by Kelly Johnson
As a 15-year-old growing up in Selma, Ala., Bettie Mae Fikes hopped aboard a bus as a Freedom Rider.
Fifty years later, Fikes visited Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Coon Rapids, and encouraged students, professors and others to do the same.
Fikes is one of more than 400 black and white Americans who risked their lives, enduring beatings and imprisonment, for riding together on buses and trains as they traveled through the Deep South from May until November 1961.
The Freedom Riders deliberately violated Jim Crow laws, calling for the strict segregation of blacks and whites, and were met with bitter racism and mob violence.
Fikes visited the Coon Rapids campus Jan. 18 as part of the Diversity Lecture and Discussion Series and also in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was Jan. 16.
“Today we are in the presence of greatness,” said Marcellus Davis, director of diversity and multiculturalism at ARCC, as he introduced Fikes.
“I’m still trying to pass the message on from 50 years ago,” Fikes said as she began her presentation. “Who would have thought I would have been here still fighting?”
Fikes was just 15 when she heard talk about the Freedom Riders. It was conversations among small groups of people that grew into something much larger than any of them imagined.
“I should have been scared back then,” she said, recalling what happened to her friends, the beatings that they endured.
“I had to idea the seriousness,” Fikes said. “I had no idea the brutality.”
But Fikes said she wasn’t scared.
“What made me get on the bus was young men and women like you – college students – in school to get an education,” she said.
Fikes urged those in attendance to learn their history – not just the history found in books – but the history of their ancestors and their stories.
Fifty years later, Fikes said, most people don’t know what the Freedom Riders did and what the protests were all about.
“You’re here because of someone’s blood, sweat and tears,” she said. “Someone had to die so you could be here today.”
Fikes described being spit on and watching her friends being beaten with metal pipes.
Still, Fikes said she remained silent and sat where she was because of the group’s vow of non-violence.
And still she continued to get on the bus.
“I wasn’t just fighting for my family,” she said. “I was fighting for everyone who was oppressed.”
“Why would a 15-year-old get on a bus and ride into hell?” Fikes said.
She said the Freedom Riders hoped and prayed to find compassion on the way, adding that the U.S. Constitution had given everyone equal right.
“No man is free until we are all free,” Fikes said.
“We had to fight just for the right to be human.”
Fikes told those in attendance to pick a cause and become passionate about it.
“Don’t just go to school to get an education,” she said. “Go to school to do more, be more. We have to help each other. Whatever your call is, dream big.”
Kelly Johnson is at [email protected]