Freedom Rider bus burning outside Anniston, Ala.
There were only 13 brave hearts when they climbed onto southbound Greyhound and Trailways buses in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago today. But within a couple of months there were hundreds of them, black and white, riding public buses into the jaws of Southern intransigence. They were jeered, threatened, harassed, beaten, jailed and firebombed. Their courage eventually helped crush that unique brand of American apartheid known as Jim Crow. But on that balmy spring day when they embarked for New Orleans, segregation ruled the land through which they were traveling, a forced and illegal separation backed up with billy clubs, tear gas, fire hoses and the fangs of police dogs and policemen.
The Kennedy brothers urged them not to go, even made it a matter of patriotism, just as they would later discourage the March on Washington in August '63. But that admonition from the nation's highest authorities didn't stop them from challenging some of the lowest authorities, the Klan-backed sheriffs and deputies who would stand smirking as mobs of their drinking buddies attacked them. When the beatings had gone on long enough, they arrested the Freedom Riders and charged them with "breach of peace" and violating various other laws, all of which amounted to what they so charmingly called "race-mixing."
Freedom Rider John Lewis, in a mugshot
after being arrested in 1961, and today,
as Congressman from Georgia's 5th District.
(From Eric Etheridge's book, Breach of Peace)
To this day, those two words give me the shivers. The good kind. Three years after they put their lives on the line, I had the great good fortune in Mississippi to become momentarily acquainted with one of them and spend two months being mentored by another in Freedom Summer. The first was John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and now Congressman from my birth state of Georgia's 5th district. The second was Charly Biggers, eight years older than I and just then finishing a degree at the University of Colorado, where I, too, would graduate in five years.
By 1961 segregated interstate buses had been unconstitutional for 15 years. That was a consequence of the Supreme Court's 7-1 ruling in the case of Irene Morgan v. the Commonwealth of Virginia. Challenged in 1944 to give up her seat on an interstate bus to a white passenger, Irene Morgan refused. A deputy arrived with a warrant. She tore it up and tossed it out the window, saying she had done nothing wrong and had paid the same money as the white passenger. When the deputy grabbed her, she fought back. Another deputy arrived. She scratched and kicked but was eventually subdued, dragged off the bus and charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia's segregation laws. She was thrown into jail. Her mother bailed her out for $500, equal to $6100 today.
She was fined $10. But a 38-year-old attorney named Thurgood Marshall took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He didn't argue it on due process grounds. Instead, he argued before the justices that Jim Crow laws in this instance violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and the Interstate Commerce Act by interfering with transportation crossing state boundaries.
But while the ruling was a landmark in civil rights law, there was no enforcement. A year after Morgan was decided, in 1947, Bayard Rustin and 17 other activists from the Congress of Racial Equality took the first Freedom Ride. They called it a Journey of Reconciliation. It turned out to be anything but, however, it would inspire new Freedom Riders a decade and a half later. Led by Rustin, mixed pairs of black and white passengers rode in the white sections of Greyhound and Trailways buses. Through Virginia, everything went all right, but in North Carolina the authorities stepped in. There were 12 arrests and Rustin spent 30 days on a chain gang.
In 1955, in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled for desegregation and explicitly said passengers could disregard local Jim Crow laws. But the commission refused to enforce its own ruling and the racist scofflaws continued as they always had. In 1960, the Supreme Court added another desegregation brick to the foundation when it reversed a lower court's ruling in Boynton v. Virginia and required the desegregation of restaurant facilities that were a integral part of interstate bus terminals. Thurgood Marshall again argued the case. That decision and the ICC's unwillingness to act set the Freedom Riders into motion.
Bayard Rustin would be on board just as he had been 14 years earlier. All the protesters had been trained in non-violent methods of resistance and all were either members of CORE or SNCC. The plan was to travel through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, ending up in New Orleans where there would be a rally. But the bus ride ended well short of its destination. No major incidents occurred in Virginia and there were some arrests and quick releases in North Carolina. But in Rock Hill, S.C., John Lewis was attacked and in Winnsboro, S.C., there were several arrests.
Freedom Ride Map
It was in Alabama, however, where segregation's enforcers chose to make their stand. What happened there has been told in great detail over the years by many Freedom Riders and other chroniclers, including James Peck, James Farmer, Taylor Branch and Lewis in his 1998 book Walking with the Wind, A Memoir of the Movement
. David Fankhauser has posted his recollections on line
. The following brief summary draws on some of those and other sources, including this excellent
Organized in advance behind the scenes by a police sergeant and the Birmingham Police Commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor—who would become even more infamous two years later—a Klan mob of more than 100 ambushed the Greyhound bus well outside the town of Anniston. They smashed its windows and slashed its tires and chased it to about five miles out of town where its flat tires made it impossible to drive farther.
Someone threw a firebomb through a window, setting the bus afire. And the mob held the doors shut as they sought to burn the passengers alive. With the fuel tank in danger of exploding, the Freedom Riders escaped with their lives only because an undercover Alabama Highway Patrol officer who was secretly on the bus drew his pistol and forced the mob to open the doors. The passengers escaped, but outside the bus several were attacked, including Hank Thomas, who was beaten with a baseball bat.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Klansmen had boarded the Trailways bus, and when the black Freedom Riders refused to move to the back seats, they were beaten. White Freedom Riders, like 61-year-old Walter Bergman, were beaten even worse as "race traitors." When the bus pulled into Anniston, the mob boarded and beat the Freedom Riders with clubs. The driver managed to get the bus under way and drove on to Birmingham, but there was no respite there. Bull Connor egged on another mob, and several Freedom Riders were severely injured:
The FBI knows in advance that the two busses are going to be attacked in Anniston and Birmingham, but they do nothing to prevent the violence, do nothing to protect the Riders from assault, do nothing to enforce the Supreme Court ruling. Though they well know who the mob leaders are, they make no arrests. ...
Photos and news reports of the burning bus in Anniston and the mob violence in Birmingham flash around the nation—and around world—to the great embarrassment of President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who calls for a “cooling off period” (meaning that CORE should halt the Freedom Ride). He blames “extremists on both sides” for the violence. Freedom Movement activists are both dumbfounded and outraged.
With one bus burned out and an end to the attacks not in the works, Greyhound and Trailways refused to carry any more Freedom Riders anywhere. Eventually, after delays and bomb threats and another menacing Klan mob seemed certain to keep the Freedom Riders trapped in hostile territory, Atty. Gen. Kennedy managed to get them all on a flight to New Orleans.
Freedom Riders, (left to right): Stokely Carmichael, Margarent Leonard, Kredelle Petway, Paul Green
That might have been the end of it. CORE decided that the risk was too great. But SNCC chose to continue. Hundreds of people, black and white, many of them students, but not a few of middle-age, join the Freedom Rides. By summer's end, as many as 450 had taken 60 bus rides across the South. They encountered violence from mobs and brutality from police every step of the way.
Among them were John Lewis and Hank Thomas. On May 17, just two days after the attacks in Anniston and Birmingham, they and eight others took the bus from Nashville to Birmingham, where they were again met by Bull Connor. He took them to Tennessee and dumped them by the side of the road. They made their way back to Birmingham. Soon their numbers swelled. In a few days, they embarked on another bus, escorted at high speed from Birmingham by the Alabama Highway Patrol, which disappeared at the city limits. Police stationed at the bus terminal also disappeared, and when the Freedom Riders arrived, it was met by yet another mob, this one comprising perhaps 1000 howling racists. More beatings. John Siegenthaler, a Justice Department official sent to observe the Freedom Ride by Kennedy, was beaten unconscious and left in the street. (You can read more here about the attacks and the aftermath.)
In Birmingham, over the next few weeks, there were 328 arrests. With jails overflowing, prisoners were moved to the segregated Parchman State Penitentiary, a Mississippi prison farm, an experience you can read about here. It was a grim situation, with stinging insects, bad food, worse sleeping conditions and hunger strikes. Some Freedom Riders spent more than 30 days there. My friend Charly Biggers was one of them. You can read about my intersection with him during Freedom Summer here.
The prisoners were eventually all released. And under pressure from Atty. Gen. Kennedy and the emboldened civil rights movement that he and his brother had tried to tone down, the ICC agreed to enforce its own rules. In November 1961, those went into effect, forcing the removal of separate restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants and other facilities at interstate bus terminals. It was one more step, but not the last, along the way to dismantling Jim Crow.
Today, it's easy enough for anyone to call the Freedom Riders heroes. But they were not viewed that way in their own time, and not only in the land of Jim Crow. The White House was unhappy with them, among other reasons, because of the image of the underside of America they exposed. Local media were predictably terrible in their depiction of these fighters for justice, but the national press also presented them as rabble-rousers who were, a mere 100 years after the Civil War began, pushing things too far too fast. That's always the way oppressed people are viewed, of course, no matter how just their cause, no matter how long they have waited.
Today Hank Thomas, who almost lost his life on that Greyhound bus half a century ago, is a businessman in Stone Mountain, Ga. He spoke with the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Sunday:
A few weeks ago, he had planned to travel to Anniston to meet with Cecil Lewallyn, one of the men charged with firebombing his Greyhound bus. (None of the attackers were ever convicted.) Lewallyn reneged at the last minute when he heard “The Oprah Winfrey Show” wanted to record the meeting.
Said Thomas: “They were cowards then and they are cowards now.”
Indeed. A salute to Hank Thomas, Congressman Lewis, and all the other hundreds of Freedom Riders, and especially to you, Charly Biggers, wherever you are.
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If you have further interest, I highly recommend Eric Etheridge's book Breach of Peace, which includes the stories of 40 Freedom Riders, along with their 1961 mugshots and photographs of them as they are today.