Commentary: When the Freedom Riders came to Texas

The Freedom Riders seem like heroes from long ago and far away.

They were students and activists, riding buses from New York to the South 50 years ago to desegregate cities that met them with white mobs and torches.

But they also came to Texas.

On Aug. 13, 1961, Freedom Riders from California dined in the old Fort Worth Greyhound station with none of the rancor they found in Alabama and Mississippi that year, a story retold Monday in the PBS American Experience documentary, Freedom Riders.

But when other riders took a bus to Houston the same weekend, 11 white and African-American riders were jailed for "unlawful assembly."

They were fined $100 simply for trying to dine together in the old Union Station, where Minute Maid Park now stands.

It was an era of white defiance, Confederate-flag-waving, shouts of "sovereignty" and violent attacks on both black Americans and "Yankees."

Ed Kale, who went on to become campus chaplain at the University of Texas at Arlington, was in the middle of it all.

"I believed in civil rights, but coming from Idaho, I was very naive about the South," Kale said Tuesday by phone from his retirement home near La Pointe, Wis.

He was one of 180 Freedom Riders reunited on a recent Oprah Winfrey Show to mark the 50th anniversary of the Greyhound and Trailways bus rides, which were attacked near Anniston, Ala., and in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala.

Kale remembered getting off a bus in Mississippi wearing a Yale jacket: "I thought I might get a postcard," he said.

He was surrounded by angry whites and yanked back onto the bus. Eventually, he and fellow riders were convicted of disturbing the peace and transferred to the Mississippi state prison farm.

"They got really annoyed when they couldn't break our spirit," he said.

He admired the Texas-born leader of the rides, Jim Farmer.

Later, as the campus minister and a religion instructor in Arlington from 1984 to 1986, Kale does not remember a student ever asking about the Freedom Riders.

He remained an activist, even getting arrested once for leafleting Democratic literature on cars at Six Flags Mall. He was quickly released.

"I really liked Texas," he said. "I liked the spirit of the students. But -- Arlington could be a little difficult at times."

Even for a Freedom Rider.