“It was June, 1961,” said Cladys P. Harrison on stage during Anderson University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration. She paused, remembering that landmark summer day.
The phone rang at 5 a.m. “The voices on the other end pleaded for me to come and make that bus ride,” she said.
The bus ride was a 1961 Freedom Ride. In protest of segregated public buses, groups of civil rights activists boarded buses throughout the south seeking racial equality.
Organizers expected a young man or woman from the Anderson area to join their multi-state quest for justice. Twelve people from Anderson initially volunteered to go, but on the morning of the Freedom Ride, no one showed.
If Harrison would not go, no one from Anderson would. Harrison would need to leave town just three hours later.
She promptly agreed to embark on the Freedom Ride, not knowing if she would return home again.
“So many young people were getting killed at that time. Both blacks and whites. Many did not make it home,” Harrison said.
Harrison had married four years prior, and she had a young child at the time. The decision to risk her life for the sake of freedom was a courageous one. That June morning changed Harrison’s life and altered history.
While her father drove her to the bus station, she asked him to help take care of her child if she lost her life.
Harrison said that her father feared God but never feared man. “When you do this, God will see you through,” he told her.
Her father gave her a Bible before she left the car. He quoted Isaiah 41:10 and reminded her to never doubt God. She told him goodbye on the side of the road because he could not even drive her to the bus station because of the threat of violence.
With the Lord’s strength and her father’s Bible in her hand, Harrison entered the bus station to buy a ticket to Greenwood, South Carolina, where she would catch another bus and proceed to meet the Freedom Riders in Columbia.
“Did you see the sign? I hope you know you’re not supposed to be here,” the bus station employees said to Harrison when she entered. She encountered cruel words from the beginning of her journey.
“I persuaded them to be kind enough to let me buy a ticket to Greenwood,” Harrison said.
Though she encountered threats and horrific injustice along the way, Harrison said she endured with many prayers and much faith. She safely made it to her destination.
When someone questioned what she had been holding in her hand the whole time, Harrison said, “I guess it would have to be my secret weapon.” She opened her hand to reveal the Bible.
When the freedom ride began, the situation only became worse. Harrison and the Freedom Riders jumped on a bus, and police with billy clubs in their hands confronted them for breaking segregation laws. Harrison said that the police told them that if they chose to ride the bus, they would never see daylight again.
Nevertheless, the Freedom Ride continued. Harrison’s life was preserved and she now has an impactful story about the way America has changed and sought racial justice. She has four daughters, four sons-in-law and 13 grandkids.
“At 83, I only thank Almighty God,” Harrison said.
Looking around the auditorium, Harrison encouraged Anderson University students never to walk out of their doors without knowing that God is with them and to be brave in confronting the world’s problems.
“God will see you through,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s Gospel-centered testimony story exemplifies Anderson University’s vision of a Christian community of diverse faculty, staff and students.
In addition to Harrison’s story, the Mountain Spring Unity Mass Choir performed, and Rev. James C. Clark, pastor of Wilson Calvary Baptist Church, shared a message about the courage to dream in the midst of adversity.
Clark ended his sermon by reading a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and challenged the audience by asking, “what shall become of your dreams?”
President Dr. Evan P. Whitaker concluded the service. “The only thing that can solve our many problems is the Gospel,” Dr. Whitaker said.
“Dr. King was an ordinary man used by an extraordinary God,” said Dr. Noble, a professor of Christian studies and Interim Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. “Dr. King did not stand by his own strength but by the strength and power of God.”