Home News Catherine Burks-Brooks, 83, Freedom Rider Who Had the Last Word, Dies

Catherine Burks-Brooks, 83, Freedom Rider Who Had the Last Word, Dies

Catherine Burks-Brooks, 83, Freedom Rider Who Had the Last Word, Dies

Catherine Burks-Brooks, who as a 21-year-old Freedom Rider was among a small group of Nashville students who kept the movement to desegregate public transportation in the South going after its first attempt was defeated by violence — and who boldly challenged Bull Connor, the notoriously bigoted public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala. — died on July 3 in Birmingham. She was 83.

The cause was heart failure, said her daughter, Nana Gatlin.

In 1961, it had been 15 years since the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating on interstate buses and trains was unconstitutional. Yet Southern states continued to flout the ruling.

That year, the Congress of Racial Equality, the civil rights organization, devised the Freedom Rides to push back. They organized teams of riders, Black and white, to board Greyhound and Trailways buses in Washington bound for New Orleans to challenge Jim Crow laws and dare the federal government to enforce the law of the land.

Their first action ended horribly in Alabama, where the buses were firebombed and the riders brutally beaten. In Birmingham, Mr. Connor invited the Ku Klux Klan to meet one bus, giving the Klansmen free rein to maul the riders with iron pipes, bicycle chains and baseball bats.

Shattered by the violence, the organizers halted the rides.

In Nashville, a group of students led by Diane Nash, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, decided to restart them. They had been trained in nonviolence by their mentor, the Rev. James Lawson, and they were determined that violence would not stop the Freedom Rides.

Catherine Burks, a senior at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, a historically Black university in Nashville, volunteered.

She later joked that her initial impulse in joining Mr. Lawson’s nonviolence workshops was to keep an eye on a boyfriend. But she was committed to the civil rights movement and utterly fearless. As a teenager, she had once thrown the “Colored” sign off a city bus, and she had already spent a night in jail in Nashville for participating in a lunch counter sit-in.

A group of students left Nashville on May 17, 1961. There were 10 on Ms. Burks’s bus, including the future congressman John Lewis; Paul Brooks, whom she would marry that summer; and James Zwerg, a white student from Fisk University, who would be viciously attacked on a later ride, the photographs of his ravaged face and bloodied clothes becoming a searing indictment of the Jim Crow South.

Mr. Brooks and Mr. Zwerg sat together as planned, violating Alabama’s segregation laws. When the bus crossed Birmingham’s city line, they were arrested. The rest of the students were rounded up when they arrived at the bus terminal, thrown in jail and then driven by Mr. Connor and his officers to the state line sometime before dawn.

Ms. Burks sat up front with Mr. Connor and kept up a lively banter with him as they drove, inviting him to breakfast back in Nashville and ribbing him about this and that. Her brashness astonished Mr. Lewis, who was riding in the back seat.

When the students were dumped by the side of the road in rural Alabama, near the Tennessee line, and Mr. Connor and his officers started to drive away, Ms. Burks called out to him.

“I couldn’t let old Bull have the last word,” she told The Tennessean in 2013. “I told the Bull, I hollered it out, that we would see him back in Birmingham by high noon!” Her inspiration, she said later, was the westerns she liked to watch.

Mr. Connor, Mr. Lewis later recalled, laughed as if it was the best joke he’d heard in years.

It was “a great American moment,” Eric Etheridge, who included Ms. Burks-Brooks in his 2008 book, “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders,” said in a phone interview. He likened her riposte to Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe’s retort of “Nuts!” to the German Army’s demand for surrender during World War II.

Seeking shelter, the students made their way along a set of railroad tracks until they came upon a house and banged on the door. But the elderly Black man who answered was too frightened to let them in. Ms. Burks once again took charge. Her mother had taught her always to talk to “the lady of the house,” she said, and she encouraged the group to persist. It worked. The man’s wife appeared at the door. Come on in, she said.

They phoned Ms. Nash in Nashville, and soon they were picked up by a fellow student and speeding toward Birmingham. They didn’t make Ms. Burks’s deadline of high noon, but they arrived nonetheless.

In Washington, the Freedom Riders had become an embarrassment to the Kennedy administration, which was being criticized in the European press for allowing the brutal attacks to happen. The administration urged the riders to stop.

They did not.

They kept riding, hundreds and hundreds of them, flooding the bus lines from all over the country, and they continued to be arrested.

Ms. Burks completed two more rides that spring, from Birmingham to Montgomery, Ala., and Montgomery to Jackson, Miss. In Jackson, the riders were transferred from the city jails to Parchman, Mississippi’s infamously brutal state penitentiary, where they stayed for weeks, annoying the guards by singing continuously. The women were invasively body-searched by matrons, who first dipped their gloved hands in Lysol. Ms. Burks spent nearly a month there, she said, enough to give her a lifelong fear of biting flies.

Washington finally relented, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asked the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce federal law by removing “Whites only” signs from bus terminals and prohibiting discriminatory seating practices.

“The Nashville kids stepped in and changed the course of history,” said Raymond Arsenault, the author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” (2006). “The Freedom Rides were a turning point in the civil rights movement, and the Nashville student movement’s actions were a turning point for the Freedom Rides.” Ms. Burks-Brooks, he added, “was major force in that.”

“She was indefatigable, indomitable and unforgettable.”

Catherine Burks was born on Oct. 8, 1939, in Birmingham, one of five children. Her mother, Texieanna (Martin) Burks, was a presser in a laundry; her father, Dan Burks, worked in a steel factory.

After her participation in the Freedom Rides, she returned to Tennessee A&I, which had expelled her and other riders, and earned a degree in education in 1962. That year, she and Mr. Brooks, whom she had married in August 1961, moved to Jackson, where they edited Mississippi Free Press, a Black weekly newspaper started by Medgar Evers.

Over the next two decades, they lived in Chicago, Detroit and the Bahamas. Ms. Burks-Brooks worked as a social worker and an elementary-school teacher. Mr. Brooks became an entrepreneur and an inventor, operating factories in Michigan to produce a version of the Afro pick.

In the late 1970s Ms. Burks-Brooks returned to Birmingham, where she lived for the rest of her life. She became a district sales manager for Avon and, after retiring in the late 1990s, resumed teaching. She worked as a substitute teacher until 2013.

In addition to her daughter Ms. Gatlin, she is survived by another daughter, Hiala Brooks, and a grandson. She and Mr. Brooks separated in the mid-1980s, and he died in 1989.

Throughout her life, Ms. Burks-Brooks often spoke publicly about her experience as a Freedom Rider and civil rights activist, and she frequently joined Mr. Arsenault when he gave civil rights tours and talks. He said that she was always armed with enormous poster boards filled with timelines and bullet points.

As she told Mr. Etheridge, the author of “Breach of Peace,” “Oh, it was a glorious time to be alive.”


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