Saturday, April 9, 2011


Freedom Rider

Five words I never thought I'd write:  "My dad's going on Oprah."  Seriously.

Michael Powell is known to readers of this blog as "Presbyter" and to me as "Dad".  To police in Jackson, Mississippi in July 1961 he was known as "21239".  His biography on the Civil Rights Digital Library reads as follows:
Born in Sacramento, California in 1940, Michael Harry Powell was a student at San Jose State College in San Jose, California when he was arrested for his participation in the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961. As part of the Freedom Ride, Powell, along with six others, rode a bus from Nashville, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi where he was arrested in the Trailways terminal on July 23, 1961.  (*See note)
I knew a very little about this growing up.  I knew he was active in the Civil Rights Movement, and I'd heard he was arrested for sitting in a black waiting room.  I knew he'd learned in that Jackson jail cell that he could eat anything "if I was hungry enough", therefore no excuses were to be given in the Powell house for not cleaning our plates. 

Today my dad downplays his role in this historic event, claiming that others did more dangerous work, or were more noble of motivation, or followed through more faithfully.  Yet I recently had an African-American military leader in my office who, looking at my coffee table book on the subject, reminded me of the truth:  "I owe my career to people like your dad."  Indeed.

Though Dad did not yet know the Lord in 1961, this Scripture yet rings poignant when I consider his sacrifice:  "Remember those earlier days ... when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded."  (Hebrews 10:32-35)

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. My father will travel to Chicago to take part in a taping for the May 4th edition of the Oprah Show, in which she will honor those who were "publicly exposed to insult and persecution" and who "stood side by side with those who were so treated."  Happy anniversary, Presbyter ... and thank you Dad.

(*) Editor's Note:  Presbyter writes in with a correction to the above account:
The Oprah taping got me interested enough to track this down. I am relieved to know that I did not arrive in Jackson on a bus from Nashville, via Memphis, but rather, as I recalled, arrived at the train station (I believe from New Orleans, but I suppose Memphis was possible). The link in this message is to the first page of the document. My name is on the 2nd page (link at the bottom of the 1st). So, along with Wikipedia, one has to be cautious when one cites the Civil Rights Digital Library.
Updates:  Presbyter did indeed appear on Oprah's show on 4 May 2011.  He can be seen during Oprah's introduction (video here with Presbyter pictured at the 1:09 mark in a brown suit and tie).  He then joined me two months after this for my USAF Honor Guard Change of Command ceremony in July 2011.  Air Force Public Affairs covered the event here.

Lt. Col. Raymond Powell and his father Michael Powell discuss Michael's experience during the Freedom Rides of 1961 at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C. July 11, 2011. The freedom rides sought to end segregation in the Southern states with non-violent protest. Raymond relinquished command of The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard on July 12, 2011, nearly 50 years after his fathers arrest in Jackson, Miss. (USAF Photo by Staff Sgt. Raymond Mills)


  1. OMGOSH! A sister with a building named for her. A dad going on Operah! Is there anything ELSE you haven't shared with us that you need to get off your chest! : )

  2. Awesome story. Simply awesome! The bravery and courage to do the right thing... I am in awe. Thank you for sharing. Is the video "Freedom Riders" a documentary that will be showing at the theatre or on tv? I would like to have my boys watch this... although this clip is soooo painful to watch. We need to share the truth - as uncomfortable as it may be...

  3. Thanks for the post, Ray.

    Love, Dad

  4. The ripples of one witness....carries endless seeds to which the Lord will harvest....thanks for sharing this amazing story of your father....and his righteous stand for others...take care
    A Messenger!

  5. The show was taped yesterday with almost 180 surviving Freedom Riders as guests. I was one of them and Mrs. Presbyter was there too as my guest. Both of us can testify that this show will be well worth seeing: Oprah makes a very convincing case that this is a chapter in our (very recent) history which we very much need to remember. I encourage everyone who can do so to give it your time on May 4, and also to to mark May 16 on your calendars, when PBS will air a documentary on Freedom Rides -

  6. I was a young teen ager at the time.
    Men like your dad were my heros and
    shaped much of my life in defining
    "There is no Righteousness without Justice
    there is no Justice without Truth
    It is the moment of truth from which
    righteousness can be restored"
    At that age i was not allowed to go down South
    but later got to know Nat and Ann Schwerner
    (Micky's parents) and two years ago met Ben Chaney brother of James.
    Dan Moody


Record your thoughts on the cell wall