an answer," Person writes. "Self-pity immobilized me. Dejection depressed me." That angered his grandfather, who demanded, "What are you going to do about it! Do something. Do. Something!" Person responded by applying to Morehouse College, an HBCU (see Beyond the Book) in Atlanta just three miles from his house.

The author goes on to relate how at Morehouse he became friends with others who felt they could no longer tolerate the racial status quo. Together, the group staged protests and acts of civil disobedience such as sit-ins, where Black people demanded to be served at whites-only establishments and refused to leave until they were treated the same as the white patrons. These actions often resulted in arrests for "trespassing" or "disturbing the peace." Person himself was thrown in jail for trying to eat at an upscale restaurant and incarcerated for ten days (without charge), much of it in solitary confinement for singing protest songs too enthusiastically with his fellow jailed protestors.

These acts of civil disobedience culminated in the Freedom Rides that started on May 4, 1961. The idea behind the rides was to test two landmark Supreme Court cases, one of which stated segregation of bus riders was unconstitutional; the other applied the same criteria to transit stations serving interstate travel. As Person points out, "Winning in the US Supreme Court does not mean that people will accept the decision. Or that states will abide by the decision. Or that government will enforce the decision." Sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Person and 12 other individuals (seven Black, six white) boarded two buses (one a Trailways, the other a Greyhound) in Washington, DC, planning to ride them through the Deep South to New Orleans. Although the trip started out peacefully enough, the riders experienced increasing hostility until the violence became so extreme the group abandoned the effort in Alabama; half the riders were almost burned to death when a group of Klansmen trapped them in their bus and set the vehicle on fire, and others were beaten with bats and bike chains.

The lion's share of the narrative concerns the Freedom Rides, but every chapter is peppered with references to other important moments and people in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as ties to current events such as the murder of George Floyd and Colin Kaepernick's taking a knee at NFL games. As such, the book is not only a memoir and a snapshot of a critical juncture in America's history, but extremely relevant to our current state of affairs. Person's prose flows smoothly between these subjects in a conversational tone; the fact that his account is so evidently personal heightens its impact on the audience. And the author's description of the rides is intense.

I'm a white woman who was born after the events Person narrates. As such, my experience of the book may well be different than that of others who are more knowledgeable about the early Civil Rights Movement. I personally found Person's recollections eye-opening. Sure, I'd heard about Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat, and the Greensboro Four's sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter. But Person writes about many important people and events in the Civil Rights Movement that I was completely unfamiliar with. Perhaps more importantly, reading his memoir gave me a new understanding of the risks people took in the name of merely being permitted to do everyday things white individuals could do without even thinking about it. My ignorance of exactly how dangerous these seemingly mundane actions were underscores my lack of understanding of the challenges faced by Black people and other people of color today; the book was a true wake-up call.

Buses Are a Comin' takes its title from one of the movement's protest songs. Throughout the work, Person uses the bus as a metaphor for an opportunity to stand up for what's right, a chance to get involved rather than simply accept injustice. The author urges his audience to follow his example. "Board the bus," he tells us. "Take the seat denied you. Make the country better for those yet unborn who will never know the seat you took, the ride you rode, the risk you accepted, the fare you paid, the change you made. Buses of change are always a comin'." I have no doubt that this memoir will inspire many readers to get on their own figurative buses. I recommend it highly for all audiences, and book groups in particular will find it a great one for sparking discussion.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2021, and has been updated for the February 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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