Howard K. Smith (CBS)Other Figures
When the CORE Freedom Ride arrived, national CBS News correspondent Howard K. Smith was already in Birmingham, AL, working on a television documentary investigating allegations of lawlessness and racial intimidation in the Southern city. A native of Louisiana, Smith was still trying to decide if the claims were exaggerated.
On the night of May 13, Smith received a phone call tipping him off to hang around the downtown bus stations the next day "if he wanted to see some real action." Smith thus witnessed the May 14 "Mother's Day" riot at the Birmingham Trailways Bus Station, as a vicious mob of Klansmen attacked Freedom Riders and innocent bystanders alike with pipes and baseball bats. After the riot, Smith helped the badly injured Riders Jim Peck and Walter Bergman to hail a cab.
Later in the day, Smith delivered a shocking account of the riot over the national CBS radio network. "One passenger was knocked down at my feet by 12 of the hoodlums," he reported, "and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp." He warned of "a dangerous confusion in the Southern mind" and urged that the "laws of the land and purposes of the nation badly need a basic restatement," perhaps by the United States President.
The presence of Smith and other members of the news media helped shift public opinion in favor of the Freedom Riders and may well have saved lives by causing the mob to refrain from lethal violence.
Decades later, Smith testified in the 1982-1983 lawsuit by Bergman against the Federal Government, seeking damages for the injuries he had sustained in the riot, in which paid FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. was an active participant.