The phone rang at 5 a.m. that day in June 1961.
Cladys Harrison of Pendleton was called in because nearly everyone else had backed out.
At least 10 others from the region had promised to try to buy bus tickets from the “whites only” counters that day. Young black men and women from Anderson County planned to try to board South Carolina buses and sit in the front rows instead of the back. They planned to push for desegregation. For equality.
But when the time came to do what they had planned, many were afraid. One by one, they decided not to do it.
“I think many of the young people thought of this as an exciting trip at first,” Harrison said. “They didn’t think of the danger.”
When Harrison’s phone rang that day, two representatives of Anderson County’s NAACP chapter were on the other end of the line. They told her they had promised that someone from the county would represent the chapter on a bus. If she didn’t do it, the chapter would be embarrassed. They didn’t want to disappoint the Rev. Martin Luther King, who had written them a letter, she believes.
Harrison was only 25 then, a single mother going through a divorce. She said her first husband had walked out and left her with a toddler daughter, Adrienna.
“My first thought was of my baby,” Harrison said. “She wasn’t more than 2 or 3, and I was the one she had to look out for her.”
Harrison called her own father, Furman Porter, and asked him what to do.
“He was a man of great faith,” she said. “And he told me God would look after me. He believed it. He also promised me that if I was killed, he would raise my daughter.”
With that assurance, Harrison became part of the civil rights movement.
Freedom Rides started in spring 1961. The first Freedom Ride was in May that year, when 13 civil rights activists left Washington, D.C., to travel in the segregated South, challenging the existence of segregated buses.
Harrison’s Freedom Ride didn’t take her outside South Carolina, but her mission was to travel from Anderson to Greenwood to Columbia, challenging segregated buses at each point. Her father drove her from Pendleton, where she still lives today, to downtown Anderson. He left her with a Bible in her hand and verse on her heart.
She can still recite Isaiah 41:10 from memory:
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee. Be not dismayed; for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee. Yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”
She read that verse dozens of times that day in 1961. She believes that’s why at age 81 she can still say every word.
Her first trouble on the Freedom Ride came before she ever left the station in downtown Anderson.
She went in the station’s front door.
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“That wasn’t what someone of my race was supposed to do,” she said. “We were supposed to go to a back door to come in and get tickets. At the counter for white folks, they asked me what I was trying to do. Didn’t I know that could start trouble, they said to me. But they sold me the ticket.”
Harrison traveled with two young men, one from Anderson and another from Belton, she said.
“They didn’t say a word all day,” she said. “They were too nervous.”
When Harrison got to Greenwood with the other activists and tried to buy bus tickets, authorities cleared the station of all the other passengers.
“About the time everyone was told to leave, it started to rain hard,” she said. “There was an elderly white woman who was just getting wet, and I was worried she would get sick. I went out to her and said: ‘Ma’am, we don’t mean anyone any harm. Please come back in.’ And she did.”
When the Freedom Riders got to McCormick, Harrison was in a seat on the second row of the bus. Police officers told her and other activists to get off for questioning.
“They called us the N word and a lot of other stuff that wasn’t nice,” Harrison said, her voice growing quiet. “I thought they were going to take my Bible. They kept asking me why I had it. It was a terrifying time. I told them it was my sword and my shield, and they left me alone.”
When Harrison and the activists made it to Columbia, she says police boarded the bus and stood over her.
“They said that if we tried to take that bus back home riding in the front of the bus, we wouldn’t live to tell the story,” she said.
In Columbia, she was picked up and driven back to Anderson County.
Days later, a small item about the Freedom Riders appeared in the newspaper, she said.
“But we were all identified as college students, and our names weren’t in there,” she said. “So a lot of people never knew what I did.”
In the years that followed, Harrison went on with her life.
She faithfully attended Mountain Springs Baptist Church in Anderson, where she still goes. She worked as a secretary at Riverside Middle School in Pendleton. She married for a second time and was with her husband, James Harrison, for 28 years before his death.
Along with her firstborn, Adrienna Miller, Harrison had three other daughters. They are Sophia Allen, Priscilla Robertson and Bonita Young-Davis.
“She is such a warrior,” said Katherine Ware, who has worked alongside Harrison in several civic groups. “She has such a deep faith and strength.”
Young-Davis, Harrison’s youngest daughter, said she is proud of her mother and also understands the importance of continuing the mission Harrison started.
“She risked her life to make things better for future generations,” Young-Davis said. “I understand that the responsibility to make things better does not end with her. We all have to carry the torch.”