Monday, January 03, 2011

A Profile in Courage: The Freedom Rides

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the incredible bravery of the "Freedom Riders" as they challenged racial discrimination on interstate travel in the South.

Events in Cuba, the confrontation with the Soviets, and the mounting communist guerilla war in Vietnam consumed the Kennedy administration. Even the space race was part of a “twilight struggle” with the Soviets. The president quickly lost his enthusiasm for domestic matters and believed that foreign policy afforded him more freedom of action. In spite of Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 presidential election, the Democrats had lost 22 seats in the House and two seats in the Senate. Kennedy could reliably count on only 180 votes in the 435-member House to support liberal legislative proposals. In 1961, the Kennedy Administration witnessed 16 of its 23 proposed bills on domestic issues go down to defeat.

Segregationist Democrats from the South served as chairs of the important House and Senate committees, and they allied with conservative Republicans to block much of the president’s agenda. Civil rights issues, therefore, proved particularly vexing since the Kennedy Administration didn’t want to alienate powerful Southerners in the Congress. Civil rights leaders, however, refused to make their cause subservient to Kennedy’s long-term strategic interests. Recent federal court orders had mandated desegregation of interstate transportation terminals.

In the spring of 1961, James Farmer, executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality, announced that black and white “freedom riders” would test the willingness of the federal government to enforce these court decisions by boarding buses and traveling across the South. Farmer, described by historian Mark Hamilton Lytle as “a large, charismatic figure with the voice of Darth Vader, wanted to provoke a confrontation that would force the slow-moving Kennedy administration to take action.” As Farmer put it, “We felt we could count on the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal government would be forced to enforce the law.”

Seven African Americans and six whites boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., in May 1961, headed for the dangers of violently segregationist Alabama and Mississippi. The Freedom Riders knew the risks they faced. One, future Georgia Congressman John Lewis, declared that he was ready to “give up all if necessary for the Freedom Ride.” Lewis paid a heavy cost early in the odyssey. As he attempted to enter a whites-only restroom in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a gang of whites blocked Lewis’ entry and clubbed and beat him. Physical injury became a regular feature of the journey, and white police and sheriff’s deputies refused to provide the Freedom Riders any physical protection or to prosecute those guilty of assault. The federal government had still not intervened as the buses headed toward Alabama.

Angry whites carrying sticks and metal bars lined the streets of Anniston as the Freedom Rider buses entered town. With local police nowhere to be seen, the mob slashed two tires on the lead bus. When the tires flattened, the bus stopped and the crowd shattered the bus windows. A Southern white man who boarded the bus in Atlanta, Eli Cowling, went to the door, pulled a gun, and held the mob back for 15 minutes. Later it turned out that Cowling was an undercover police officer sent by Alabama Gov.
John Patterson, who nevertheless had exploited white anger at the Freedom Riders for political gain.

‘We can’t act as nursemaids for agitators,” Patterson said, rationalizing why the protestors would ostensibly receive no protection. “I think that when they learn that when they go somewhere to create a riot, there’s not going to be somebody there to stand between them and the other crowd, they’ll stay home . . . You can’t guarantee the safety of a fool and that’s what these people are, just fools.” Patterson privately, however, worried about the damage to Alabama’s image if one of the Freedom Riders were to be murdered, so he dispatched Cowling, planted in plainclothes so Alabama voters wouldn’t know the governor was protecting “agitators.”

Cowling, however, was unable to prevent one man from thrusting a bomb into a broken window. The passengers ran out of the bus and crawled out of the shattered windows, only to be beaten by the frenzied throng. The beatings stopped when Cowling fired his handgun in the air and threatened to kill the next person who hit anyone. A group from a nearby house went outside to check on the passengers and to offer refuge while shaking their heads and saying, “It’s a shame,” even as a group of state troopers arrived and exchanged warm greetings with the mob leaders. The mob also attacked the second bus, which nevertheless reached the Birmingham terminal where another gang beat the riders with lead pipes, baseball bats, and bicycle chains.

After the pummeling, one rider needed 53 stitches on the head. Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor claimed that none of his officers arrived to rescue the Freedom Riders because they had taken the day off for Mother’s Day. In fact, an FBI informant had passed word to the agency’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, that Connor had promised the local Ku Klux Klan a free 15 minutes to beat the protestors. Hoover, the head of a deliberately segregated agency who was convinced that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were communist agents, sat on the information.

As news coverage of the civil rights campaign increased, the president sent John Seigenthaler, a top aide to the attorney general, to Alabama to persuade officials there to protect the Freedom Riders. Seigenthaler escorted the battered demonstrators from Birmingham and onto a plane that flew them to New Orleans. James Farmer, the head of the Congress of Racial Equality (which organized the direct action) then announced that more Freedom Rides would follow. This angered President Kennedy, who yelled at his civil rights adviser Harris Wofford, “Tell [the protestors] to call it off! Stop them!” Kennedy was preparing for his Vienna summit with Khrushchev and didn’t want the image of bloodied civil rights activists broadcast around the world during his face-off with the Soviet leader.

Farmer then decided only reluctantly to give a green light to student activists Diane Nash and John Lewis to pull together another group of eight Freedom Riders who traveled back to the scene of the previous violence in Birmingham. On May 17, they arrived in the city, only to have Connor place them in “protective custody.” Alabama state troopers drove them to the Tennessee border and dumped them at a highway, leaving them vulnerable to attack. They hid in an African American family’s home, ate for the first time in three days, and called activists in Nashville who provided transportation back to Birmingham.

Frightened of violence, Greyhound bus drivers refused to transport the Freedom Riders. Bobby Kennedy, resigned to the fact that the rides would continue, called the Greyhound Company superintendent and insisted that the company comply with recent court decisions. “Somebody better get in the damn bus and get it going and get these people on their way.” The following morning a Greyhound bus carried the riders to Montgomery, Alabama. Streets appeared abandoned when the bus arrived at the city’s depot. Residents had been notified in advance of the travel itinerary.

When riders stepped out of the bus, whites poured out of surrounding buildings, shouting, “Niggers, kill the niggers.” Someone struck John Lewis in the head with a soda crate, leaving him unconscious. Another member of the mob beat one rider until he suffered a spinal cord injury. The mob attacked an NBC television network cameraman, smashing him in the head with his equipment until he passed out. John Doar, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, desperately phoned Bobby Kennedy from the scene while Seigenthaler was struck in the head, a protective helmet dented, as he tried to escort two women bus riders from the scene. Through all the violence, the police took no action.

Americans across the country felt shock when they saw film and photos of the attack. Even "The Atlanta Constitution," a newspaper that had adamantly opposed integration, expressed shock at the mob action and the lack of police protection for the protestors. “If the police, representing the people, refuse to intervene when a man – any man – is being beaten to the pavement of any American city, then this is not a noble land at all. This is a jungle.”


Incidents like this began to turn Northern whites from neutrality or indifference to the hardship faced by Southern blacks to sympathy. As Farmer had guessed at the start of the Freedom Rides, the movement would gain greater support if whites were imperiled in the desegregation struggle. A wide television audience watched an interview with one badly injured white protestor from Wisconsin who declared, “We will take hitting. We’ll take beatings. We will accept death. But we are going to keep coming until we can ride anywhere in the South . . . as Americans . . . ”

The Riders pressed on to Jackson, Mississippi. The Kennedy brothers secured a promise from Mississippi Senator James Eastland that the Riders would be safe on their journey across the state as long as the administration did not object if the protestors were arrested and jailed for traveling “with the avowed purpose of inflaming public opinion.” Hellish conditions awaited the Freedom Riders in the Jackson jails. Police packed as many as 14 prisoners in cells meant to accommodate only two. Some prisoners were forced to do outside labor in sweltering heat. The blankets smelled of urine. During chilly nights, guards intentionally opened windows in order to expose the protestors to cold, only to close them during the day when temperatures soared to triple digits. Guards and inmates beat the Riders whenever they started singing “freedom songs.”

As jail cells overflowed, officials transferred some of the Riders to the maximum security wing of the Parchman state penitentiary. The unappetizing food offered there resulted in Farmer losing 30 pounds during his stint at Parchman. Officials chained some prisoners to the cell walls. Guards cracked down on prisoners singing protest songs by removing mattresses from the cells and forcing the inmates to sleep on steel bed frames with nothing on but underwear with “fans going full blast to freeze them at night.”

With a certainty that the Freedom Rides would continue until segregation ended on public transportation, and the equal certainty that the Freedom Rides would embarrass the president before the world, Robert Kennedy prodded the Interstate Commerce Commission and pressured the operators of bus terminals to quietly take down the “whites only” signs across the South. Worried about the economic repercussions of continued violence, several Southern communities removed the Jim Crow signs without news coverage or protestors. “We created a crisis situation,” Farmer later recalled. “It was worldwide news and headlines and everybody was watching it --- people all over the world. The attorney general had to act and he did.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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