GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Walking through the hallways of Covenant Living of the Great Lakes, Rev. Dick Gleason clutches a large black portfolio. Inside are blown-up pictures that tell the story of the ride he’s been on for the last 60 years.
“Oh, let me show you something,” Gleason says as he pulls something from the portfolio. “These are the Freedom Riders. If you notice that most of the men have ties and this is all chronological and I’m up here. The 7th bus, 57th person to be on the freedom ride.”
Gleason, like the other 327 pictured, is holding a mugshot placard. His reads, “Police Dept. Jackson Miss, 20934, 6-2-61.” The picture shows a young man in a suit and tie with no smile. It is only a snapshot of the work Gleason has done.
“I was in solitary confinement, bad experience,” Gleason said. “Fined $200. Came back to Chicago and I was met at the airport by the police. A mob in Chicago was after me and a detail was put on me for two weeks.”
Gleason grew up in a small town in Ohio near the Michigan border. He was bullied and tormented and never felt like he belonged, until a minister pulled him aside one day.
“He said, ‘Richard, look up and look at me, look me in the eye.’ He said, ‘I know you had a tough time, but I want you to know that God loves you and he has a plan for your life,'” Gleason remembers. “‘If you dream big enough and work hard enough, you can do anything you want to do.'”
Gleason turned his life to God and asked that he be strong enough to serve. He was ordained a minister at 24 and moved to Chicago, a culture shock for the small-town boy, to work in their segregated communities.
“Never saw the cab before, much less a subway,” Gleason said, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about a race. Just didn’t know anything about urban life.”
He went to work in the country’s largest public housing project and immediately learned that life was different in the big city. He was jumped and sent to the hospital, and the church he worked for pulled the plug on his program because it “wasn’t safe” for him.
“I lived on the street for a year,” Gleason said, saying he would stay warm in businesses nearby. “And I got to know those kids. And behind that, ‘I’m the baddest’ or ‘I’m the coolest’ or whatever, I saw that little boy that was just struggling to be somebody.”
It’s that feeling that resonated and motivated Gleason to do better.
“When I see the homeless person on the street, I can identify,” Gleason said. “I can feel. I can walk into a jail cell and communicate, I can identify.”
In May of 1961, Gleason was watching the news and saw what was unfolding in the South. Freedom Riders, a mix of black and white activists, boarded an interstate bus to protest segregation on the transit platform and in the terminals. The Supreme Court had outlawed segregated bussing and facilities with two decisions, Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), that weren’t being enforced in the South.
The first freedom ride left Washington D.C on May 4 of 1961, headed for New Orleans. They were met by angry mobs of white segregationists. Gleason remembers the images he saw in newspapers and on television of the buses being surrounded by people or cars and the riders inside being dragged out and beaten. It was then he felt the calling in his heart to join the ride.
“I was living in a system that was racist,” Gleason said of the Chicago housing project. “And I didn’t know anybody there. I wasn’t part of any group. I don’t know how to put it, I wasn’t political in any sense of the word, but I saw what was happening in Chicago and I decided I was ready. I came across the scripture and Isaiah 1:17, ‘learn to do right, seek justice and defend the oppressed.’ And boy I got on a bus and went to Dr. King’s office in Atlanta, Georgia, and joined six others and became a freedom rider.”
He remembers the day in June his bus left Montgomery, Alabama. They were told not to draw attention to themselves, to not pool together on the bus. But one of the freedom riders “spilled the beans” and asked a white woman if a black rider could share her seat. Mayhem broke out.
“Most [of] the violence went towards us who were white males, feeling that we were traitors to our race,” Gleason said. “It was two hours before we got to the Selma Bus Station and Sheriff Jim Clark, the most notorious of all sheriffs, the one responsible for the problems of Bloody Sunday in Selma where they used cattle prods and dogs, he came on the bus and drug off this freedom rider. And we had five more hours to go before we got to Jackson, Mississippi, terrified.”
Not thinking he would survive the trip, Gleason was determined to reach the “Colored Only” waiting room no matter what. He did, and he was arrested.
After he went home to Chicago and the police detail and threats to his life died down, Gleason was disfellowshipped from his church, labeled a communist, he says, for riding, and he lost everything. But through that loss, he maintained a heart of justice and Christ.
He started his own Christ-centered ministry, The Southside Christian Center Youth Program, a seven days a week spiritual, recreational and educational program for young brothers and sisters of gang-related teens.
Over the next two decades, that ministry would flourish. Its choir would tour the country and sing for people like Martin Luther King Jr. They bought a 260-acre farm in Buchannan, Michigan, and started the New Hope Camp for those same teens.
“It’s not God bless America for me. It’s God loves the children of the world,” Gleason said. “I see things in a broader perspective.”
As his ministry grew, it went hand in hand with his push for social justice. He walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, was at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech, and was behind the civil rights leader’s mule-drawn coffin at his private funeral in Atlanta. He still wears a pin that reads, “Keep the Dream alive.”
“We have come a long way. I think Dr. King would say, we’ve come a long way,” Gleason said. “But boy, we’re missing the boat. We’re missing the boat. Isaiah 1:17 is ‘learn to do right. Seek justice, defend the oppressed.’ Our pastors aren’t doing that. Four hundred years they haven’t done that.”
That’s his call to action now, continuing the journey he started 60 years ago, to the church, to its leaders, and to himself: the ride continues.
“I’m on the bus. I’m doing good trouble,” Gleason said, using the words of someone he marched with, John Lewis. “Yes indeed, I believe in good trouble.”