January 16, 2009 at 1:00 am

Civil rights activist receives inaugural tickets

Minister was jailed in Miss. in '61

Gleason In 1961 )

FRANKLIN -- The Rev. Richard Gleason remembers the day he stepped aboard a Montgomery bus with hope -- wrapped up in fear -- that his simple act of changing seats with an African-American would shake segregation from the South.

When the bus reached its destination -- Jackson, Miss. -- Gleason, who is white, was thrown in jail. By that summer's end, in 1961, more than 300 people were similarly jailed.

Nearly five decades later, the former Freedom Rider from suburban Detroit will participate in another historic moment, one very different from that vivid and riotous past.

On Tuesday, Gleason will be among the seated crowd outside the Capitol in Washington as the first African American is sworn in as president.

"I'm just overwhelmed," said Gleason, 72, of Franklin. "It didn't seem real until I got the tickets."

For Gleason, the moment will top off his life's work.

As a Baptist minister, Gleason marched alongside African-American demonstrators in Birmingham in 1963, when the city's public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, turned fire hoses on them. He also marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Washington and joined rallies calling for black power and self-determination. "At the time, it was considered very, very controversial in the white community" to support the civil rights movement, Gleason said.

But it was two years prior, while he was serving as a minister at the Southside Christian Center in Chicago, that he heard about activists boarding buses.

He flew to Montgomery, paid his fare, and rode across the Mississippi state line as police cars and helicopters surrounded the bus. "We were terrified," he said.

This week, he got two of the last inaugural tickets distributed by U.S. Rep. Gary Peters' office. "I just cried," Gleason said. "Instead of being jailed for what I believe, I was being given tickets."

Diana McBroom, Michigan director for the new Oakland County congressman, said, "He's someone who's obviously lived a selfless life and committed his life to social justice. There couldn't be a more poignant statement."

"God bless America," Gleason said. "It's a new day."