By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The black girl who sat next to me on the Greyhound bus that was ready to leave the bus terminal in Columbus, Ohio, didn’t say a word. There were other empty seats on the bus, so I was more than a little puzzled about her choice of a riding companion for the trip to Nashville, Tenn., but it was OK. Something about her told me that she wanted to be alone just like I wanted to be alone. People who want to be left alone often seek out other like-minded people.
That was the first week in May of 1968, and it had been a long month for me during the days that followed the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The assassination occurred during my second semester in college. By then, I had already proved myself to be a failure in school. The only class I was passing was ROTC, and that was mostly because I could shoot a .22 rifle better than most college kids. For some reason, the news of Dr. King’s death went straight to my heart, and the things that I had thought were important before — the Beatles, “The Fugitive,” beer and pizza — didn’t hold my attention that spring.
After finals, I stopped at my home for a few days, but as my depression grew, I hitch-hiked to Stubenville to see a girl I liked. We spent a day together and she drove me to the bus station where I bought a ticket to Nashville. At the time, I could afford the bus ride to Memphis, but I wanted to watch my finances so I bought a one-way ticket to Nashville.
I thought I would find some answers in Memphis. Like most teenagers, I struggled with internal questions all the time, but Dr. King’s death seemed to amplify my self-doubt. I sat alone during the ride from Stubenville to Columbus and waited in my seat while the bus took on more passengers.
The girl who sat next to me was beautiful. She sat straight in her seat, and mostly faced straight forward. After we got moving, I asked her if she minded if I smoked a cigarette. She smiled politely and said she didn’t mind. That was the extent of our conversation. I had already picked up the smoking habit a few months earlier when I thought it was a way to destroy the gift of a singing voice that God gave me when I was very young. Being 18 and a Yankee boy fresh off the farm, I didn’t have a clue about the confused world I was seeing around me.
Just like the train to Jordan, the Greyhound bus made several stops on the way through Kentucky and into Tennessee, and picked up several passengers along the way. Most of the people who worked their way to the back of the bus were black. In 1968, there were laws that prohibited that, but I felt comforted by being surrounded by people who were nice and quiet. It was raining all night long, but the bus was dry and the passengers were all friendly. We were strangers, but all of us seemed to understand the beauty of silence.
I exited the bus in Nashville and realized that no one had been sitting up front at all. From my vantage point in my seat, I thought the bus was crowded, but that wasn’t the reality. There were plenty of seats available in the front. The rain had stopped, but my eyes watered up as I left the station and walked in the direction of I-40 for the rest of my journey.
I hadn’t even made it to the entrance ramps when a person driving a nice car pulled up next to me and asked if I needed a lift. I responded that I did, and he motioned for me to get in his car. My dad had sold cars, but this car was nicer than any car dad had brought home. Without me asking, the guy told me that if I was hitching, I needed to hold my sign up a little higher so people could see. I wasn’t holding a sign, so I didn’t understand what he was saying. He pointed to the gym bag I was carrying and repeated: “Your sign. West Virginia. You can always get a ride home if you’re headed to West Virginia.”
We were on the eastbound entrance ramp as we had that conversation. He said he was headed to Bristol, and I was welcome to ride with him that far. He said that his family was from West Virginia and that if he didn’t help a person from West Virginia, he would hear about it from them. My bag was a West Virginia University physical education bag, but that didn’t seem to matter. To him, he had been successful in life and he felt he owed it to his parents and the values they had instilled in him. They were West Virginians.
It took me a couple more weeks to make it to Resurrection City and the end of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. I learned more about people with every ride and every long delay between rides. Nothing of what I experienced compared to the bus ride from Columbus to Nashville. We were not freedom riders. We were just riders. For some reason, that was an important part of my search to find myself.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.