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Based in part on the book:
Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice
By Raymond Arsenault
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Ain’t Scared of Nobody
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Freedom RidersThreatened. Attacked. Jailed. Could you get on the bus?
Freedom Riders is the powerful harrowing and ultimately inspirational story of six months in 1961 that changed America forever. From May until November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives—and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment—for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South. Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws in order to test and challenge a segregated interstate travel system, the Freedom Riders met with bitter racism and mob violence along the way, sorely testing their belief in nonviolent activism.
From award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till) Freedom Riders features testimony from a fascinating cast of central characters: the Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the Rides firsthand. The two-hour documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault's book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
John Lewis, Freedom Rider [reading]: "I wish to apply for acceptance as a participant in CORE's Freedom Ride, 1961."
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider [reading]: "...to travel via bus from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana, and to test and challenge segregated..."
Mae F. Moultrie Howard, Freedom Rider [reading]: "facilities en route. I understand that I shall be participating in a non-violent protest..."
Jerry Ivor Moore, Freedom Rider [reading]: "...against racial discrimination. That arrests or personal injury to me might result..."
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: The Freedom Rides of 1961 were the simple but daring plan: The Congress of Racial Equality came up with the idea to put blacks and whites in small groups on commercial buses, and they would deliberately violate the segregation laws of the deep South.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: We were to go through various parts of the South, gradually going deeper and deeper, six of us on a Trailways bus and six of us on the Greyhound bus, and see whether places were segregated, whether people were being served when they went to get something to eat, or buy a ticket, or use the restrooms.
Gordon Carey, CORE Staff: One of the major thrusts of the Freedom Rides was to get the Movement into the Deep South. Most of the action up till this time had been in the upper South or in the North. And one of the ideas here was to go into the deepest South. We were hoping that this would start a national movement.
Derek Catsam, Historian: CORE had this set itinerary. They anticipated that this would be a two-week trip; that it would culminate down in New Orleans with a real celebration on the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. And there's almost an element of naiveté attached to it, how easily they thought it would go.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: "I'm a senior at American Baptist Theological Seminary, and hope to graduate in June. I know that an education is important, and I hope to get one. But at this time, human dignity is the most important thing in my life. That justice and freedom might come to the Deep South."
Man (archival): I have no doubt that the negro basically knows that the best friend he's ever had in the world is the Southern white man.
Man (archival): We talk about it here as separation of the races. Customs and traditions that have been built up over the last hundred years that have proved for the best interest of both the colored and the white people. There's not been one single change.
Man (archival): The colored man knows where he stands. The white man knows where he stands. We have signs saying colored and white. The colored man knows that he is not to enter there.
Woman (archival): Well the nigger's all right in his place. But they've always been behind us and just tell you the truth, I want them always to stay behind me, 'cause I never have loved a nigger, mister.
Woman (archival): You cannot change a way of life overnight. The more they try to force us into doing something, then the worse the reaction will be.
Man (archival): Our colored people will do exactly as they have done. Our white people will do exactly as they have done. Why? Because it's worked out best.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: It was all-encompassing; this so-called Southern way of life would and not allow for any breaks. It was a system that was only as strong, the white Southerners thought, as its weakest link. So you couldn't allow people even to sit together on the front of a bus, something that really shouldn't have threatened anyone. But it did. It threatened their sense of the wholeness, the sanctity of what they saw as an age-old tradition.
Diane Nash, Student, Fisk University: Traveling the segregated South, for black people, was humiliating. The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to black people and white people that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use public facilities that white people used. The Supreme Court even said that there was no right that a black person had that white people had to respect.
Charles Person, Freedom Rider: You didn't know what you were going to encounter. You had night riders. You had hoodlums. You could be antagonized at any point in your journey. So most of the time it was very, very difficult to plan a trip, and, you know, you always had someone to meet you there, because you didn't know what to expect.
Bus Driver singing (archival): We're rolling along the highway....
Sangernetta Gilbert Bush, Montgomery Resident: My father traveled quite a bit. And he just wanted a cup of coffee to make it to Montgomery. And he had to go around the back of the café to get a cup of coffee and then they told him--
Woman (archival): I'm sorry, our management does not allow us to serve Niggers in here.
Sangernetta Gilbert Bush, Montgomery Resident: Pushed 'em all out the door.
Bus Driver singing (archival): It's a wonderful happy feeling, going along the broad highway....
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: I grew up in the South, a child of good and decent parents. We had women who worked in our household, sometimes surrogate mothers. They were invisible women to me. I can't believe I couldn't see them. I don't know where my head or heart was, I don't know where my parents' heads and hearts were, or my teachers; I never heard it once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism, and afraid, I guess, of change.
Bus Driver singing (archival): We're rolling along, America.
John F. Kennedy (Archival): Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: When John Kennedy was elected in November 1960, there was great hope and expectation that things would be better on matters of civil rights, that was a contrast between him and Dwight Eisenhower. He was young and had ideas and talked about the New Frontier. But when he gave his inaugural address in January of 1961, he talked about spreading freedom all over the world -- to China, to Latin America, to Africa -- to everywhere but Alabama, and Mississippi, and Georgia.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: The base of the Democratic Party was the essentially white voting South. The Kennedys had to be careful about antagonizing Southern governors and the whole Southern establishment which was segregationist.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: I was the first governor in the South that publicly endorsed him for president.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963 (Archival): I think he's a person who's sympathetic to the problems and conditions in the South. I think he's a man who will work with us down here.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: I knew that you couldn't run for president on a segregation ticket, you know I knew that. But I felt like, that if we ever got in a situation where we needed some understanding and some help from the federal government in regard to our problems down here, that I'd get a good-- I'd get an audience.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963 (Archival): The entire nation will be looking at us on election day and will judge the way we feel about the segregation question by the size of the Democratic vote on November the 4th. Let's turn out the largest Democratic vote in the history of the state and show the people of this nation that we're not going to tolerate integration of the races one minute.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: The Kennedys, when they came into office, were not worried about civil rights. They were worried about the Soviet Union. They were worried about the Cold War. They were worried about the nuclear threat. When civil rights did pop up, they regarded it as a bit of a nuisance, as something that was getting in the way of their agenda.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: It became clear that the civil rights leaders had to do something desperate, something dramatic to get the Kennedys' attention. That was the idea behind the Freedom Rides -- to dare, essentially dare the federal government to do what it was supposed to do, and see if their constitutional rights would be protected by the Kennedy administration.
James Farmer (Archival): I'm James Farmer, National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality, more often known as CORE.
Clayborne Carson, Historian: CORE needed to do something to demonstrate that it really deserved to be mentioned in the same sentence with the NAACP or SCLC or Martin Luther King. For James Farmer this was a way of saying, 'I need to be brought into the discussions at the national level about how the civil rights campaign was going to be conducted.'
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: Farmer thought among the other benefits of the freedom rides would be added elevation for CORE. Because elevation for these groups mean everything; it means money, it means support, you get prestige, all that comes with publicity. And I'm sure Farmer was hoping for some publicity.
James Farmer (Archival): I do not think we can lose. We cannot lose unless we allow ourselves to be so divided that we lose a sense of direction and common purpose.
Derek Catsam, Historian: The idea of the Freedom Rides is a really radical idea. The idea of going into Mississippi and going into Alabama and challenging segregation so frontally and so aggressively in many ways is something that alarmed not only those who opposed civil rights but those within the civil rights community.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: They thought it was too confrontational, that it was going to backfire, it was going to set the movement back. It was too risky. CORE just didn't have the resources or the skill or really the know-how about the inner workings of Jim Crow and racism and how to fight it in the Deep South. And it was very likely that they would get arrested, they might get beaten up, they might even get killed.
Man (archival, training video): May I have a cup of coffee please?
Woman (archival, training video): Now look, I don't want any niggers in here, I don't...
Man (archival, training video): Nigger, what are you doing in here? Don't you know you don't belong here?
Gordon Carey, CORE Staff: The training that we did in Washington, D.C. prior to the time the Riders got on the buses was largely devoted to trying to see how the person is gonna react.
Man (archival, training video): Are you with this fella?
Man (archival, training video): Why yes, we're both interstate bus passengers.
Man (archival, training video): Where you from?
Man (archival, training video): I'm from the United States.
Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr., Freedom Rider: By using nonviolence, people see the contrast between your dignified, disciplined confrontation of the wrong, and then the reaction of violence. No way of confusing that confrontation.
Man (archival, training video): You move!
Man (archival, training video): No, I don't move when I'm in the right.
Man (archival, training video): Well then, we'll....
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Freedom Rides, I think, typified one of the standard contradictions within the Civil Rights Movement. On the one hand, it's nonviolent, doesn't hit back when hit. On the other hand, they're really courting violence in order to attract publicity that will ford the cause. And so you have these mixed motives: Let's hope nothing happens, nobody's hurt. On the other hand, suppose something does happen. Wouldn't that, in an ironic way, be good for us?
Man (archival): Get out! Move out! Move out!
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: People at CORE thought, "Maybe some bad things will happen," but I don't think they imagined anywhere near the kind of level of violence that they'd meet in Anniston and Birmingham and in Montgomery.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: It was make believe and it did not scare me perhaps because it was make believe and I wasn't sure I'd really have to use all these techniques. With our nonviolent behavior and our good will I thought we could do anything.
Reporter (Archival): Do you expect any trouble?
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider (Archival): There is a possibility that we will not be served at some stops. There is a possibility that we might be arrested. This is the only trouble that I anticipate.
Singing:: I'm taking a trip on the Greyhound bus line. I'm riding the front seat to New Orleans this time. Hallelujah, I'm a-traveling. Hallelujah, ain't it fine? Hallelujah, I'm a-traveling down freedom's main line.
Slate: May 4, 1961, Washington, D.C., Day 1
Jerry Ivor Moore, Freedom Rider: The first day getting on the bus, it was a good feeling. It was a good feeling. We were together, it was comradeship, it was a good cause, and we were going for the movement, you know, and we were going for the people.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: Boarding that Greyhound bus to travel through the heart of the Deep South, I felt good. I felt happy. I felt liberated. I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army. I was ready.
Singing:: Hallelujah I'm a-traveling, hallelujah ain't it fine? Hallelujah, I'm a traveling down freedom's main line.
Derek Catsam, Historian: When the Freedom Riders board those buses in Washington D.C. those are regularly scheduled buses. They're not chartered, they're not special buses. They have a couple of representatives from the black press but no national media following them and they certainly don't have any protection, whether from the police or from the military or anything, I mean, they are going down on their own, on regular buses and are going to see what happens to them.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: I thought white folks were gonna pull a fast one on us, they were gonna integrate the facilities during the time that we were there, and as soon as we left, they're gonna go back to doing business as usual. And in a few cities, that did happen.
Charles Person, Freedom Rider: The first few days of the ride was uneventful. And it basically was a piece of cake. James Peck and I, we realized, that, you know, this is not going to be as bad we thought. If we could do this all the way through, then we will have achieved what we had set out to do.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Almost certainly there wouldn't have been Freedom Rides without Irene Morgan. She refused to give up her seat on a bus in Gloucester County, Virginia, in July of 1944. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. And in Morgan vs. Virginia, in June of 1946, on paper at least the Supreme Court struck down segregation in interstate travel on buses.
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: But no state in the South obeyed these decisions, so it was as if they'd never happened. The Greyhound Bus Company, the Trailways Bus Company were able to hide behind the refusal of State law to accommodate to Federal law. So despite the fact that you'd had these national rulings, which should have been law everyplace in the country, they weren't in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, across the South -- business as usual.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: When we got to Atlanta, there was a little reception for us, headed by the Reverend Martin Luther King, and of course it was a great privilege for all of us to meet him. He was an icon of the Movement.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: They had hopes not only to meet Dr. King, but maybe he would be come a Freedom Rider, that he'd get on those buses with them. But he pulled some of the leaders of the Freedom Ride aside and said, 'Look, I hear some pretty disturbing things from my sources in Alabama. The Alabama Klan is preparing quite a welcome. And furthermore, many people in the Movement think what you're doing may do more harm than good.'
King said, 'I'm not going to get on the buses with you, and if I were you, I probably wouldn't go into Alabama.'
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: Later that night, Jim Farmer's wife called from Washington to tell him that his father had died, which meant that he was gonna have to leave for a few days and leave other people in charge. He was the main man, and losing him was quite a sobering thing.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: Jim Peck kind of took over, but the leader was not there to lead and we would have to lead ourselves, and we were getting into the most dangerous part of the trip.
Slate: May 14, 1961, Atlanta, GA, Day 11
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: There were two buses leaving Atlanta for Birmingham that Mother's Day morning -- one Greyhound, one Trailways. Two groups of Freedom Riders. They left an hour apart. Only one made it all the way to Birmingham.
Mae F. Moultrie Howard, Freedom Rider: It was such a beautiful day, it was such a quiet feeling that day at the-- it was bright and sunny. The sky was blue. And it was just a beautiful scenery. We didn't have a sense of fear.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963 (Archival): These people are going from town to town and getting off the bus and seeking, through mixed groups -- negro men and white women -- to force themselves into situations which tend to inflame the local people in such a manner as to incense them and enrage them and to provoke them into acts of violence. That's what they're doing.
Brandt Ayers, Journalist: It was a very disconcerting period. It was as if one civilization was just coming unhinged and was free-floating and taking on water. That was that feeling. People in the South felt, 'I'm being asked to live in a different way, I'm asked to have different attitudes, I'm asked to behave differently. And as I'm being made to do all of these things, there are people who come on the TV in my own living room and tell me that I'm a redneck, and I'm a racist, and I'm all of these things -- and by God, I'd like to, I'd just like to punch some of those- them damn agitators right in the face! I gotta hate somebody. I got to hate somebody.'
Janie Forsyth McKinney, Anniston Resident: I lived with my family five miles out of Anniston on the Birmingham highway. I was 12 years old at the time. My dad had a grocery store beside the house and the name of it was Forsyth and Son Grocery. One day he said there were some black agitators, nigger agitators, coming down from the North. He said, he and some of his friends had a little surprise party planned for 'em, and he kind of laughed.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: As we entered the city limits of Anniston, we could see the bus station. Looked like at least 200 people were around the bus station. All men.
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: They were calling us all kind of names: 'nigger, nigger-lovers, communists, come on out and integrate Alabama, we dare you to do this, we dare you to do that.'
Mae F. Moultrie Howard, Freedom Rider: The men began to come closer and surround the bus completely and they were saying lets kill these niggers on this bus and these nigger lovers.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: The Anniston Klan had it all worked out. They had one of their members lie down in front of the bus. They were puncturing tires. They were breaking windows. They wanted to make sure that bus couldn't leave before they could surround it and do whatever they wanted to do.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: The bus may have been there for 10 or 15 minutes; to us it seemed like an hour. Another bus driver was able to ease the bus through the crowd.
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: At first there was a feeling of relief because we were getting away there, we thought. But this car that was in front of us kept dodging from side to side to keep the bus from getting by.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: I spoke to a innocent passenger who was sitting there and said, 'I'm sorry I got you into this.' And he said, 'So am I.'
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: Eventually we heard that sickening sound of tires going flat.
Janie Forsyth McKinney, Anniston Resident: There was a commotion outside so I walked to the front of the store to see if I could tell what going on. The bus driver came out and he went out to look at the tires and when he realized how flat and hopeless they were he just walked away from the bus and just left all the passengers to fend for themselves. He just walked away.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: We were now in the hands of this mob. It didn't look good for us.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: I'm, like everyone else on the bus, I'm pretty afraid. Okay. That's putting it mildly.
Janie Forsyth McKinney, Anniston Resident: I watched as a man raised his arm above the crowd with a crowbar and he broke out one of the back windows of the bus.
Mae F. Moultrie Howard, Freedom Rider: You could hear him say, 'Throw it in! Throw it in.' And asking, 'Where is the gas? Where is the gas?'
Janie Forsyth McKinney, Anniston Resident: The hand went down, and when it came back up it had some object in it that he threw into that hole.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: And there was immediate flash fire on the bus.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: Pretty soon the whole back of the bus was black. You couldn't even see in front of your face.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: So I ran up to the front of the bus. And I tried to open the door. The only thing I could hear is, 'Let's burn them niggers, let's burn them niggers alive.'
At that moment, the fuel tank exploded. I heard somebody say, 'It's going to go! It's going to go!' And they ran and that was the only way we could get that door open.
Janie Forsyth McKinney, Anniston Resident: The door burst open and people just spilled out into the yard. They were practically tripping over each other because they were so sick and needed to get some air.
Mae F. Moultrie Howard, Freedom Rider: I can't tell you if I walked off the bus or if I crawled off or if someone pulled me off.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: When I got off the bus, a man came up to me and I'm coughing and strangling and he said, 'Boy, you alright?' And I nodded my head, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. He had hit me with a part of a baseball bat.
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: People were gagging and they were crawling around on the ground, they were trying to get the smoke out of their chests. It was just an awful, awful, awful, awful scene.
Janie Forsyth McKinney, Anniston Resident: It was horrible, it was like a scene from hell. It was – it was the worst suffering I'd ever heard. Yeah, I heard, 'Water, please get me water, oh God, I need water.'
I walked right out into the middle of that crowd. I picked me out one person. I washed her face. I held her. I gave her water to drink, and soon as I thought she was gonna be ok I got up and picked out somebody else.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: As I'm getting up off the ground, four or five guys coming at me again. And this is when I see the highway patrol man. He pulls his gun and he fired in the air. He says, 'Okay you've had your fun, lets move back.' And that's what stopped it.
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The people on the Trailways bus going into Birmingham don't know that the Greyhound bus has been burned in Anniston, outside Anniston, and the Riders are sitting on the side of the road, you know, covered in blood. Now, they're going into a city which is the worst city for race in the whole United States. It literally is a police state ruled by one of the worst figures in American history, Bull Connor, who must've been some kind of psychopath, just rabid on the issue of race.
Bull Connor (Archival): You can never whip these birds if you don't keep you and them separate. I found that out in Birmingham. You've got to keep the whites and the blacks separate.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Bull Connor was a real bigot. And he was willing and able to do anything, really, to make sure that the Southern way of life -- of segregation and Jim Crow -- remained intact. He thought that the whole social order, that civilization depended on it.
Howard K. Smith, CBS Evening News (Archival): Last night a man phoned me, said he was close to the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, he said he wanted to give me a tip. 'Be sure to be at the bus terminal on Sunday,' he said, 'because you're going to see action.'
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: Unbeknownst to any of us, the Birmingham Police Department, headed up by Bull Connor, had made an agreement with the head of the Klan to give them time to beat up the Freedom Riders at the Trailways bus station.
Gary Thomas Rowe, FBI Informant (Archival): My instructions were from the Birmingham Police Department that the Klan organization had 15 minutes, quote 'to burn, bomb, kill, maim, I don't give a goddamn.' He said, 'I will guarantee your people that not one soul will ever be arrested in that 15 minutes.'
Diane McWhorter, Writer: The FBI, even though they knew that there was gonna be violence and there was gonna be no police protection, they did nothing to protect the Riders.
Gary Thomas Rowe, FBI Informant (Archival): The Klan put out a fiery cross summonses which means people from all over the different states were to come. Not hundred, thousands of people would be down there in order to wait on them buses and beat and probably kill those people.
Diane McWhorter, Writer: What ended up being worse was that their very own informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, was at the center of the violence.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: In theory, the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, reports to the Attorney General. But in fact, Hoover was more powerful than any Attorney General. Hoover made no effort to stop the mob, and he never told Kennedy about it. He never told his boss, the Attorney General, that he was watching the mob be formed and that the FBI was gonna do nothing to stop it.
Ted Gaffney, Photographer, Jet Magazine: When the bus pulled up, there was a mob. Looked like a thousand people. They had these iron pipes.
Charles Person, Freedom Rider: James Peck and I, we were scheduled to test the facilities. So he looked at me, and I looked at him and we proceeded to go into the terminal.
Jerry Ivor Moore, Freedom Rider: I looked at the reporter. When our eyes met and he looked away... it just... oh my guts... my very guts shook. He must have thought we were doomed.
Charles Person, Freedom Rider (Archival): As we entered, we were met by hoodlums who were standing around the walls.
Gary Thomas Rowe, FBI Informant (Archival): The very first thing that I saw was a white man and he was hollering, 'No people don't do it! They are my brothers they're your brothers, before I let you kill them you'll have to kill me first.' The Klansmen made a statement, 'well, fink it, that ain't no problem.'
At that time all hell broke loose.
Charles Person, Freedom Rider (Archival): I was thrown forward. I was hit on the back of the head with something.
Gary Thomas Rowe, FBI Informant (Archival): It was a mass brawl. Sticks, bats, clubs, guns just swinging away, just swinging away.
Charles Person, Freedom Rider: James went down almost immediately. The blood started running.
Gary Thomas Rowe, FBI Informant (Archival): A black woman run up to a city detective and hollered, 'they are killing my husband, for God's sakes help me!' He slapped her down and knocked the hell out of her.
Jerry Ivor Moore, Freedom Rider: Then this flashbulb went off, and I believe that flashbulb had saved my life, cause they turned on the reporter.
Howard K. Smith, CBS Evening News (Archival): They knocked one man, a white man, down at my feet and they beat him and kicked him until his face was a bloody red pulp. The police did not arrive at this scene until 10 minutes late when these men had, as if on signal, dispersed and had gone further down the street, where I saw some of them discussing their achievement of the day right under the windows of the Police Commissioner's office.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Those pictures were about as dramatic as anything I think anyone had ever seen coming out of the civil rights struggle. The notion that just for the attempt to sit on the front of a bus, that you could risk your life, that people could try to burn you to death was incredible.
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: For the Kennedy brothers, domestic affairs were an afterthought for them and the Civil Rights Movement was an afterthought beyond an afterthought. Now all of a sudden, chaos is broken loose. Attention is riveted. People are talking about this. The whole world is watching.
Reporter, Radio Havana, Cuba (Archival): The recent incidents in Alabama speak eloquently of the problems that the devout and pious Mr. Kennedy has to resolve in his own country, before engaging his country in adventures against peoples where there is no problem of racial segregation.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: Both RFK and JFK wanted it just to go away. JFK was vocal about it. 'Get 'em off those buses! Stop it!' Cause he was getting ready for his summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, and he just didn't want the distraction.
Harris Wofford, Assistant to President Kennedy: To have the leading story about the United States be the kind of violence that took place against the Freedom Riders was a matter of embarrassment anywhere. And he was going to Europe. Our friends and allies were appalled that this was going on in the United States of America.
Rev. Benjamin Cox, Freedom Rider (Archival): If men like Governor Patterson and Governor Burnett of Mississippi and also Governor Davis of Louisiana would carry out the good oath of their office then a citizen would be able to travel in this country. And people in Tel Aviv and Moscow and London would not pick up their newspapers for breakfast and realize that America is not living up to the dream of liberty and justice for all.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963 (Archival): We can't act as nursemaids to agitators. I think when they learn that when they go somewhere to create a riot, that there's not gonna be somebody there to stand between them and the other crowd, they'll stay home. And you just can't guarantee the safety of a fool, and that's what these folks are. Just fools.
Slate: May 15th, Birmingham, Alabama, Day 12
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: After we got out of the hospital we met the next day. I saw Jim Peck for the first time. I felt like crying, but didn't. And he proposed that we should continue with our Freedom Ride. After that, there was no longer any debate; if he could be beaten as he was and still say we should go on, we certainly felt we could go on.
Reporter (Archival): Why are you planning to keep up this ride?
James Peck (Archival): We're planning to keep it up because we feel that we must not surrender to violence.
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: We gathered at the bus station there in Birmingham. There were mob people around there too. We had to make our way through them to get into the bus station.
Jerry Ivor Moore, Freedom Rider: The police are there because a crowd is starting to gather. It was getting tense. It was getting tense. I mean anything was possible right then, right there, anything was possible.
Ted Gaffney, Photographer, Jet Magazine: The bus driver said, "There're a thousand waiting on you outside of town. You all are Freedom Riders. I am not. I have a family. So, I'm not driving this bus."
Charles Person, Freedom Rider: We were close to getting to Mississippi and for the rally in New Orleans. And as beaten, as weary as we were, we wanted to continue. But I think we were pretty much traumatized.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: I had very mixed feelings. I'd learned to be afraid overnight. I was no longer this fearless rider. I was no longer so interested in dying for the cause. I appreciated being alive.
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: They had a vote. They were discussing things. Some wanted to continue. The problem was, they couldn't continue on the buses because we didn't have any drivers. They finally made the decision that they had come to -- that they had gone about as far as they could. It was over.
We got out to the airport. You wouldn't believe it, but those mob people were still there.
Genevieve Houghton, Freedom Rider: There was basically the same crowd we had seen the day before. And when it reached a critical point, we were gonna get beaten to smithereens.
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American: Along the edges of the building that we had to walk past to try to get to the plane, they were still out there and they were still fired up and they were still trying to whack us and they were still calling us names. Eventually we got to the plane and settled in and everybody got a little relaxed. Then we get this call saying there was a bomb scare. We had to walk back through these people again. You had this nightmarish feeling that they would never go away.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: The Attorney General and the President talked together and I talked then with them. And our strategy was simply: go to Alabama, go to Birmingham, get those Freedom Riders to New Orleans. It's a long flight, but by the time I get there, they're still trapped in that airport. They were in limbo. They were in a frightened state of limbo.
I think the people who were not glad to see somebody from the Federal government were the airlines. I got with the manager and they got on the telephone, and if you represent the President of the United States and you're talking to the officials of a regulated airline, we were outta there on the first flight.
Ted Gaffney, Photographer, Jet Magazine: I'd never flown before, but it felt good when that plane got off that runway. I'd rather take a chance on getting killed in a plane crash than to get beat to death by hoodlums with iron pipes.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: When we arrived in New Orleans, the State Police formed a corridor from the steps of the bottom of the plane to the terminal, and I will say, they were cursed and condemned with racial slurs from the bottom of that ladder 'til we walked into that terminal. You wouldn't believe it from state police officers, just spewing filth and venom and hatred.
Moses Newson, Journalist, Afro-American (reading): "The courageous Freedom Riders won't ever be the same. They left Washington, D.C. in good spirits with high hopes in their country and fellow men. But the beatings, the tensions, the shocks, the depth of the hating, the open lawlessness took its toll. It will be a miracle if all their physical and psychological wounds ever heal. The Deep South was that tough."
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: I went to a motel to spend the night. And you know, I thought, 'What a great hero I am, you know? How easy this was, you know? I just took care of everything the President and the Attorney General wanted done. Mission Accomplished.'
My phone in the hotel room rings and it's the Attorney General. He has received word from the FBI in Nashville that another wave of Freedom Riders is coming down to Birmingham from Nashville to continue the Freedom Rides. And he opened the conversation, 'Who the hell is Diane Nash?'
Slate: May 16th, Nashville, Tennessee, Day 13
Diane Nash, Student, Fisk University: It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence. It was critical that the Freedom Ride not stop, and that it be continued immediately.
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University: Students from the Movement in Nashville had been through violence. We had been arrested, we'd all had our lives threatened. We were ones that had not broken. And we were the logical ones to continue the ride.
Diane Nash, Student, Fisk University: We had had a successful movement the year before, and had desegregated lunch counters. We had been watching the progress of the Freedom Ride. We were fresh troops.
Frederick Leonard, Student, Tennessee State University: CORE, I think, they didn't understand. We dealt with violence every day in the South. They didn't treat us like we were human, they treated us like vicious animals, like they were always on guard, thinking we were gonna do something to them, while they were doing it to us. And CORE, I think, they felt, 'We'll go down there, and you know, they'll let us ride the front of the bus and go into the white station, the white waiting room, and everything will be all right. And we'll just all the way to New Orleans doing this and then come back to New York and-- see we did it!' It wasn't like that.
You're saying that you're gonna start a movement, you're gonna do something to change this, and then you quit. Your parents tell you, 'Don't start something that you can't finish. Finish it.'
Diane Nash, Student, Fisk University (Archival): The groups will be dispatched...
Rev. C.T. Vivian, Freedom Rider: The meeting was called and Diane led it. And I remember Diane saying something was very important. She took a break and said, 'Go out and let's think about it for about 10 minutes and come back, and we'll make the decision.'
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: It was not an easy decision because what it meant was dropping out of school in the midst of our final exams. And for some of us, we were the first generation to go to college. Our parents had really made sacrifices. And we were making a decision to drop out.
Rev. C.T. Vivian, Freedom Rider: Time was up, everybody came back in. The decision was made to leave that night.
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University: My parents had provided me a wonderful childhood and a tremendous amount of love and support in everything that I had done. But as a white person, I was the primary focus of most of the violence that took place, because I was a disgrace to the white race. I was the traitor. So I knew, if anybody was probably going to get pretty well beaten or killed, it would be me. And I wanted to tell my folks how much I loved them and how much I appreciated what they'd done.
Singing: Oh freedom....
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University (reading): Tuesday, May 16, 1961. We held two meetings today. The first was at six this morning. The second from seven to one tonight. After much discussion, we decided to continue the Freedom Ride. Of the 18 who volunteered, 10 were chosen. Three females and seven males. We will leave on the Greyhound bus tomorrow morning at either 5:15 or 6:45. We were all again made aware of what we can expect to face: jail, extreme violence, or death.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: We thought we would divide the group in half. If that group had been arrested, beaten, unable to continue, or even killed, we had a second group that was ready to go. And they knew that no matter what happened -- okay -- I would bring a second group.
Diane Nash, Student, Fisk University: The people who were going on the Freedom Ride from Nashville elected me to be the coordinator. That was a really heavy responsibility because the lives and safety of people whom I loved and cared about deeply, and who were some of my closest friends, depended on my doing a good job at that.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: My phone in the hotel room rings and it's the Attorney General. And he opens the conversation, 'Who the hell is Diane Nash? Call her and let her know what is waiting for the Freedom Riders.'
So I called her. I said, 'I understand that there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can.' Her response was, 'They're not gonna turn back. They're on their way to Birmingham and they'll be there, shortly.'
You know that spiritual -- 'Like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved'? She would not be moved. And, and I felt my voice go up another decibel and another and soon I was shouting, 'Young woman, do you understand what you're doing? You're gonna get somebody... Do you understand you're gonna get somebody killed?'
And, there's a pause, and she said, 'Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome non-violence.'
That's virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child's mouth. Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the President and the Attorney General, talking to a student at Fisk University. And she in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.
Singing: We shall not be moved....
Slate: Title: May 17th, Birmingham, AL, Day 14
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University: One young man -- white fella -- sitting kind of over there, leaned over and said, 'Where are you guys going?' And I said, 'To New Orleans.' And he kinda had a smirk on his face and said, 'You'll never make it.'
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: When we arrived at the city limit of Birmingham, Bull Connor let the regular passenger get off the bus. He kept us on the bus. Then he ordered the local police officials to place newspaper, cardboards, to cover all of the windows. They wanted to make it difficult for the media to get word out.
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: We sat on that bus for two hours or more. It was getting hot. There was no air condition, in the summertime. When they let us out, we immediately went in the white only side of the bus station. Bull Connor came in and arrested us, and put us in jail, he said, for our own protection.
Radio News Report (Archival): Birmingham's Police Chief has taken a group of negroes into custody. Thus ended a potentially explosive situation, which had been growing increasingly more tense since about noon today. The college students came down from Nashville with the avowed purposed of testing Birmingham's segregation laws. They wanted to continue the Freedom Ride aborted by a group of CORE members here after mob violence earlier this week.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: The Attorney General says, 'You better get up there as quickly as you can.' And of course by the time I get there, they're all incarcerated. Now the Attorney General is trying to reach the governor, I'm trying to reach the governor.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: The governor has nothing to do with the daily operations of the police department of the city of Birmingham. Bull Connor never supported me for governor. I never liked the man. In fact, I was a little bit afraid of him. He was so unpredictable.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: The situation is really dangerous. Bobby Kennedy convinces his brother that maybe you need to talk to Patterson yourself. Maybe we have to assert Presidential authority.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: I had figured that I might get that call from the President. I told the operator to tell the President that I was not there. And they pressed, from the White House Office, and they said, 'Well, he can't be reached.' They said, 'Well where is he? Get him on the phone.' 'He can't be reached; he's out in the Gulf fishing.' I lied. I just lied.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: I think the Kennedy brothers were shocked that despite the assertion of Presidential authority, that their former political ally wouldn't even talk to them on the phone. I think that really gave them a sense of how dangerous things were in Birmingham; that anything could happen in Bull Connor's city when the governor won't even talk to the President of the United States.
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: I guess maybe around 10:00 one of the guards came in and told us to get our clothes on, that we were leaving. We walked out of the cell. Saw Bull Connor.
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: We got on the outside, they had two police cruisers and a limousine, loaded us up, and start driving, 1:00 in the morning.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: The FBI called me at the motel and woke me up and said, 'The Freedom Riders have all been taken out of jail.' I said, 'Kidnapped?' And I thought, 'My God, they're gonna kill 'em.' I didn't think Bull Connor was above that.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: We got to the state line -- the Tennessee -- the state line of Alabama. He said, 'I'm letting you off here.' We didn't know what was gonna happen.
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: They throw the luggage out and he says that, 'You all can go over there, there's a train station, and get a train back to Nashville.'
Of course, I couldn't let Bull have the last word. During that time we watched a lot of cowboy movies. So I told him we would see him back in Birmingham by high noon.
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: We didn't know if the Ku Klux Klan was following us. We didn't know where we was located. We saw no telephone to make any calls. We had to find a place to hide.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: We came upon a old house that was fallen, knocked on the door, said, 'We are the Freedom Riders. Please let us in.'
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: Older gentlemen came to the door. He said, 'Mm-nh, mm-nh, ya'll can't come in here.'
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: My mother had always told me that you need some help, then you try to talk to the lady of the house. And I said, 'Let's talk loud and wake up his wife.'
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: Few minutes later, we knocked on the door again, and his wife came to the door with him. And she-- we told her we were the Freedom Riders, she said, 'Ya'll chil'en, come on in.'
Singing: I'm on my way and I won't turn back....
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: We didn't get back by high noon, but we made our way back.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: The first group of Nashville riders make it back to Birmingham from the Tennessee border. There's a second wave of riders from Nashville already there. They've got a terrible problem.
Jimmy Hoffa, the leader of the Teamsters Union, says, 'None of my drivers are going to get on any of those buses.' Greyhound Corporation can't find any drivers willing to get on the bus. So the riders are stuck there, and it's not clear how they're ever going to get out of Birmingham.
News Radio Reporter (Archiva): A menacingly quiet mob grew into the several hundreds outside the terminal. Dozens of police patrolled the area and police dogs helped keep the streets clear and the mob back from the terminal. The Negroes went to board the bus finally and the driver stomped off saying he would not make the trip.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: We were sitting in the white designated waiting room. This was my first encounter, face to face, with the Ku Klux Klan. They had on white sheets and their hoods were thrown back. And they walked around in the bus station while we were there, and they stepped on our feet. They threw cold water on our faces.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Bobby Kennedy was getting frustrated. He gets word to John Patterson that if the state of Alabama won't protect the Freedom Riders, won't end this crisis, then the Federal government would have to do it. They'd have to step in in some way.
Patterson realizes that he's gotta do something. He says, 'Can't you send somebody down to Montgomery to talk to my staff to figure this out?' And that opens the way for John Seigenthaler going down to Montgomery to talk with John Patterson.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: I said, 'Look Governor, it's just this simple: if you can't provide them protection and you say you can't, you don't leave us any option. We'll have to provide protection for them. And it will have to be the U.S. Marshals or troops.'
He turned immediately to a man seated across the table and said, 'That's Floyd Mann, my Commissioner of Safety. Floyd, tell this man these rabble rousers are asking for trouble and we can't protect them.'
He said, 'Governor, I've been in law enforcement all my life. If you tell me to protect them, I'll protect them.' It sucked the air out of the room.
Derek Catsam, Historian: Patterson's hands are tied. Because his chief law enforcement official has essentially said, 'I can protect the Freedom Riders' in front of the Kennedy administration's representative. And so Paterson's in a position where he has to act.
Robert F. Kennedy (Archival): Around 11:00, I talked to Mr. Seigenthaler, and the Governor at that time assured Mr. Seigenthaler that we have the means, the ability, and the will to protect these people. We'll make sure that people traveling in interstate commerce and traveling across our highways are not molested. And traveling through our cities are not harmed. That's all I asked for. He said that that's -- he gave us his flat word and assurance that that would happen.
Singing: Hallelujah I'm a traveling....
Slate: May 20, 1961, Montgomery, Alabama, Day 17
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: When we saw all the protection that we had, you know, we got relaxed then. We sang a few freedom songs and as a matter of fact, I dozed off. That's right. Felt safe.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: Floyd Mann had state troopers leading them and following them. And we had a state trooper helicopter overhead, protecting them from overhead, and escorted them to the city limits of Montgomery, where we turned them over to the city authorities of Montgomery, who guaranteed to us that they would protect them and maintain order themselves at the bus station.
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: I was looking out the window. And I could see the policemens taking off in different direction. And so would the helicopter. And we were thinking that some Montgomery policemans was going to come in then. But then we didn't see anyone.
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: We pulled into the bus station, there was a eerie feeling; we didn't see anybody. We saw a couple taxicabs.
Herb Kaplow, NBC News (Archival): Cameraman Maurice Levy, soundman Wee Risser and I jumped out of our car to photograph the debarking from the bus itself. There was no large crowd around. I asked some of the Riders what they intended to do. They said they did not yet know. Then a heavyset man asked me whether I was one of the group, I said I was not. I noticed then that he was holding in his right hand an open penknife.
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University: John was getting ready to go to the microphone and just as he was about to do this, this fella went at one of the fellas that was holding one of the parabolic mics. And he grabbed it out his hands and he threw it to the ground, stomped on it, and turned and approached one of the photographers and grabbed his camera, and yanked on it and in doing so, the cameraman fell to the ground, he started kicking and beating him. And that seemed to be the cue.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: The mob came out and went straight to the reporters, and started beating them and kicking them and throwing their cameras down, smashing them on the ground.
Reporter (Archival): After we were forced away, that's when the attack on the Riders themselves started.
Frederick Leonard, Student, Tennessee State University: It just seemed like, just suddenly they were -- we were like, the bus was like surrounded.
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University: You could see baseball bats and pieces of pipe and hammers and chains. And one fella had a pitchfork.
Frederick Leonard, Tennessee State University: They were like on a feeding frenzy. Like, you know how like sharks are just-- they were just crazy.
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: And what really sticks with me were the women. They were screaming, 'Kill them niggers!' And they had babies in their arms.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: You could see baggage being thrown into the air, you could hear screams. My heart was in my throat. I knew suddenly -- betrayal, disaster. I hope not death.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: Bobby is getting this in real time, as it's happening, from his own lieutenants. Saying something to the effect, "It's terrible. It's terrible." He's watching it happen. "There are no police. They're just beating them."
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: This was war. On the Greyhound Bus terminal parking lot. This was absolute war.
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University: I asked God to be with me, to give me the strength I would need to remain nonviolent, and to forgive them.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: The last thing I recall standing with Jim Zwerg. I was hit in the head with a wooden crate.
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University: I heard a crack and fell forward. Rolled over on my back, and a foot came down on my face, and that was it. I was out.
Frederick Leonard, Tennessee State University: William Barbee was knocked down. A big, 250-pound white guy had his foot on his neck while another one was trying to drive a steel rod through his ear.
Sangernetta Gilbert Bush, Montgomery Resident: The police were standing there, in their uniforms, just looking. They provided no protection for those students.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to RFK: There was a skinny, young kid and he was sort of dancing in front of this young woman, punching her, and I could see, as she turned her head, blood from the nose and mouth. I grabbed her by the wrist over the hood of the car, had her right at the door and she put her hands up on the doorjamb and said, 'Mister, I don't want you to get hurt. I'm non-violent, I'm trained to take this. Please, don't get hurt. We'll be fine.'
And I said, 'Get your ass in the car, sister.' And at that moment, they wheeled me around and they hit me with a pipe. They kicked me under the car and left me there.
Radio News Reporter (Archival): There were some 300 to a thousand whites in the area of the bus depot before police finally broke up the crowd with tear gas. They beat and injured at least 20 persons of both races and both sexes.
Derek Catsam, Historian: After the Montgomery riots the Kennedys are feeling betrayed. There's John Seigenthaler lying in a pool of his own blood. They realized that they can't work with Patterson, and they're gonna to have to bring in Federal Marshals.
Radio News Reporter (Archival): The Justice Department says 400 United States Marshals will be in Montgomery tomorrow. They're being assembled from other southern states now and court orders are being prepared to enable them to keep armed order if necessary.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963 (Archival): We don't need the Federal Marshals here in this city. The situation here is well in hand and if the outside agitators who came here and deliberately stirred up this controversy would go home and the Marshals go home, it will be best for everybody and the situation would return to normal very quickly.
Jim Zwerg, Exchange Student, Fisk University (Archival): We're dedicated to this. We'll take hitting, we'll take beating. We're willing to accept death. But we're going to keep coming until we can ride from anywhere in the South to anyplace else in the South.
Singing: Don't you think its about time Lord that we all be free....
Slate: May 21, 1961, Montgomery, Alabama, Day 18
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: The next day after the Montgomery riot, it was clear that the riot required a response from the Movement. That the Movement couldn't let this pass. So they called a mass meeting -- support for the Freedom Riders at the First Baptist Church, Ralph Abernathy's church. Jim Farmer flew in. Revered Fred Shuttlesworth came down from Birmingham. Dr. King flew in.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963 (Archival): He is the worst of all the agitators in this country. Now the best thing for King and all of the so-called Freedom Riders is to return to their homes go back to their books and mind their own business.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: Well, I wasn't happy when I found out he was coming to town. He was a spellbinder in those days and he could get a crowd riled up quick. This would exacerbate the overall problem of the interest in the thing, and it would draw more attention to it, and it would bring out more of the crazies.
Singing: Don't you think its about time Lord that we all be free....
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: They filled that church -- 1,500 people. And they were making a statement that the movement was behind the Freedom Rides. There had been disagreements before -- many people thought it had been a mistake, that they were squandering the resources of the movement, that they were gonna get themselves killed -- but now they had to close ranks. They had to say that we're in this together, that the Freedom Rides are here to stay, that we're not gonna get pushed out of Alabama by violence.
Delores Boyd, Montgomery Resident: In 1961 I was 11 years old. It was important that I go that night. The busload of Freedom Riders had been attacked, had been beaten. Many of them were still hospitalized at St. Jude. We were told that those who were able would actually be there. I'd heard Dr. King before, I'd heard Reverend Abernathy, so the excitement wasn't just seeing the leaders. We were all wanting to see who are these courageous Freedom Riders.
And probably we'd been there at least an hour, hour and a half, when we realized that this would be different.
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: When I first realized that something was happening -- I think when I heard a rock hit the window. And then some of us went to look out the window, and then got some more rocks. And so then that's when, you know, a little fear came and we didn't know what was about to go down.
Diane McWhorter, Writer: There's a crowd of white people outside that just keeps growing and growing as the evening progresses. And finally, there's a full-scale mob.
Delores Boyd, Montgomery Resident: We could hear outside, noise. We could hear the jeering, the taunting. And they were all throwing things at the church.
William Harbour, Freedom Rider: You could see the flare up of fire on the outside. And you could hear the hollering from the groups on the outside. We just knew that the church gonna be set on fire and we couldn't get out.
Tommy Giles, Aide to Governor Patterson: They sent the Marshals to the church to protect the Freedom Riders. They showed up down there in a bunch of mail trucks. U.S. mail vehicles carried them down there.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: In fact, it was a motley crew, a kind of a posse rounded up of the last second, of Federal workers. Postal workers. Some customs officials. Maybe some border guards. And a lot of these guys were rednecks -- I mean, the joking up in Washington, I think one of the Kennedy's aides said, 'I'm not too sure which side they're gonna be on.'
Tommy Giles, Aide to Governor Patterson: The crowd started moving towards the church and the Marshals decided, 'We're gonna put out tear gas.' Throwing the tear gas, not realizing the wind was blowing back on the Marshals. And they got disbanded, and they went in all kinds of directions.
Martin Luther King (Archival): The first thing that we must do here tonight is decide that we're gonna be calm, and that we are going to continue to stand up for what we know is right.
Catherine Burks-Brooks, Freedom Rider: We were told that we couldn't leave the church, and to stay on the inside. The singing had kind of stopped, and we were tired at that time. We were about fit to leave the church.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: Well, here you have this church that's got 1,500 black folks in it, and they're surrounded by a screaming, raving mob of 3,000 whites who want to burn 'em, who want to kill 'em. And Martin Luther King is in there and he's scared, and he should be scared. And he's on the phone with the Attorney General and he's asking for federal help.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Dr. King was saying, 'The situation here is desperate, you have got to do something. You've gotta figure out some way to uphold the rule of law.'
Martin Luther King (Archival): We are not giving in for what we are standing for. And maybe it takes something like this for the Federal government to see that Alabama is not going to place any limit upon itself; it must be imposed from without.
Derek Catsam, Historian: At the same time as the Kennedys are communicating with the folks in the church, they are talking to Patterson saying, 'You need to do something. You need to act and you need to act now!' What they really want to see happen ultimately is a peaceful solution in which Patterson is the one who protects the Riders, Patterson is the one who takes the responsibility. They don't want to appear to be imposing the will of the federal government.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (Archival): It's a sin and shame before God on a day like this, that these people who govern us would let things come to such a sad estate. But God is not dead. The most guilty man in this State tonight is Governor John Patterson.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: I had my window up, and I could hear the din going on down there. I had a Colonel there from the National Guard assigned to me as a liaison officer, just in case I had to declare Martial Law.
Tommy Giles, Aide to Governor Patterson: I was driving back and forth and I was keeping Governor Patterson abreast of what was happening at the church. I told him, I said, 'Governor things have gotten real outta hand down there and we gone need to do a lot more with the situation.'
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: He said, 'Governor, you better call them out, you better call them out, this thing is gonna get out of hand.' And I signed the proclamation and I handed it to Colonel Shepherd and I said, 'Here, call 'em out.'
Martin Luther King (Archival): I want to make this announcement that the City is now under Marshal Law and troops are on the way into Montgomery.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: People rejoice. People express a sense of relief and happiness because they knew that the federal government has spoken from Washington. They knew that for the first time, the Kennedy administration, President Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, had identified with their side, at the side of Civil Rights.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: The back and forth between King and Bobby Kennedy was one of the remarkable dramas of the Civil Rights Movement. It gave Dr. King a stature that Civil Rights leaders had not had before. It was a kind of personal contact that becomes one of the hallmarks of the Movement later, but in 1961 it was a real affirmation of the Movement's power.
Radio News Reporter (Archival): The capital city of Alabama remains under Martial Law in the wake of racial strife. Eight hundred National Guardsmen and 700 U.S. Marshals aided by state and local police are keeping the watch here to prevent a reoccurrence of the interracial violence which has swept the city over the weekend. Montgomery now hopes for the best but braces for the racial worst.
Radio News Reporter (Archival): This was as good a time than any to point out to the rest of the world that we are not barbaric. The man who did the pointing for the United States today was Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who, using the microphones of Voice of America, told the people of more than 60 countries, 'That the Montgomery mob did not represent the people of the South, it actually represented only a small minority of Americans.'
Robert F. Kennedy (Archival): In many areas of the United States, where there's no prejudice whatsoever, Negroes are continuously making progress here in this country. The progress in many areas is not as fast as it should be, but they are making progress and we will continue to make progress. There is prejudice now, there's no reason that in the near, in the foreseeable future that a Negro could also be President of the United States.
Slate: May 23, 1961, Montgomery, Alabama, Day 20
Radio News Reporter (Archival): The 17 freedom riders who were at last night's church service have disappeared within the city of Montgomery or in the surrounding countryside. There is no sign of them, no one who will admit that he has any knowledge of their whereabouts. They were expected to surrender to local authorities today to face charges of having violated an injunction against integrating buses operating on Alabama highways. They have not surrendered.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: After the siege, the Freedom Riders gathered at Dr. Harris' house. This was one of the largest houses in the black community in Montgomery, and it's an amazing scene. Nothing like it had ever quite happened in the history of the Movement before, where you have young and old leaders, sort of sequestered in this house, talking about the philosophy of the Movement, the strategy, what to do next. And part of this involves the relationship between the Riders, between the Freedom Rides and Dr. King.
Martin Luther King (Archival): We met with the students, some four hours last evening, and discussed many matters concerning the whole Freedom Ride and the goals ahead, and it was a unanimous feeling of all of the students present that the Freedom Rides should and must continue.
Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr., Freedom Rider: There were a number of students and Riders who wanted Martin King to go on the ride with them. So there were major discussions and a lot of heat, I think, even anger at Dr. Harris' house during the night and the next day. The folk who were pushing him to go were wanting to use him because he was the spokesperson and symbol of the struggle and they wanted that to give them some kind of media edge.
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: He refuses, and he claims that he can't go because he's on probation and many of these young people are on probation three or four times over, you know, they've been arrested many more times than he has and they can't understand this reluctance.
Diane McWhorter, Writer: The SNCC kids fully expected that King was gonna be on the bus with them to Jackson, Mississippi, and were really crestfallen that he wouldn't and that's when they started calling him, mockingly, 'De Lawd.'
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: To refer to Dr. King, as some people did, 'The Lord' was being facetious, sarcastic, that he was bigger than any of us.
Clayborne Carson, Historian: When he was explaining why he wouldn't go on the Freedom Rides, he kind of compared himself to Jesus in the sense of seeing himself as a person facing crucifixion. I think he lost a certain amount of stature among some of the students. I think it fed into some of the splits that would come.
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: That didn't mean that they turned their backs on him by any means; he's still a revered and beloved figure, but he was revealed to have feet, well maybe of clay.
Slate: May 24, 1961, Jackson, Mississippi, Day 21
Clayborne Carson, Historian: At a certain point the Kennedy administration and the state officials in Alabama make a decision that this is a crisis that has to end and that they need to diffuse it. They decide to do what they could have done in the first place and that is to provide the protection necessary to make sure that the Freedom Riders get from Montgomery to the border of Alabama and Mississippi safely.
Tommy Giles, Aide to Governor Patterson: We had over 120 people to guard the Freedom Riders as they left Montgomery cause we gone be assured that there wouldn't be any problems. And the guardsmen had their rifles with fixed bayonets. Everybody was well prepared to get the Freedom Riders on out of Alabama and onto Mississippi.
Radio News Reporter (Archival): The scheduled departure: seven this morning. National Guardsmen and Highway Patrolmen dominated the scene. A half-dozen guardsmen boarded the bus, then the 12 Freedom Riders -- nine Negro men, one white man, two Negro women. At 11 minutes after seven, the convoy started to move. The bus was preceded by a half-dozen highway patrol cars.
Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr., Freedom Rider: We did not ask for all of the state police and the helicopters overhead. It was shameful that we could not travel peacefully without that apparatus of protection.
Rev. C.T. Vivian, Freedom Rider: We take off across country. We can see people on porches and black people on their porches -- when we're going through the black part of a town -- they're just waving, you know, and we're waving back. It was really tremendous, and old folks sitting out on the porch like they normally do; and it was really a wonderful thing. Their hopes were on us, you know, and we were supposed to in fact do what we're doing, and to make it so that one day their children wouldn't have to put up with what they put up with.
John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, 1959-1963: We escorted them all the way with State Troopers and National Guardsmen, all the way to the Mississippi line. Then the thing was over. And then we began to lick our wounds.
Radio News Reporter (Archival): At 11:50 am, Central Standard Time, the bus hit the Mississippi line, the Alabama authorities pulling back.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: We felt a very strange feeling when the changing of the guard at the Alabama-Mississippi state line; it was very eerie. In spite of all the Alabama had done, the fear of Mississippi in the minds of many people was far greater. There was a huge billboard and that billboard said, 'Welcome to Mississippi. The Magnolia State.' And when we continued to ride on, the next large sign we saw said, 'Prepare to meet thy God.'
Ross Barnett, Governor of Mississippi, 1960-1964 (Archival): There are seven or eight of these what they call Freedom Riders on the way from Montgomery, Alabama, coming into the state of Mississippi, and I believe you asked me if we'd made any preparation for them, is that right? (background: 'Yes') Well, we expect them to obey the laws of Mississippi just as you or any other citizen we would expect to do.
Frederick Leonard, Student, Tennessee State University: What we didn't know at the time was that Ross Barnett, the Governor of Mississippi, had told all the white people in Mississippi, 'stay home.' He said there would be no violence in Mississippi and there was no violence in Mississippi, even though that was the state most known for hanging, you know. That was the most violent state, but Ross Barnett said, 'Let us handle this.' And that's what they did.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: We walked into the white waiting room and there was this police Captain, we learned his name was Captain Ray and he said, 'Move on. Move on. Move on.'
Police Officer (Archival): You are under arrest for refusing to obey my orders.
Rev. C.T. Vivian, Freedom Rider: By the time I came out of the bus station, everybody was in the paddy wagon, and he was telling his men to close the door. So I sorta tapped him on the shoulder and I said, 'I'm with them.' He looks and then he turns his face around because he's smiling. First time he have anybody tell him to open the paddy wagon so they could go to jail. And then when he got his face together, he turned back around and he said, 'Get in there!'
Frederick Leonard, Student, Tennessee State University: They took us right to the paddy wagon, to the jail, to court, and to the state penitentiary.
Julian Bond, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The arrangement is made between the Federal Government, Robert Kennedy, and the most powerful man in Mississippi, James O. Eastland, the Senator. In exchange for providing safety for the Freedom Riders, their civil rights can be violated and they can be arrested in Jackson, peacefully and calmly, under laws which have twice been invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: The authorities in Mississippi arrest them for breach of peace. This was the implicit deal worked out. I think the Kennedy administration was not totally averse to this. I think they thought that the Freedom Riders would learn a lesson, and that this would quiet down the whole movement.
Ross Barnett, Governor of Mississippi, 1960-1964 (Archival): In the face of an attempt to violate the laws of Mississippi by agitators, our law enforcement officers did in fact enforce these laws as they have always enforced them. And they will continue, Ladies and Gentlemen, to enforce all of the laws of the State of Mississippi when efforts are made by anyone or any group of people to violate those laws.
Derek Catsam, Historian: This is a major national story. It's drawing headline coverage in newspapers. It's on the nightly news every single night, and it is also drawing international coverage.
Czech Reporter (Archival, Subtitled): In the land of Ernest Hemingway, some people still fight for basic human rights. The police have the authority to preventing black citizens from entering areas of the bus stop reserved for whites.
Derek Catsam, Historian: It's a story that really resonates with people who are seeing on the one hand the American ideals that they know about, and on the other hand the way the Freedom Rides and the response to them confronts their image of American ideals.
Czech Reporter (Archival, Subtitled): For those who refuse to submit to unjust racial laws in this "paradise of freedom," prison awaits.
Singing: Let you free....
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: After the arrests in Jackson, Ross Barnett decided to send them to Parchman Prison. Parchman was the most dreaded prison in the South. William Faulkner, in one of his novels, called it "destination doom."
Clayborne Carson, Historian: Ross Barnett wants to teach them a lesson, and the lesson is, 'I'm going to send you to a real prison, to Parchman Penitentiary. So you're gonna do hard time in Mississippi. You're not -- this is not gonna be a city jail. This is going to be like the reputation of the old South where people did work gangs.'
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Ross Barnett thought that he could intimidate them; that just the thought of Parchman would scare people to death, and that this would break the back of the Freedom Rider movement.
Joan Mulholland, Freedom Rider: We were taken into this dark building. We had striped and get examined, a vaginal exam had-- matrons had on rubber gloves and would dip them into what smelled sort of like Lysol or some concoction like that, and then they'd gouge up us and back into the Lysol, or whatever it was, and on to the next one. And that was really intimidating. Showed they could do anything they wanted to us, and probably would.
Rev. C.T. Vivian, Freedom Rider: Suddenly he asked me, 'Do you have syphilis?' I said no and kind of laughed, quite like I'm doing now. Boy, that was the key. They jumped on me. But as they attacked blood spouted. And when the blood spouted, they all jumped back, because they weren't supposed to do that. The idea was to bruise, not to bleed.
Derek Catsam, Historian: Ross Barnett thinks that he has the ultimate move on the chessboard by sending them to Parchman farm. The Freedom Riders take the pretty brave stand of saying, 'Fine, we'll go to Parchman, and we'll fill Parchman up, and we'll make Parchman the next site of the Civil Rights Movement.'
Freedom Rider (Archival): We must now fill the jail and be willing to remain for at least a minimum of 60 days or more.
Derek Catsam, Historian: It became a continuation of the Freedom Ride, Parchman becomes every much the location in the Freedom rides as the bus depots themselves.
Man (archival): I would like to see the show of hands of those you who will be willing to continue the Freedom Ride in the near future. Put 'em up high please.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: We made up a song sayin' that buses are coming. And we sang it to the jailers to tell them, and warn them to get ready, to be prepared that we were not the only ones coming.
So we started singing: 'Buses are a-comin', oh yes. Buses are a-comin', oh yes. Buses are a-comin', buses are a-comin', buses are a-comin', oh yes.' We say to the jailers, 'better get you ready, oh yes.' The jailers say, 'All right, shut up all that singing and hollering in here. This is not no playhouse, this is the jailhouse.'
So, we said to ourselves, 'What are you gonna do? Put us in jail.' (Singing) 'Better get you ready, oh yes. Better get you ready, oh yes.' And they said, 'Wait a minute, hold it. If we hear one more peek outta you guys, we gonna take your mattress.'
Ernest "Rip" Patton, Jr., Freedom Rider (singing): 'You can take our mattress, oh yes. You can take our mattress, oh yes. You can take our mattress, you can take our mattress, you can take our mattress, oh yes.'
Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Freedom Rider: And then, they said that they were going to take our toothbrushes. And someone struck out, (singing) 'You can take our tooth...' and we said, 'wait a minute, hold up. This is time for Quaker consensus. We all got to agree on this together.' Cause here we were, eight of us in a cell built for two and that means you had-- we're close quarters. And so we learned to sing with our mouths closed so we wouldn't breathe on each other, and we sang, (singing) 'You can take our toothbrush, oh yes. You can take our toothbrush, oh yes. You can take our toothbrush, you can take our toothbrush, you can take our toothbrush, oh yes.'
Singing: Buses are a comin', oh yes....
Pauline Knight-Ofoso, Freedom Rider: I got up one morning in May, and I said to my folks at home, 'I won't be back today because I'm a Freedom Rider.'
It was like a wave or a wind that you didn't know where it was coming from or where it was going, but you knew you were supposed to be there. Nobody asked me. Nobody told me. It was like putting yeast in bread; it was a leavening effect.
Joan Mulholland, Freedom Rider: What are you gonna do this summer? Well, you can go do some, you know, menial, low-paying job, or you can go on the Freedom Rides. I think a lot of us, we were past fear. We can't stop. If one person falls, others take their place.
Rabbi Israel Dresner, Freedom Rider: They wanted to have people of different religions. We started out with 14 Protestant ministers -- eight white and six black -- and four Reform rabbis, and we wound up with 10 of us getting arrested.
Priest, Freedom Rider (Archival): We cannot submit to immoral laws which demand that we separate racially. Nor can we conscientiously avoid entirely the situation of which these segregationist laws operate contrary to the laws of the land.
Singing: Rolling into Jackson, oh yes....
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: As the Freedom Rider leaders called for more Freedom Rides going into Mississippi, Bobby Kennedy decided to go formally to the Interstate Commerce Commission -- the ICC -- and to ask them for a sweeping desegregation order. As Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy did not have the power to take down the Jim Crow signs, only the ICC did.
Robert F. Kennedy (Archival): Now the matter is before the ICC. We have taken action in the government to try to end segregation in all of these facilities. It seems to me that that's the proper place for it to be. I don't see that the Freedom Riders now, who are so-called Freedom Riders, who are making these trips, accomplish a great deal. I question their wisdom, I don't question their legal right to travel, but I question their wisdom. I think that some people can get hurt, innocent people that don't have anything to do with this.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Bobby Kennedy hoped that he could go to the Freedom Rider leaders and say, 'Look, I've made this move. Those signs are going to come down eventually. Why don't you call off the Freedom Rides?'
Derek Catsam, Historian: Robert Kennedy calls for this cooling off process and the Freedom Riders say 'no,' and in fact, they pick up the Freedom Rides. They intensify the whole project and they have people coming in from all across the country to participate. And they are coming in by plane, and they are coming in by bus, and they are coming in by train.
Reporter (Archival): Well as this train rolls on toward Jackson, Mississippi, do you have any second thoughts with regard to this effort you're taking?
Glenda Gaither Davis, Freedom Rider (Archival): No. Not at all.
Glenda Gaither Davis, Freedom Rider: Even though we came from many different places and we had many different cultures and many different home environments, in some ways we were very much unified because we had a common cause and we were all moving in that direction. And we did believe in what we were doing. We knew that we had taken a stand and that it was going to be better. There was something better out there for us.
Reporter (Archival): What made you want to take part in this?
Glenda Gaither Davis, Freedom Rider (Archival): I want to break, help break down these barriers of segregation.
Reporter (Archival): How about you? Can you give me any of your feelings on why you want to take part in this?
Male Freedom Rider (Archival): Well, I want to help establish the right of all Americans to eat together, and to travel together.
Reporter (Archival): Why do you think it's your responsibility?
Male Freedom Rider (Archival): I think it's every American's responsibility, and I only think that some are more conscious of their responsibilities than others.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Eventually there were over 430 Freedom Riders, 300 of whom ended up in Parchman. At Parchman they began to see the movement in a new way. It became almost a University of non-violence. They became not just an individual groups of Freedom Riders, but they had a shared experience. And they were from different parts of the country, they were different races, different religions, in some cases different political philosophies, and it all got blended together. They became tougher. They became even more committed. They became the shock troops of the movement.
John Lewis, Freedom Rider: The people that took a seat on these buses, that went to jail in Jackson, that went to Parchman, they were never the same. We had moments there to learn, to teach each other the way of nonviolence, the way of love, the way of peace. The Freedom Ride created an unbelievable sense: Yes, we will make it. Yes, we will survive. And that nothing, but nothing, was going to stop this movement.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: Finally, on September 22nd after hundreds of arrests, the ICC issued its order. It gave the Freedom Riders what they'd been asking for. The "colored only," the "whites only" signs that had been in the bus and rail stations for generations, they finally came down. This was the first unambiguous victory in the long history of the civil rights movement. It finally said that, you know, "We can do this." And it raised expectations across the board for greater victories in the future.
Singing: I'm taking a trip on the Greyhound Bus line. I'm riding the front seat to New Orleans this time. Hallelujah, I'm a-traveling....
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider: Black folks always lived in fear of white folks. And now they are seeing the young people, defying white people. And so we helped to get rid of that myth of impotence.
Singing: I walked in Montgomery, I sat in Tennessee. Now I'm riding for equality. Hallelujah I'm a-traveling. Hallelujah ain't it fine. Hallelujah, I'm a-traveling down freedom's main line.
Rabbi Israel Dresner, Freedom Rider: They understood that the only way it could be done in America is through peaceful methods. And the Freedom Rides illustrated that. The people who got beaten did not strike back. The people who got beaten did not have weapons with them. It was just a stroke of genius.
Delores Boyd, Montgomery Resident: The Freedom Riders introduced the notion that there were fair-minded white persons who were willing to sacrifice themselves, their bodies and their lives, because they too believed that the country had an obligation to uphold its constitutional mandate of liberty and justice for all. And I think it opened our eyes so that we didn't paint all white people with the same broad brush.
Robert F. Kennedy (Archival): A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.
Evan Thomas, RFK Biographer: There's no question that Kennedy was changed by the Freedom Riders. There's a direct line from the Freedom Riders to the speech that President Kennedy gave in June of 1963, calling on Congress to pass legislation to get rid of Jim Crow and to give civil rights protection to all citizens.
Raymond Arsenault, Historian: It was America. It was interracial. It was inter-regional. It was secular and religious. It brought together people of different political philosophies. There was a sense of unity and purpose that I'm not sure that the movement ever had before. It was a shining moment.
Singing: Hallelujah, I'm a-traveling. Hallelujah, ain't it fine. Hallelujah, I'm a-traveling down freedom's main line.