Hank Thomas walked up the steps of the Greyhound bus on a sunny May 4, 1961. As he surveyed its drab, blue-gray interior, the lanky 19-year-old African-American student from Howard University never imagined he soon would come close to meeting his end on its floor.

He was part of the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which made racial segregation illegal in interstate bus stations, restaurants, bathrooms and on buses. CORE planned to make sure the court ruling was enforced by riding buses through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, ending the tour with a rally in New Orleans.

The Freedom Riders group included seven blacks and six whites. Black Riders would sit in the front of the bus, white Riders in the back, and an interracial pair would sit together. A couple of the Riders would sit in a traditional segregated manner, so they could bail out any group members who got arrested. They planned to take two buses, a Greyhound and a Trailways.

Group members had completed a four-day nonviolence training in Washington, D.C., where they learned how to passively protect themselves and deal with potential physical altercations. But Thomas says he wasn’t prepared for the violence they encountered.

The Freedom Riders’ first stop was Richmond, Va. Some white onlookers at the bus station jeered at the Riders, but nothing else happened. The group stopped in six cities before arriving in Charlotte, N.C., where black riders walked into the white waiting room and milled around the station without incident. It was an uneventful stop — until Charles Person decided to get his shoes shined.

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