Former Freedom Rider recalls civil rights movement at UW-W

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Stan Milam
Friday, September 28, 2012

— If you were walking Thursday afternoon past the UW-Whitewater Old Main Ballroom, you could hear voices from the 1964 Freedom Summer.

Charles Neblett, a veteran of the intensely violent civil rights movement in the nation's South during the '60s, recalled his fellow Freedom Riders and their work, which resulted in jail time for some—and death for others.

"I got involved in the movement before I knew what the movement was," Neblett told an audience of fellow Freedom Riders and UW-W officials including Chancellor Richard Telfer. "When I was a kid in Nashville going to a one-room school, we would walk past a big brick school for the whites. We got white kids' books when they got new ones."

He decided as a youngster he was not going to accept being a second-class citizen.

"I knew then that something just wasn't right," he said. "I decided I wasn't going to take it."

Neblett said his life changed when he heard about the Aug. 28, 1955, murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American accused of flirting with a white woman.

"They beat him to death, shot him in the head and then dumped his body in the river," Neblett said.

The incident made him sick, depressed and angry, Neblett said.

"I realized then that I had no rights white people would respect," Neblett said. "I was the same age as Till, and I decided right then and there I had to do something. It was like I got religion. I knew it wouldn't be long before I joined the movement."

As a college student at Southern Illinois University, Neblett and two friends printed what he called a "scandal sheet" earning them a meeting with the university president.

"The police knew what we did before we did it," he said.

Neblett said he complained to the president about discriminatory housing and other campus issues, and the president agreed to correct them.

"The next semester, he did," Neblett said. "That was it for me. I realized we could make a difference."

Neblett joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, becoming a field secretary for the group. He was a founder and bass singer in the Freedom Singers.

"The music was an important part of the movement," Neblett said. "We sang everywhere, in jail, on picket lines, at sit-ins, in churches and at our meetings. But the one thing I remember is that the movement was all of these young men and women who marched forward in spite of the odds."

Neblett closed his remarks by singing a Civil War song sung by black Union soldiers. He pointed out that the South took no black prisoners of war. They were either left to die of their wounds or were killed.

"This song was a song for the Civil War, the civil rights movement and now," he said.

"Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free."

Last updated: 4:33 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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