Simone Virzi, Staff Writer:
A black and white photograph of a burning public bus inspired a 22-year-old woman to travel to Mississippi in 1961 to protest segregation in this country.
“I knew going down to Mississippi was the right thing to do,” said Lula Mae White, who was a freedom rider. “I sent my father a postcard saying ‘if you don’t hear from me it’s because I’m in jail.’”
White said she was also inspired by non-violent protestors who conducted sit-ins and bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala., in which people opted to walk, bike, or carpool to avoid using public transportation.
While packing her suitcase to leave, White said she brought a King James Bible, the complete works of William Shakespeare, a change of clothes.
“I wanted to bring something you could read over and over and learn new things,” said White. “I did not know they would confiscate the books.”
As a freedom rider in the South, White said people around her taught her how to survive.
“You learned if someone knocks you down, roll in a ball so people can’t kick you in the stomach or heart,” she said.
White was arrested on July 9, 1961. She was in jail for two months at Parchman after she and seven other people rode a bus from Alabama to Jackson, Miss. White said she was proud to be a freedom rider.
“I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I do not regret being a freedom rider,” she said. “I’ll never be ashamed of having a police record.”
White’s father was upset with her because “that’s not what girls do.” However, she said she was not the only female protestor.
“One-third of the freedom riders were female,” said White. “We make up half the race. If we don’t stand up for us, who will? My father was wrong, but I never told him that.”
Everyone, regardless of their age or race, should be aware of this country’s history,
history that women have played a role in, said White.
“So often history books leave out the actions of women,” she said. “You need to understand history to understand the present.”
White said she was a freedom rider because she felt it was the right thing to do, and offered advice she used that she feels is still relevant to people today.
“Be willing to follow your conscience and instinct. You need to follow your own heart,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you your life is ruined because you’re doing something different.”
White was honored at The Essence of Beauty, which celebrates women’s history month. She received a bouquet of roses and a plaque for her actions as a female freedom rider.
If a veteran is walking down the street, it is respectful to thank them for their service, said journalism chairperson Frank Harris III, whose parents were involved in civil rights.
“You are like a solider that participated in a different kind of war,” said Harris. “I want to offer my thanks.”
Rosalyn Amenta, the director of women’s programs, also thanked White after she received her award.
“I can’t tell you what a privilege it means to me to be here to meet you and thank you personally for what you’ve done, not only for your brothers and sisters but America. You are a pioneer. You are a trailblazer. You are a warrior,” said Amenta. “You’re our hero and we thank you for the sacrifices. We thank you for the leadership, and we have to carry on that light on to
White’s sister was also given flowers at the ceremony.
“My sister wrote me when I was in jail,” said White. “I still have the letters.”
“The Essence of Beauty program was launched to encourage women, in particular women of color to define a new message or paradigm for what beauty entails,” according to the event program. “This program also honors our past, respects the present and renews our mind, body, and spirit.”
The Essence of Beauty also included a tribute to Natalie Cole. Vicky Mariconde sang “Inseparable” in honor of her.
“This is one of my favorites of Natalie Cole,” said Mariconde.
Student Shani Small read the Myriam monologue by Eve Ensler. It was written in honor of Myriam Merlet, an activist who died in the Haitian earthquake last year.
“You worked so hard to change all this, like the biblical prophetess returned to your land, tambourine in hand, to sing the stories of your women,” said Small.
Jan Pettie, who works in International Student Services, said she is from North Carolina. She was able to relate to White’s story because she grew up when segregation was still legal in America. She said her father could not vote because of the poll tax.
“I lived through that,” she said. “It was the law, it was not a choice you made.”
Although she did not picket, Pettie said she did not agree with segregation. Even the bathrooms were separate; there was a bathroom designated for whites only and a bathroom
specifically for African-Americans.
“I used to sneak in to see what the difference is— none,” she said.
Back in the 1960s when segregation was present in the country, “people were not shy about how they felt,” said Pettie. She remembers going to Florida, only to find it was even more segregated than North Carolina. Pettie said she wanted to go to the beach, but when she got there people were yelling, “Go home, n—–.” She also wanted to see the race track, but was not welcome there either.
Segregation is now a part of the past, but Pettie said the country has not come as far as it is believed to be. Racism is more “camouflaged” today. She said she will sometimes get followed in stores, which makes her feel uncomfortable.
“The fight goes on,” said White.