From The Progressive Magazine, November 1961
On May 4 of this year, I left Washington, D.C., with twelve other persons on a risky journey into the South. Seven of us were Negro and six were white. Riding in two regularly scheduled buses, one Greyhound, the other Trailways, traveling beneath overcast skies, our little band—the original Freedom Riders —was filled with expectations of storms almost certain to come before the journey was ended.
Now, six months later, as all the world knows, the fire-gutted shell of one bus lies in an Alabama junk yard, and some of the people who almost died with it are still suffering prolonged illnesses. A dozen Freedom Riders nearly gave up their lives under the fierce hammering of fists, clubs, and iron pipes in the hands of hysterical mobs. Many of the victims will carry permanent scars. One of them lies in a Detroit hospital critically ill from a cerebral hemorrhage, a direct result of the beating he took. Others have lost their jobs or have been expelled from school because of their participation in the rides. More than 350 men and woman have been jailed in a half dozen states for doing what the Supreme Court of the United States had already said they had a right to do. The Interstate Commerce Commission has now issued an historic ruling in behalf of interstate bus integration which may indeed mean that the suffering of the past six months has not been in vain.
Why did we ride? What is the meaning of it all? Has the whole thing been a stunt, a gimmick engineered by irresponsible publicity seekers? Has America's prestige been damaged in the eyes of the world by the events that grew out of the Freedom Rides? These are questions frequently asked, and I think the answer should not be required to wait upon the verdict of history.
Why did we ride? What is the meaning of it all?
In 1946 the Supreme Court ruled in the Irene Morgan decision that segregation of interstate passengers in seating on buses was an unconstitutional burden upon commerce. A Freedom Ride later that year, called the "Journey of Reconciliation," cosponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, demonstrated that segregated seating was still enforced on buses in the upper Southern states, and that anyone who challenged this segregation was subject to arrest and threatened violence. Through the years since that time reports have come into the office of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) of continuing segregation in seating on buses, especially in the deep South.
In 1960 the Supreme Court issued a ruling, in the Boynton case, banning segregation in the terminal facilities used by interstate passengers. Yet, in the months that followed reports continued to pour into our office indicating that the South was defying the Supreme Court's edict, just as some of the Southern states have defied the Court's school desegregation rulings. It was to close this gap between the interpretation and the implementation of the law that the Freedom Riders rode.
Who were the Freedom Riders? By what right did we seek to "meddle in the South's business"? Ever since the election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the Presidency in 1876, and the bargain with the South which it entailed, the Southern states have maintained that what they do with the Negro is their own business, and "outsiders" have no right to interfere. The Freedom Riders rejected this essentially states' right doctrine of race relations. None of us, in the North or in the South, can afford the moral luxury of unconcern about injustice. Further, the states' rights doctrine is just as outmoded on the domestic scene as Nineteenth Century isolationism is on the international. Today, how can we think of outsiders keeping hands off injustice in Alabama, when outsiders all over the world can be threatened with destruction by events in a far away place like Laos? How would the dead of Korea view Mississippi's claim that only Mississippians have a right to concern themselves with injustice in that state?
So we came from all over the country, from both races and of all ages, to test compliance with the law, to exercise the right of all Americans to use all transportation facilities with the dignity of equality, to shake Americans out of their apathy on this issue and expose the real character of segregation to the pitiless scrutiny of a nation's conscience.
Outsiders? As Americans, from whatever state, all of us are Mississippians and Minnesotans, Carolinians and Californians, Alabamans and Arizonans. No American can afford to ignore the burning bus and the bloody heads of the mob's victims. Who can fail to be stirred by the new convicts for conscience, black and white, who walked with pride into Southern jails, especially in Mississippi, surrendering their own personal freedom in the struggle for a greater freedom for everyone?
Jail at best is neither a romantic nor a pleasant place, and Mississippi jails are no exception. The first twenty-seven Freedom Riders to arrive in Jackson saw the inside of two different jails and two different prisons—the Jackson City Jail, the Hinds County Jail, the Hinds County Prison Farm, and the State Penitentiary at Parchman. Jails are not a new experience for many of the Riders, but the Freedom Riders were definitely a new experience for Mississippi jails. For the first time, penal authorities in the citadel of segregation had a glimpse of the new Negro and the emancipated white. I do not think these jailers will ever be quite the same again after their experience. Nor will the other prisoners, black and white, be the same again, after having seen in the flesh men and women who do not believe segregation to be in the very nature of things, and -who are willing to defy it.
Prison authorities frequently said, and really seemed to believe, that other Negro prisoners like things the way they are and have no sympathy with us, and that it was for our own protection that we were isolated from them. However, whenever the guards were not present, the Negro trustees went out of their way to show their sympathy by word and deed. "Keep up the good work," one said. "I admire you guys and what you are doing," said another. "I wish I could do the same thing, but I have to do what these people tell me to do." They smuggled newspapers in to us, delivered notes and messages between our cell block and that of the girl Freedom Riders, and passed on rumors which they had heard in the jail or in the community.
One night at the county jail, a voice called up from the cell block beneath us, where other Negro prisoners were housed. "Upstairs!", the anonymous prisoner shouted. We replied, "Downstairs!" "Upstairs!", replied the voice. "Sing your freedom song." And the Freedom Riders sang. We sang old folk songs and gospel songs to which new words had been written, telling of the Freedom Ride and its purpose. We sang new words to old labor songs, too. One stanza rang out: "They say in Hinds County no neutrals have they met. You're either for the Freedom Ride or you 'torn' for Ross Barnett." Then the downstairs prisoners, whom the jailers had said were our enemies, sang for us. The girl Freedom Riders, in another wing of the jail, joined in the Freedom Ride songs, and for the first time in history, the Hinds County jail rocked with singing of songs of freedom and brotherhood.
One evening at the county jail, after a rumor of our imminent transfer to the state penitentiary ha*d reached us, the jailer came quietly to our Freedom Riders cell block. He called me, and we stood there with the bars between us, chatting. He did most of the talking. He told me about his family, his wife, and four or five children—the good records they had made in schools, including Ole Miss. He told me of his son's prowess in sports and of the children's marriages and his grandchildren. He told me, too, of his dis^ like of violence, and of his children's upbringing in that regard. The jailer stood there talking for more than hour, in the first conversation we had had with him. This, I am sure, was his way of saying goodbye, and of telling us that he respects the Freedom Riders, and that whatever unpleasantness we might meet at the state penitentiary would be something of which he did not approve. Mississippians, born into segregation, are human too. The Freedom Riders' aim is not only to stop the practice of segregation, but somehow to reach the common humanity of our fellowmen and bring it to the surface where they can act on it themselves. This is a basic motive behind the Freedom Rides, and nonviolence is the key to its realization.
It is not only that Southerners and other Americans have been shaken in their unjust racial practices, or out of their lethargy. Now, as a result of the Freedom Rides, the world at large, and especially the developing nations of Africa and Asia, have been offered the opportunity of viewing a new, more constructive approach to America's racial dilemma. If the world looks now it will see that many dedicated and conscientious Americans of both races, rather than sweeping the dirt of discrimination under the rug,, are striving,' at any cost, to remove the dirt from their house. If Africans witnessed our national shame in the necessity for the Freedom Rides, they saw our nation's hope and promise in the fact that there were so many Americans willing to risk their freedom and even their lives to erase that shame.
The world and America saw also the Freedom Rider's challenge to the traditions and fears which have immobilized so many Negroes in Dixie. In terminals in the South, and on the buses, many Negro passengers took the Freedom Riders' cue and dared to sit and ride "first class." This was another purpose of the Rides themselves: to break down the voluntary submission of Negroes to racial injustice, a submission created by generations of suppression with the rope and with fire and with economic reprisal. As I entered the white waiting room in one terminal in the South, a Negro woman passenger from the same bus caught my eye and anxiously beckoned me to follow her into the dingy but safe colored section. Moments later, when she saw me served at the lunch counter in the white section, she joined me for a cup of coffee.
In Jackson, Mississippi, forty-one Negro citizens of that community joined the Freedom Riders, ending up in their hometown jails. Now out on appeal bond, they report many threats of reprisals. But there is a new spirit among Negroes in Jackson. People are learning that in a nonviolent war like ours, as in any other war, there must be suffering. Jobs will be lost, mortgages will be foreclosed, loans will be denied, persons will be hurt, and some may die. This new spirit was expressed well by one Freedom Rider in the Mississippi state penitentiary at Parchman. The guards threatened repeatedly, as a reprisal for our insistence upon dignity, to take away our mattresses. "Come and get my mattress," he shouted. "I will keep my soul.