One of the heroines of the Freedom Ride Movement in the 1960s has died. Catherine Burks-Brooks, who as a college student, confronted Birmingham Sheriff Bull Conner in public, died on July 3rd in Birmingham, her daughter, Nana Gatlin, said. She was 83 years old.
When the first group of Freedom Riders abandoned their protests because of Klan violence, a group led by Diane Nash, a leader of the student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, decided to start again. One of those who joined Ms. Nash was Ms. Burks-Brooks, a student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville.
She was in a group of ten students who left Nashville on a public bus headed to Alabama. Her seatmate was a white student named James Zwerg, a violation of segregation laws. When the bus reached Alabama, she, Zwerg and the rest of the students, including a young John Lewis, were arrested.
They were placed in a car driven by Bull Connor and driven towards the Tennessee state border. During the drive, Ms. Burks-Brooks challenged Connor on segregation laws and invited him to have a meal with her which the imposing segregationist found laughable.
As a student, Ms. Burks-Brooks continued her activism, once spending a month in one of Mississippi’s worse state prisons. The continued persistence of Ms. Burks-Brooks and hundreds of other student freedom riders in the South led to changes in federal law and policies.
Born in Birmingham in 1939, Catherine Burks was graduated from Tennessee A & I in 1962. She later became a school teacher and later worked as a salesperson, becoming a district sales manager for Avon. She and her husband, Paul, were the editors of a Black Newspaper, the Mississippi Free Press, which was founded by the slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.
In addition to Ms. Burks-Brooks is survived by a second daughter, Hiala, and a grandson. Her marriage to Paul Brooks ended in divorce.