Wisdom From the Freedom Riders: Interview with Bettie Mae Fikes and Claire O’Connor


Bettie Mae Fikes
Bettie Mae Fikes

Claire O'Connor







What would you do if you were fifteen years old and an unknown speaker came to town to ask you to join a movement?  To join a struggle for civil rights?  What if you were eighteen and invited to a college meeting and at the meeting a man asked you to join a movement to fill the jails in Mississippi? Would you join? I spent time with living legends who said yes. Their lives changed forever and they never looked back. In fact, they are quite humble and matter of fact about their role in challenging segregation!

The Freedom Riders were young people recruited during the early 1960’s to push for change that would allow southern African Americans full voting rights as guaranteed in the US Constitution.  The practices and de facto laws of Jim Crow denied such voting rights. Ms. Bettie Mae Fikes became a Freedom Rider and later became a member of the Students for Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma. She also became a leading voice of Freedom Songs. Ms. Claire O’Connor also arose as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi and later went back to serve in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi for several years.

We are here today with many benefits because Ms. Fikes and Ms. O’Connor fought to make our world a better place so that everyone has the right to vote and are able to sit and eat in any restaurant of our choice no matter the color of our skin. It is not every day that one gets to talk to a legend!

So I asked myself, what would I ask them? Would I ask them about the sufferings they experienced in the struggle? What about their accomplishments? I could be nosy and ask what Dr. MLK like and Malcom X were really like? These are all great questions but not the ones I wanted to ask.  We still struggle today to fully achieve the dreams of racial integration and the oneness of humanity with the ultimate goal of eliminating racism, so I thought it best to focus on what they have learned and what advice would they give us working in the fields of social justice, equity and diversity.

Interview with Ms. Fikes

Ms. Fikes we are so blessed that you are taking the time to answer my questions. You have been busy with the 50th anniversary commemorations across the country.

What did you learn as a young woman supporting the Freedom Riders and being in the Civil Rights Movement?

Nanette, you are very welcome! At first I wanted an opportunity to avoid church and school and it wasn’t until my friend was hurt that I realized that I needed to stand up. What if I had just listened to Dr. King and done nothing? I wanted to be a part of something.

I have learned that there has been a lot of change but some things remain the same. We have come to a place now that nothing is the same as it used to be. A lot of our history has been forgotten. We can never forget! If you don’t know your history how can you move forward? The time will come when you have to stand up and will face a struggle. Which side are you on?

I believe will all have to tell a story. Are we equipped to tell it? We can’t imagine what our ancestors suffered  but we can validate and honor what they did for us today. The history is still raw but many of our children don’t know our history. Somebody had to die, somebody had to cry for us. I find that a lot of people don’t understand this work because they haven’t been in a struggle.  If you have not been in a struggle, you don’t know what to do. If yes, then you know what to do when the time comes.

When the time comes, what will you do, what will you say? Get on the freedom bus. This work is not over. Justice for one is justice for all. Get ready!

Another thing I learned is that education is the only thing that can’t be taken away from you.

What guidance can you give us to fully realize the dream?

Education, spirituality and love are the three key things in life. How can you fight something you can’t see? If you can’t see, you will be left behind. Let’s put love back in the game. Let’s love and help each other. If we don’t know how to love, we don’t know how to give.

Will we all have to die for freedom? My guideline to you- forge for something that you believe. Most importantly keep your eyes on the prize. This is spiritual warfare. Dream big! Sing loud from your heart. Don’t be a nervous Nellie and be too scared to fight for what you believe in.

I have to fight for social justice today because someone did it for me. We still have to get on the bus today because the fight isn’t over. You must keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.  We have the education today but have left out spirituality and love for each other. Nowadays we spend less time reaching out to each across communities for whatever reason. I believe we are here as servants to help coach each other. I think we should take the time to go meet people from many different communities, connect with them and to learn about their struggles. Once we learn them we can ask what can we do to help.

I woke up every day with the song of freedom in my heart. Do we do that today? I summon you today to read about this history and choose life.

Interview with Ms. O’Connor

Thank you as well for spending time with me. You are getting ready for the 50 year Freedom Summer Reunion in Jackson. How exciting!

Thank you Nanette. I am looking forward to our reunion this summer!

What did you learn as a young woman being a Freedom Rider and later being in the Civil Rights Movement?

The power and joy in being involved in change and protest was very motivating for me.  There is a sense of joy to be a part of a movement. It was also thrilling to be a woman to be a part of something so important when women were not typically called to action.  I learned an absolute that change never comes from the top and in fact it always comes from the bottom. History usually buries this fact. Another thing is that change comes in little steps. So often we are waiting for the flood of change to happen but really it is uncountable steps of change. Floods are made of many tiny drops. Nowadays, I think people are forgetting about the small steps. They remember the 1960s and the fiction from the movement is that all the change for civil rights happened overnight. In fact, there were tiny steps that started in the 1930s. Many years later, there was the flood of going to jail. SNCC started because of the efforts of one woman, Ella Baker. Truly great leaders like Ella are typically lost to history and don’t get the credit.

What guidance can you give us to fully realize the dream?

We need to act. This is the time to push for change. We all have a responsibility to do make social justice and equality happen now.

The lesson that Ella taught us is forgotten. We need to organize at the community level in order to make real positive and enduring change. I can only talk about my community not about other communities. I cannot presume to know what they need. People need to express their own dream. Our job is to [learn] how to listen. You can’t tell people what their dreams are. We can ask what do you want me to do and how do we want me to work. Typically we give clothes to the goodwill for example and believe we are helping others. It is not charity that we need but social change and justice. Doing good for others is our daily responsibility but what we are talking about is much bigger than that. Our job is to build a society of justice that we all deserve. We need to be critical thinkers and ask why something is the way that it is when we see inequality or something doesn’t feel right. Then think about possible solutions. It is not social service but social change that I am talking about.

Where is the anger, where is the outrage today?

Concluding Remarks

Let’s not do what others have done and have Ms. Fikes and Ms. O’Connor’s stories be lost to history. The message of these women is still needed today. Let’s find inspiration in their words and actions and apply them at work, at home and in our communities.

The power of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Imagine that!