Freedom Rider tells activist story

Newswire photo by Ryan Kambich | Freedom Rider Betty Daniels Rosemond spoke about her desgregation activism during the 1960s in the South.

“How could you train someone to be nonviolent?” Betty Daniels Rosemond asked an assembly of students and faculty on Monday evening. The question permeated the talk given by Rosemond, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Rider.

Throughout the evening she described her harrowing experiences as an activist in the 1960s, risking her life many times to fight for desegregation in the South. Through it all, Rosemond was met with hatred and hostility, but her faith helped her to never resort to violence, telling those assembled, “the Lord was in the movement.”

Rosemond explained that she became interested in activism during her years as one of only 12 Black students at the LSU New Orleans campus. She remembered becoming upset that her mother had to sit in the back of her favorite restaurant, Woolworth’s Lunch Counter.

“I loved her, and I wanted the best for her,” she said. “I would’ve done anything to make things better for her.”

Rosemond became involved with the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a student movement firmly committed to nonviolence. To become a member, she and other young activists had to learn the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and undergo nonviolence training.

“They would slap you around, harass you, call you names, anything to get you riled up,” Rosemond said about the training.

When she was confronted and harassed during her early activism picketing Woolworth’s Lunch Counter and other New Orleans businesses, she turned to her faith for guidance, explaining “the Holy Spirit said forgive them, they know not what they do. So that’s what I did.”

In 1961 Rosemond became involved with the Freedom Riders, a group of young Black and White activists who would ride buses throughout the South to test if their facilities were properly desegregated. These activists often risked their lives in their work; the bus carrying the first Freedom Riders was firebombed in Alabama, and those who escaped the burning vehicle were beaten by a local mob.

Despite the danger, Rosemond stood firm in her commitment to justice. “We were motivated by a higher power,” Rosemond said. “There was no way we were going to stop. All are precious in God’s eyes, and we stood for that. If you died, you died.”

She shared one particularly harrowing encounter from the road. During a stop on the way to New Orleans, three of her companions were kidnapped by a mob in Poplarville, Miss., a “lynching town.”

Rosemond hid in a nearby phone booth and called her headquarters for advice. A good samaritan hid her in his truck and drove the remaining 75 miles to New Orleans, risking both their lives. Unbeknownst to her, the Freedom Rider headquarters had called Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, an avid supporter of the movement, who in turn called Poplarville officials and warned them that federal troops would be mobilized if anything happened to the activists. All those on the Freedom Ride made it home safely.

Rosemond, now 91 years old and living in Cincinnati, was inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2014. She had the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama in 2011, a memory she cherishes alongside appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

She closed her talk by playing her favorite song, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” by Nina Simone. Rosemond explained that after a lifetime of activism, “I now know how it feels to be free.”

Her parting wisdom for those assembled: “Sometimes people want you to be invisible. I raised my children to know, don’t let anyone make you feel invisible.”

By: Ryan Kambich ~Copy Editor~