The Rev. Ben Elton Cox Sr., the veteran Freedom Rider who survived an Anniston, Ala., bus burning to lead four others on a Trailways bus ride to integrate travel facilities in Little Rock, has died — a month before the 50th anniversary of their ride.
Cox, of Jackson, Miss., was 79. A member of the NAACP, he once said, “I’ve been in 37 states for civil rights and in jail 17 times. My life has been threatened 87 times in writing,” Cox said. “I’ve been shot at trying to get people to register to vote.”
“He led a life dedicated to the pursuit of freedom and equality,” said Dr. John A. Kirk, chair of UALR’s Department of History, and a scholar of civil rights history. “As well as leading the Freedom Rides in Little Rock, Rev. Cox was one of the original 13 riders on the very first Congress of Racial Equality Freedom Ride in 1961. I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking with him at a conference at the University of Florida a number of years ago. He was a fine, upstanding and humble man whose presence will be sorely missed.”
Kirk said he had spoken to Cox’s widow, who with her daughter-in-law, plans to represent her husband at UALR’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the July 10, 1961, Freedom Ride to Little Rock.
At least one more Little Rock rider — John Curtis Raines, professor emeritus of theology at Temple University — plans to attend the Little Rock ceremony, along with other veterans of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Rides.
The event will be the first sponsored by UALR’s new Institute on Race and Ethnicity. Participants will dedicate a marker at the site of the old Mid-West Trailways Bus Terminal and inaugurate an “Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Walk.”
Each year, names of Arkansas civil rights activists will be placed on plaques to be set in the sidewalk that stretches from Markham Street to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. This year’s plaques include Cox, Raines, and the three other Little Rock Freedom Riders — Bliss Ann Malone, Annie Lumpkin, and Janet Reinitz.
“What a fitting tribute the events will make to his work. It adds even more poignancy. It also reminds us that the civil rights generation of the 60s will not be around forever and that we need to capture that history now before it is too late,” said Kirk, the author of several books on the American civil rights movement.
Since he began his research 20 years ago, Kirk said nearly three-fourths of the people he interviewed who were activists in the 1940s are no longer living.
“I am saddened by news of the death of Ben Elton Cox,” said UALR Chancellor Joel E. Anderson. “I had hoped he might be with us here on July 10 for the 50th anniversary of his coming to Little Rock on one of the Freedom Rides.
“He was one of those young Americans a short half-century ago who, always using non-violent means, repeatedly exhibited courage and bravery in the cause of civil rights. He was jailed 17 times, had bullets fired into a house he was in, and received threats to his life in writing 87 times. Too soon we forget such people who helped our nation establish freedoms that we now see as elementary and take for granted. He left his world a better place.”