Freedom Riders Special Edition

(originally shared with subscribers July 24, 2021)


"I'd...knock their head off," her brother laughed. This was the response when Kredelle Petway's father, a reverend, asked his kids how they'd respond to possible aggression and violence on a volunteer Freedom Ride. She was 20 years old.

Pictured above: Kredelle Petway.

Reverend Matthew Petway had volunteered himself -- and his kids --when the Freedom Riders were looking for a family as a litmus test for desegregation at airports. So, asking this question was just part of the preparation. As Kredelle (pictured above in one of my favorite Freedom Rider photos) had put it in a 2020 interview, he basically "voluntold" them they would be going. It was a family affair. The Reverend, Kredelle and her brother.

Not the brother who said he'd, "knock their head off." He, her older brother, wasn't allowed to go. His answer earned him a pass to stay home. It was her younger brother Alphonso who'd be coming along.

Alphonso found his elder brother's answer quite instructive. He wanted to go. He "wanted to be participate in," his, "own freedom," in his, "own struggle." So when responding to the same question from his father, he knew what not to say.

Pictured, clockwise from top left: Reverend Matthew Petway, Cecil A. Thomas, Kredelle Petway, and Alphonso Petway.

Alphonso was born in Pensacola, Florida, and grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, while his sister was born in Camden, Alabama and grew up in Pensacola.

Alphonso drew on his own experiences for motivation. One he recalled, when talking to reporter Shannon Heupel of the Montgomery Advertiser in 2019, was having to walk past Pensacola High every day. And not to play hookey.

Alphonso would have to continue on past the "white" high school to reach his own "black" high school -- Booker T. Washington High -- another ten blocks away. Those walks were sometimes, shall we say, eventful.

Reverend Petway -- one of the many black World War II veterans who fully comprehended the irony of loyally fighting for freedom abroad that was denied them at home -- had plenty of motivation. He was very involved as an activist. He'd learned about civil disobedience and had taken Alphonso with him for training, at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee before the ride, in preparation.

From her father's activities, Kredelle was already familiar with the world of civil rights. When she could, she spent time providing clerical support for the movement.

The Petways went with Cecil A. Thomas -- a white man from Albany, California -- to fly from Alabma to Mississippi to the Jackson, Mississippi Airport, Hawkins Field, on July 24. The usual Freedom Rider parade of mistreatment, arrests, mugshots, conviction, and imprisonment would be in their immediate future.

After her turn as a Freedom Rider, Kredelle attended and graduated from Florida AMU and then maintained a career in public service, primarily for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Alphonso followed in his father's footsteps, becoming an ordained minister about six years later. He and his father helped start a new chapter of the NAACP in Louisville, and he was one of the organizers for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign in 1968. Reverend Petway and Thomas, who worked at the time as a secretary at the Berkeley, CA, YMCA, have since passed on.

As for Thomas, he had been instrumental in building support for the civil rights movement, particularly for bus boycotts. A book footnote reveals one of his direct connections:

"Cecil Thomas (1917-1969), born in Frankfort, Ohio, received his B.A. (1939) from Cedarville College in Ohio and his Ph.D. (1949) from Ohio State University. He and his wife, Fran Thomas, first became acquainted with Coretta Scott while teaching at Lincoln School in Marion, Alabama, between 1941 and 1943. Fran worked closely with Coretta and her older sister as their music instructor. They continued their relationship with Coretta Scott while she pursued music studies at Antioch College." 

This footnote is connected to Thomas's letter in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume III: Birth of a New Age, December 1955-December 1956. It reveals the high regard he held for Dr. King and fellow activists. And it allows a peek at the trust and high regard he was given in return.

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