Julia Aaron Humbles, a New Orleans native and a lifelong activist who inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with her commitment to the civil rights movement, died Tuesday in Stone Mountain, Georgia, of complications from ovarian cancer. She was 72.
In 1961, Humbles’ face made national news because of a photo of her and fellow activist David Dennis sitting on the front seat of a bus next to a soldier armed with a rifle and bayonet. Soldiers had been ordered to protect the Freedom Riders as they rode across the Deep South, determined to desegregate bus stations.
More than 20 years later, her daughter, Johari Humbles, saw the photo in a book she was using for a school project on black history. “A classmate said, ‘Is this your mom?’ And I said, ‘No way,’ ” Johari said. After reading the caption, she realized it was her mother.
“I didn’t know, because she didn’t brag about being a Freedom Rider,” Johari said. “She was always moving on to the next injustice, the next project, the next person who needed help.”
In 1961, though Humbles had just turned 18, she already was so active in the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality that she was selected to be on the first Freedom Ride bus.
Fellow New Orleans CORE activist Doretha Smith-Simmons recently dug up the application for the ride submitted by Humbles, then a student at Southern University at New Orleans. Ultimately, Humbles wrote in it, she hoped the Freedom Ride project “will help to remove the signs of human injustice from our society.”
Two New Orleanians, Humbles and Jerome Smith, were selected for the first Freedom Ride bus, which ultimately was firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama. But the two weren’t on that bus; they were in Orleans Parish Prison for picketing outside the segregated Woolworth stores on Canal Street.
It was one of more than 30 times that Humbles would be arrested for her civil rights work. As soon as she and Smith were released, they drove to Montgomery, Alabama, for a strategy session with other Freedom Riders and King. “I was scared to death,” Humbles recalled later. “We didn’t know that we would make it home alive.”
Many young activists, Humbles included, felt the ride would have more credibility if King was along because he had become the face of the movement. But King demurred, saying he was on probation from a traffic arrest.
“I said to Dr. King, ‘Well, I’m on probation, too,’ ” Humbles recalled. “He probably wanted to say, ‘Keep your mouth closed,’ but he didn’t.”
Instead, Humbles’ pluck made a far different impression on King, who ran into Jerome Smith later in the hallway. King said he could foresee the success of the entire movement through Humbles’ determination.
The next morning, King accompanied the group to the bus station in Montgomery. Humbles remembered that King kissed her on the cheek and said, “Don’t ever give up your beliefs for anybody. Continue to be as passionate as you are.”
Nearly half of those young Freedom Riders came through New Orleans to be trained in passive resistance. They stayed in CORE members’ homes, like the Aarons’ in the St. Bernard public housing complex. “We made sure that these people were hugged and nurtured and prepared for what they were doing,” she said.
From an early age, Humbles had tested the rules of segregation all around her in New Orleans. “I was the kid that would move up the ‘colored’ sign on the buses (marking where black riders could sit). I would use the white restroom or water fountain. If I got caught, I would say flippantly, ‘I just wanted to taste that white water!’ and I’d run,” she said.
She graduated from the Charity Hospital School of Surgical Technology in New Orleans and worked as a surgical technician for 30 years. In 1988, after the death of her husband, Joseph Lee Humbles Sr., she moved to Atlanta for a job at Northside Hospital.
Survivors include her daughter, Johari Humbles, of Atlanta; two sons, Justin Kennedy Humbles and Jeffrey Alexander Humbles, both of Lithonia, Georgia; a brother, Ellington Daniels Sr., of Austin, Texas; two sisters, Clementine Aaron, of New Orleans, and Shirley Mae Bell, of Stone Mountain; 13 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
A musical tribute in Humbles’ honor will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the church. Donald Trimble Mortuary is in charge of arrangements.