Road Trip Celebrates Civil Rights

Donald Simms spoke of his anger at being forced to the back of the bus in Georgia, where he had gone to join the Army during the Vietnam War, and how his treatment changed for the better once he was in uniform.

"The Army taught that there is but one color, and that was green," said the 57-year-old mail service assistant. "They taught us how to live together, fight together and die for each other — no matter what."

Simms, of Washington, added his story to thousands to be gathered during a 35-city, 70-day bus tour to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The bus began the journey Tuesday from the National Mall.

The Voices of Civil Rights tour traces the route of the 1960s Freedom Riders, blacks and whites who headed to the South in buses and cars to challenge segregation and help register blacks to vote, a mission that earned some of them mob beatings and worse. The aim is to create the world's largest archive of firsthand accounts of the civil rights movement.

At each stop, civil rights advocates from the era and reporters who covered the movement plan to record stories from people who experienced the movement. Documenting the personal histories are AARP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The stories will be posted on the project's Web site, with the information to be given to the Library of Congress early next year.

"Today we begin a journey; today we begin a freedom ride," said Marie Smith, AARP president. "This ride is not simply a stroll down memory lane. ... We're taking this ride because some history should never be repeated, and some history should never, ever be forgotten."

Experiences such as Simms' bring personal testimony to milestones of the decades-long push for black equality, among them the 1954 Supreme Court decision, which ordered desegregation of public schools; the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in businesses serving the public and in hiring; and its successor the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the court struck down the legal basis for school segregation in more than 20 states, ruling "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Many Southern school districts held back for years, resulting in confrontations between white parents and authorities enforcing the order and tension between the federal government and resistant state and local officials.

The two major civil rights laws had similar ramifications as the tradition of racial inequality died hard.

Simms' story is but one of many little-known moments of the civil rights era. They are not all stories of violence, riot and imprisonment. They are recollections of everyday indignities and common fears.

Ret. Gen. Donald L. Scott, deputy Librarian of Congress, encouraged people to speak up and offer their story for the public record.

"The Library of Congress is in the preservation and recording business to understand what the nation had to go through to get to where it is," he told about 250 people.

The library says it already houses the most comprehensive civil rights collection in the country, including original papers of many organizations that led the fight for equality.

Among those stepping out on this muggy August day to tell her story was Betty Bunce, 83, of Parkville, Md.

Bunce, who is white, recalled with sadness the reaction of white parents when the New Orleans school where she taught was desegregated. They removed their children and gathered in an angry mob outside the building to jeer the three black girls who were the only remaining students.

"For a school that was filled with white children, one would not believe how that school emptied out," Bunce said of that day in November 1960 at McDonogh 19.

Each day of that school year, mothers stood outside in protest; the black girls and faculty were escorted in and out the back door of the school. Recess was held indoors for their safety. Teachers without pupils passed the time reading, knitting or meeting with the principal.

"We didn't have a lot to do," Bunce said. "The white children never came back. The next fall that school practically became an all-black school."

Still, most of the school's pupils are black. Under a program to strip names of slave owners from New Orleans' schools, the name was changed in 1995 from McDonogh 19 to Louis D. Armstrong Elementary School.

By Siobhan McDonough