Father watches son make history, 50 years after making his own mark

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
On July 12, inmate 21239 watched his son, Lt. Col. Raymond Powell, hand command of The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard over to Lt. Col. Kenneth Marentette during a ceremony on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C.

The former commander's father, Michael Powell, was arrested in a Jackson, Miss., train station July 23, 1961 for standing in "colored only" room. He was convicted of breaching the peace and served six weeks in jail.

A California native, Michael was inspired by lectures at San Jose State University to participate in the Civil Rights movement's nonviolent protests. As a 20-year-old college student, the senior Powell participated in the Freedom Rides. He took a train from New Orleans to Jackson, where police were waiting at the station.

"I see so many people inspired, like my son, to join the military today and it is awe inspiring. I don't know if there is a similar unified movement today that compares to the Freedom Rides," said the Civil Rights activist turned grandfather. "But I do see a similar sense of pride in what these [military] men and women are doing."

July 2011 marks the 50-year anniversary of the height of the Freedom Rides, when citizens from across the country came to the South to protest segregation through nonviolence. Footage, reports and photos of Freedom Riders being arrested, attacked and harassed for ignoring segregated sections of public property signaled that the end had come to an institution of racial division known as the "Jim Crow" laws, which dated to the reconstruction era.

Michael is only recently receiving recognition for his civil rights work. Ray did not understand the extent of his father's civil rights work until a family genealogy project four years ago led him to the details.

"I started uncovering all these things about my family. Look at the pictures of burned out busses and beatings. This was an amazingly brave decision for a 20-year-old to make," said Ray. "And as I'm leaving the Honor Guard, I look at all the 19 and 20 year olds I see and wonder what great decisions they are going to go on to make in their lives."

One of the photos the departing commander found of his father was a mugshot taken by Jackson Police on the day of the arrest. "To me, he's known as 'Dad'. But to police in Jackson, Miss., he is known as '21239,' said Ray. His father was arrested along with seven other Freedom Riders.

Approximately 400 people were arrested during the Freedom Rides for attempting to desegregate 'colored only' sections of bus terminals, railway stations, restaurants, and other public areas. Their stories are sometimes dramatic and violent, though Michael's seems orderly and almost scripted.

"The police were just there in the station, waiting for us," he recounted. "They asked us to disperse, on the grounds that we were disturbing the peace. Of course that wasn't true, we were just white in the segregated section of the station. When we didn't, they just arrested us."

Michael received some training in nonviolent protest before departing from New Orleans and faced the 40-day jail sentence. "We just wanted to crowd the jails, become a burden for the system," he said. "I would say our goal was just to bring attention, and maybe that required a little sacrifice. My part was small."

Michael and his first wife had two children and adopted two. "My wife and I asked for children who would not otherwise find a home," he said. "We pretty much knew in those years that meant they would be black." In 1970 and 1972, the Powells adopted Nancy and Russell, both black.

Michael recalls vacationing with his family in 1971 near the Tennessee - Mississippi border. He took his adopted daughter over the border one day, expecting to be harassed for carrying a seven-month-old adopted black child. "I crossed into Mississippi with Nancy, my adopted daughter, to do some shopping. I was simply shocked at the changes," said Powell. "It was the first time I'd been back in the South, and we couldn't have been treated nicer. It was as if the Civil Rights movements and all the bravery had made a real and lasting difference, despite the ugliness of it."