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Five decades before he died Sunday at 79, the Rev. Ben Elton Cox Sr. risked his life as one of 13 original Freedom Riders, insisting on desegregating interstate travel in the Deep South during the early 1960s.

On May 13, 1961, in Anniston, Ala., white men with clubs and bricks attacked the Freedom Riders' two buses, slashing tires. One of the buses was fire-bombed and a mob trapped the riders inside.

Local police escorted the bus out of town, but flat tires caused another stop, and the mob took advantage, with several riders taken to the hospital.

The Rev. Cox was a humble man and didn't talk about it much with his own family, eldest son Ben Cox Jr. said.

Though it was national news in 1961, a source of concern for President John F. Kennedy, and changed federal law, his son learned more about his father's heroism in church talks than at the kitchen table.

"I think he wanted to protect us from some of the darker aspects of the trip," his son said Tuesday.

"He was very humble about it, but we studied his case in law school," said a longtime friend in the Ministerial Alliance, the Rev. Evelyn Underwood.

Another prominent pastor, the Rev. Claude Shelby, was his friend for 30 years.

"He was always very interested in civil rights. However, he did love the Gospel as well," Shelby said.

Shelby often invited the Rev. Cox to speak at Salem Baptist Church during Black History Month.

"He always had something important to say about the Freedom Rides and the 1960s," Shelby said.

A native of the South, the future Rev. Cox spent his teen years in Kankakee.

In 1960, after academic work at Livingstone College and Howard University, he decided to make civil rights his vocation.

The Rev. Cox began working as a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, then moved to the Congress of Racial Equality.

CORE co-founder James Farmer sent out a call in 1961 for civil rights activists, black and white alike, to challenge color barriers throughout the South on a Freedom Bus trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.

"Someone has to do it," Cox told The News-Gazette in 2003. "Someone had to pay a price to get us to the state we were in — Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, the whites who helped us on the Underground Railroad. Someone has to keep it going."

The Rev. Cox was jailed 17 times during the civil rights movement. He had an FBI file to challenge the thickness of Dr. Martin Luther King's.

By the fall of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation in interstate travel and "whites only" signs at bus terminals.

In the late 1960s, he returned to the Midwest, where he worked as a Baptist pastor, a chaplain at the Danville Veterans Affairs Hospital, a program director at Parkland College and a social studies and African American history teacher in several local schools.

"A lot of people from Franklin (middle school) always ask me if he was my dad. They said he was stern, but everybody still liked him," Ben Cox Jr. said.

Longtime friend and choir director Willie Summerville said the Rev. Cox embraced all of humanity.

"He was really big, not only about civil rights, but talking about unity," Summerville recalled.

The Rev. Cox once spoke to a Rotary prayer breakfast and asked how many people in the audience agreed that civilization began in the lands mentioned in the Bible.

Summerville said they all said yes.

"Aren't Egypt and Africa there?" the Rev. Cox asked. "I'm going to greet you all: Hello, my fellow African-Americans."

Summerville said the Rev. Cox's sense of humor always smoothed situations.

Underwood noted that, besides his civil rights and Ministerial Alliance work, the pastor was very active in the American Cancer Society and Lions Club.

He never truly retired from the equality movement, however.

He said nonviolent action is the best way to effect change.

"To fight back, you're asking your opposition to kill you, really. By not fighting back, you're saying, 'I'll take everything you can dish out," he told The News-Gazette. "Confronting your opposition in a nonviolent way can win them over."

He called for equality worldwide.

"We must have massive nonviolent protest. That embarrasses America around the world," the Rev. Cox said. "The majority of white people in this country are for equality, but they are silent. They are not going to get involved until we get involved. As long as we remain nonviolent, we will have more support than you can think of."

In 1995, the Rev. Cox wanted to march in the Million Man March, but thought he couldn't afford the trip.

WDWS-AM donors spontaneously contributed more than $700 for Cox to buy an airplane ticket for him to go back to Washington.

In 1998, the Rev. Cox moved back to Tennessee.

Local friends and admirers want to have a service here, but right now the only service planned is in Jackson, Tenn.

He is survived by wife, Edna, and has four sons, Ben Jr., Darnell, Bernard and Darryl, according to an obituary in the Jackson Sun.

The funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in New St. Luke Church in Jackson, with a visitation from noon until the funeral.

There also will be a visitation from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and a friends and family hour from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).