Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
The Freedom Rides, occurring between May and December 1961, comprised one of the most important protests leading to the destruction of the Jim Crow system in the South.
By 1961, federal laws were in place to prohibit segregation of public schools and public transportation, yet the South remained stubbornly, defiantly and violently segregated. Into this maelstrom came the Freedom Riders, initially a group of 13 people, old and young, male and female, Black and White. They traveled from Washington, D.C., into the deep South by commercial bus lines. Their goal was to challenge the illegal segregation of public transportation and, ultimately, to claim full rights of citizenship for African Americans. The Riders were well aware of the likelihood of violence and even death.
Herman K. Harris was the son of sharecroppers, raised in Heath Springs, S.C., about 36 miles southeast of Rock Hill. A gifted athlete, he finished high school in 1959 and enrolled at Friendship Junior College. In February 1960 Friendship students launched the first lunch counter sit-ins in South Carolina, followed by months of picketing and protests. Initially, Harris stayed on the sidelines; nothing in his rural upbringing had prepared him to challenge racial segregation. Within a short time, however, he joined the protests and became a fervent champion of civil rights.
In the fall of 1960, Harris enrolled at Morris College in Sumter S.C. There, he became president of the Morris chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). On May 10, 1961, the Freedom Riders arrived at Morris. Because some of the original 13 riders needed to leave the crusade temporarily, replacements were needed. Harris, then 21, volunteered. On May 14, 1961, he was aboard a Trailways bus departing Atlanta for Birmingham. Unknown to the Freedom Riders, fellow passengers on the bus included Klan members from Alabama. The Freedom Riders were brutally beaten aboard the bus and, again, upon their arrival in Birmingham. The same day, a Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders was forced off the road and firebombed.
Ultimately, the brave actions of the Freedom Riders led to federal intervention to protect the rights of African American citizens. Following his service as a Freedom Rider, Harris returned to Sumter and spoke publicly about his experiences.
In late May 1961, Harris was kidnapped by Klan members in Sumter, beaten and tortured. The letters "KKK" and other racist messages were carved into his skin. Public officials, including the Sumter County sheriff and the governor, dismissed his attack as a hoax.
After graduating from Morris College in 1964, Harris completed a graduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley. He returned to Friendship College, serving as a teacher and a coach until the closing of the college in 1982. He later served as a coach at Clinton College. Herman K. Harris died in Rock Hill in 1988 at the age of 49.
Poetry was Harris’ passion. His poem, “Well Done,” aptly summarizes a life that spanned from a sharecropper and victim of Jim Crow indignities to Freedom Rider, beloved teacher, and coach.
By Herman Harris
I know hate
With lots and lots of pain–
Shame is mean –
I’ve had to cry
But now if I die
For I’ve had much loving in between.