The evening of May 3, 1961 is a tense one. In a gathering at a table at the Yen Ching Palace, a downtown Washington Chinese restaurant, someone makes a joke about the meal being their Last Supper. Yet any of the thirteen diners could walk away and return home, their fare paid. “There would be no recrimination, no blame,” says their leader. For five minutes they think the offer over in silence but no one moves.
The following day is a bright one. Six of the previous night’s group buy tickets at the Greyhound bus terminal, seven at the nearby Trailways counter. The long-awaited and carefully prepared journeys are about to begin. As they take their places on the bus, all travelers check their seats. Only after one black passenger has sat in a whites-only designated seat, only after two passengers of different races have sat together and only after one passenger has positioned herself so as to be able to observe events can the others sit where they like. All conform to a recommended dress code and all carry the recommended baggage.The forthcoming ride from Washington into the South may be unpredictable and dangerous but it’s perfectly organized. If US law is at stake, everything has to be done correctly.
Each stage of the journey had been scouted in the preceding weeks. Each traveler has been carefully selected, based on recommendations and an essay. “We had to screen them very carefully,” James Farmer, the Riders’ organizer, remembers many years later, “because we knew that if they found anything to throw at us, they would throw it. We checked for Communists, homosexuals, drug addicts.”
All have to undergo rigorous training, involving lectures on the law and role-playing possible scenarios they might encounter. By the end of the three day session, there is no excuse for under-estimating what may lie ahead. “We poured Coca-Cola and coffee on each other, and there was shoving and calling each other all kinds of racial epithets, and even spitting at each other.” No wonder one of the volunteers decides to withdraw and others question whether they are doing the right thing, for not only are the Riders about to test the Southern states’ ban of inter-racial mixing on inter-state buses; they are also about to test themselves. The principles of Gandhian nonviolence, they are about to discover, are easier to follow in the lecture hall and dormitory than on the streets of Alabama.
Although radicalized by background and circumstances, these are not exceptional people, or at least not yet. Among them, are two women (more, it is feared, will add sexual provocation to the already dangerous mix), two workers for CORE, an elderly married couple, three students, a folk-singer and a minister. All except one—John Lewis, who would become a highly respected US congressman—will return to relative anonymity after the Ride is over. They are not driven by the desire for fame or martyrdom, just the desire for justice. “The time had come to challenge the hypocrisy and complacency of a nation that refused to enforce its own laws and somehow failed to acknowledge the utter indecency of racial discrimination,” wrote James Farmer later.
Things start quietly. As the Riders head south, through the towns of Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg, no one seeks to stop them using the segregated facilities as they wish. Even when they reach the ominously named Lynchburg, only the anxious reluctance of local black residents to join them bodes ill. Almost comically, it’s not until one of the travelers is refused a shoeshine in Charlotte, that the first arrest is made. Absurdity, however, gives way to violence as the buses journey deeper into the Southern states. Passing through Rock Hill, Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, the Riders are subjected to repeated assaults and arrests. One bus is attacked and set alight, various individuals are viciously beaten with “baseball bats, wooden boards, pipes, even gardening tools by white mobs of both men and women.” John Lewis remembers the silence on their arrival in downtown Montgomery: “It was so quiet, so eerie, it was almost frightening…. The bus drove into the parking deck at the station, opened the door, and the very moment that we started down the steps of the bus, this mob came out of nowhere.” Even in the face of life-threatening injuries, fear of breaking the segregation rules prevents taxi and ambulance drivers from carrying those in danger to safety.
Sixty-one year old academic Walter Bergman, is beaten to an inch of his life, once in the bus and once in the terminal; a 1982 court-case reveals permanent brain damage. Revealed also is the authorities’ complicity in the attacks that occurred. With prior knowledge of what was planned by the Riders’ enemies through an informer, the FBI fails to warn or intervene to stop them and a secret agreement between the Klan and the local police gives the former fifteen minutes to do their worse. Here, with horrific vividness, the under-side of American society is dramatically exposed, except that because of repeated assaults on news reporters and photographer s and so-called technical difficulties at CBS, the country has to wait before learning about the reality of what has happened. The South won’t let its secrets be uncovered without a struggle.
Nor does State prison offer any protection. Locked up in Parchmen, an infamous Mississippi jail, the Riders, comprising a few of the original group, together with many new recruits, are treated to a regime that is just short of torture: their mattresses are removed, their cell windows closed on hot days and, on occasions, they are suspended by “wrist-breakers” from the walls. Yet the harsher the treatment, the more defiant and unified they become. Gandhian principles and singing provide sustenance. Chela Lightchild, a female inmate, recalls, “We sang, and it was great…Everybody liked it. We Shall overcome, This Little Light of Mine, and Keep Your Hand on the Plow. The music kept us alive, and the guards knew it. The moment we opened our mouths, they just hated it.” If the acts of brutality that are committed at Parchmen and elsewhere in the name of protecting white supremacy are not horrifying enough, there are also the words flung at the prisoners: “Burn them alive,” “Fry the goddamn niggers,” These insults and countless others, loaded with the history of slavery and continuing oppression, express an intensity of hatred that paradoxically both belies and confirms the official paternalistic rhetoric used to justify the system.
Fury at the Riders is particularly strong when white and black participants try to protect each other against their common enemy or when—as happened from Day One—white females and their Afro-American colleagues mix together. John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, is very clear about the sexual anxieties that surround the situation. “There were young white girls traveling with negro boys. The whole thing was set up to inflame the local population.”
If the Freedom Riders test and expose everyday and deep-rooted racial prejudices, they also do the same for established political attitudes at the centre of power. The reluctance of the new Kennedy White House to intervene to assist the Riders indicates that short-term calculation, based on a fear of losing the support of the Southern states, overrides principle or long-term strategy. JFK and his brother talk of civil rights but they are reluctant to act. True, the Attorney General’s representative, John Seigenthaler, is allowed to help a besieged group escape Alabama by air, but it is only after he has been beaten up and hospitalized during the attempted desegregation of the Montgomery terminal, that a small contingent of federal marshals is dispatched.
The main driving force of policy seems less the imperative to uphold the law than to reach a compromise to contain civil disorder and keep America from looking bad overseas. As new Freedom Rides are planned and undertaken, including ones for different faiths and disabled people, the Kennedys argue for a “cooling-off period”—a suggestion to which Farmer responds: “Please tell the Attorney-General that we have been cooling-off for three hundred and fifty years. If we cool off any more, we will be in a deep freeze.”
Ironically, however, doing the right thing and properly supporting the Riders might have politically benefited the Kennedys. A few party hacks may have been alienated but many Americans in the early sixties, disillusioned with the right-wing extremism of McCarthyism, were ready to support more liberal politics. A chance to show political and moral leadership was thus fumbled; caution triumphed. Possibly, the sixties’ story of revolt and conflict could have been different if the White House had embraced, rather than resisted, the changes that the Riders sought.
Yet slowly, over time, gains are made. Though Kennedy and others seek to steer the activists to the less confrontational Voters Rights’ Campaign, and although further struggles are needed—in the courts and on the streets—in November 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission orders interstate buses to display a certificate that read, “Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin.”
Eventually the limited goal of the original CORE thirteen—inter-racial travel in the South—was achieved. As a result, the Riders proved that coordinated direct nonviolent action, designed to create a dramatic spectacle, could make a difference.
It is a message of hope for other radical activists. The anti-Vietnam War, the Women’s movement in the US, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, for example, all owe something to the Freedom Riders’ courage, tactics and perseverance. Fifty years later, let’s celebrate their achievement.
Mike Peters is a tutor in adult education.