Frederick Leonard (activist)

Frederick Leonard was an American activist who was involved in the civil rights movement.

Involvement in the civil rights movementEdit

While attending Tennessee State University, Leonard participated in the Nashville sit-ins in 1960.[1] Leonard also participated in a Freedom Ride which started on May 17, 1961. It happened from Nashville to Birmingham.[1] In a 1985 interview with Blackside Inc., which produced Eyes on the Prize, Leonard elaborated his experience of freedom ride. When the Greyhound bus arrived at the terminal in Montgomery, he recalled, "the Klan comes through with their guns and their robes and everything",[2] but the Freedom Riders felt at ease because they were being escorted by police. As soon as they reached the terminal in Birmingham, he noticed the police had suddenly vanished and the terminal looked deserted and eerie. He said that after he noticed the police were gone, "all of a sudden, just like, whoosh, magic, white people, sticks and bricks [appeared]".[2] The riders were trapped; the bus was surrounded. There was a debate about whether or not to exit the back of the bus so that, " wouldn't be so bad," [2] or to exit the front of the bus and "...take what was coming [to them]." [2] Jim Zwerg, a white rider, decided to exit the bus first before everyone else and receive the full brutality of the mob. Leonard believes that Zwerg saved him and the other blacks on that bus. To prove this he stated in the Blackside Inc. interview, "I think that's what saved me, Bernard Lafayette, and Allen Cason 'cause Jim Zwerg walked off the bus...and they [the white mob] pulled him' they didn't even see the rest of us." [2] After exiting the front of the bus unrecognized, Leonard, Lafayette, and Cason made a run for it.[2] Then they encountered an obstacle; "...[a] rail [track] the bus station, with a parking lot...below...about 10 or 15 feet down." [2] After some hesitation, they all took the leap of faith. When they jumped down, the riders decided to cut through the post office. In the interview, Leonard also recalled how "...mail went...flying everywhere 'cause they were running." [2] When they exited the other side of the post office, the men waved down a cab. After hailing a one, they decided to head for the Shuttlesworth house in Birmingham,[2] which belonged to Fred Shuttlesworth, another civil rights activist, and as a result, found safety and shelter in his home.

Personal lifeEdit

Leonard married Joy Reagon, who was also a Freedom Rider.[1]

Other experiences in the MovementEdit

That same night, after participating in the freedom ride, there was a rally at Abernathy's church in Birmingham.[2] All the members of the ride, Leonard, Lafayette, and Cason, attended the rally. They were on high alert at the rally because they had heard through the grape vine that whites, specifically the klan, were hunting them like wanted men even though "we [,the riders,] were the victims." [2] After hearing this, the riders went into the church to find a hiding spot or a way to disguise themselves. Someone suggested hiding in the choir. The riders thought that was the best bet for safety given so little time to find a hiding spot, so "...[the riders] took off and ran up to the choir and put on little robes and started signing...[the klan] came in and looked, didn't see us, and they left." [2]

On May 24, 1961, a few days after the previous Freedom Ride, Leonard and other riders boarded a bus to participate in another Freedom Ride headed for Jackson, Mississippi. When the bus arrived at the terminal, there were a ton of police in the area. After the riders exited the bus, Frederick and the other passengers made their way through the crowd. They were allowed to go through the white portion of the bus station, which was a big accomplishment being in Mississippi. After the black riders successfully walked through the white side of the station, the riders were told to continue walking straight into the cop car and went straight to jail. The next day, the riders went to court to get a sentencing. When Attorney Jack Young got up to defend the riders, the judge turned his body to face the wall behind him. When the attorney finished, the local judge turned back around and without a second thought banged his gavel and sentenced the men to 60 days in Parchman State Penitentiary. In the television show, 'Eyes on the Prize,' Leonard stated in his interview that the men and women sang for hours on end in the penitentiary because "...they were only allowed one book and that was the Bible, so we [,the Freedom Riders,] did a lot of singing."[3] He continued to say, "no folks just couldn't understand how we could be happy they [,the guards,] came through one night and said 'if you don't shut up, we'll take away you mattresses!'"[4] The riders kept on singing. That night, the mattresses were taken away from them but handed back in the morning. After getting them back, everyone in the cells started to sing again. The guards came back and said they would take mattresses away again. He told his cell mate Stokely Carmichael that he would not be giving up his mattress once the guards came to take them. So, when the guards came in, Leonard wrapped his arms in a hug around it and held on tight. The guards drug into the corridor. Peewee, a black inmate being used to distribute brute force when needed, was called by the guards. Then the guards said sternly, "Peewee get him!" Next thing Frederick knew, "Peewee came down on my [Frederick's] head; WHOMP! WHOMP!"[5] But Frederick realized Peewee was crying when he swung. In that moment, Frederick realized that Peewee was being hurt more internally by hurting Leonard externally.[5]

TSU Freedom Riders honorary degreesEdit

In 2008, Frederick Leonard and fourteen other Freedom Riders were honored by TSU, also known as Tougaloo College who had asked fourteen of the Freedom Riders to come to the college and all to receive honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees for choosing expulsion to patriation in Freedom Riders and fight for the freedom of the black community in 1961.[6] The TSU speaks to the Freedom Riders expressing their gratitude to the TBR (Tennessee Board of Regents) for exemplifying the courage to right this unforgivable wrong. Going on and continuing their speech “I believe that with this vote, those former students who helped change the face of our nation, along with their families and loved ones, will understand that while we cannot undo the last four decades we can promise that future generations will learn about and have respect for the Freedom Riders' valiant efforts to create a society that upholds the rights of all its citizen. I know that the awarding of these degrees will serve to remind this generation of students of a time when young people were willing to risk reputations, careers, their freedom and their lives for a higher cause. Let me take a moment to recognize and thank all the individuals involved in bringing this initiative to fruition.” This event continued for three days of special recognition which had sparked weeping by the young and old, standing ovations, endless request for pictures and autographs, and dozens of questions from high school teenagers and retired adults. Why did they do what they did? How did the experience impact them? What was it like to be in a jail cell? What can be done in the future to protect the freedoms they and others fought for? [7] Frederick speaks up "We didn't ask for this and when we were denied I said 'okay,' I knew what we had done," said Frederick Leonard, referring to the initial decision this spring by the Tennessee Board of Regents to deny the school's request to award the honorary degrees. "But yesterday, I cried," he said referring to the convocation ceremonies. "I cried. It was something really special," said Leonard who shared a jail cell with Stokley Carmichael.


  1. ^ a b c "Meet the Players: Freedom Riders". PBS. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Leonard, Frederick (November 3, 1985). "Interview with Frederick Leonard" (Interview). Blackside Inc. Retrieved March 3, 2018 – via Henry Hampton Collection, Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis.
  3. ^ Fayer, Steve. "Eyes on the Prize; Ain't Scared of Your JAils". PBS. American Experience. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  4. ^ Fayer, Steve. "Eyes on the Prize: Ain't Scared of Your Jails". PBS. American Experience. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  5. ^ a b Fayer, Steve. "Eyes on the Prize: Ain't Scared of Your Jails". PBS. American Experience. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  6. ^ "FREEDOM RIDERS TO RECEIVE HONORARY DEGREES." The Tennessee Tribune, May, 2008, pp. 6. ProQuest,
  7. ^ Stuart, Reginald. "TSU Freedom Riders Honored with 'Family Reunion'." The Tennessee Tribune, Sep, 2008, pp. 2-1A,2A. ProQuest,