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I was born in the great depression. Dad had been a publisher of German language newspapers in the Midwest, but in 1933, his Board of Directors (many of whom were members of the German American Bund) voted to support Hitler and he was out of work. Our apartment on the North side of Chicago was always crowded with German Jewish refugees thanking God they were now in America. Sprawled on the floor, I read the Sunday comics to doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, broken hearted adults and their children, to help them learn English. Everyone gathered about the radio to be reassured by Franklin Roosevelt, and join in the war against the forces of evil. I collected scrap paper and tin cans, sold war stamps and studied every move of the allied forces across my plaster of paris maps of North Africa and Europe and my shelf-paper maps of the Pacific theater. Joy erupted on V-J day; I joined GIs on State Street, hugging, and kissing women, cheering and waving flags. We had saved the world!
Dad had found work with the Southtown Economist on the South side of Chicago, and with the end of the war, he found an apartment. We moved to a neighborhood under siege by its fears of an encroaching population. Housing about us was kept white with anti-Negro Restrictive Covenants that locked African Americans in an overcrowded, underserved ghetto nearby. I choked in the discovery that the world for which we had fought had yet to be realized.
In September, 1945, students blocked the entrances to Hirsch High School, demanding that a black student whose family had moved into the district during summer vacation not be admitted. It was the only picket line I have ever crossed.
Marie B. McCahey reputedly had flunked the Teachers Exam three times. But her brother was president of the Chicago Board of Education. Years later, he would be indicted for selling coal to the schools at inflated prices, but now his sister , the Principal, stood before me, telling me that the admission of that black kid seated on the bench outside her office was none of my business. I was admitted. He was not.
At the same time that America, with our Western Allies, was drawing lines across Europe to protect us from Godless communism, the McCaheys of the most powerful nation on earth redrew the boundaries of school districts to protect Americans from one another.
I ran the gauntlet of pasty faced God fearing adolescents gathered on the steps of that schoolhouse to protect all that we had fought a war to defeat, and for months after, I was assaulted, spat upon, denounced as a "Jew...nothing but a Nigger turned inside out," slugged, struck, beaten on the sidewalks and targeted in the corridors as I came and went to my own concentration camp.
On the bicycle I inherited from my sister (who had fled to the University of Iowa), I sought sanctuary in the nearby Black community. In time, I found a settlement house, Parkway Community Center at 51st and South Parkway (it had been called Grand Blvd, but was demoted when Blacks moved into the area. After our revolution, years later, it would be renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.). People there were friendly and Jim Farmer welcomed me into CORE, then the Committee on Racial Equality of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, met there weekly. I had found my home.
We held our placards high, catching blobs of snow as we marched, slid and balanced ourselves on the icy surfaces about Goldblatt's Department Store at the eastern end of the Loop, where many Blacks bought but could not work. Black ladies patted me on the head, "You're doing a good job, sonny," and strode inside to shop. Of course! It was the only store where they could afford to buy clothes for their growing kids. A lesson: don't impose your strategies on other people's priorities, even — or especially — when you share the same goals.
On May 15, 1948, in Shelley v Kramer, the Supreme Court ruled Restrictive Covenants unenforceable in the courts. But racial segregation continued to be enforced by violence in the streets. At the University of Chicago, My best friend, Marc Goff, and I formed the student branch of the NAACP, exposed discrimination and compelled desegregation of student housing.
But in the nearby neighborhood of Grand Crossing, when Ethel and Roscoe Johnson crossed the barrier of 71st Street and moved into a modest home, quiet working people, small merchants, housewives, school children and senior citizens rose up to surround 7143 St. Lawrence Avenue with curses and threats, bombarding the house with bricks, stones, and flaming oil soaked rags thrust over the heads of a cordon of passive police. Pushing through the mob, I joined the Johnsons, crawled on their floors to avoid the missiles crashing through the windows, called NAACP, Maynard Wishner at the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, the Police Department, and selected church leaders who tried to bring us groceries that were seized by the crowd as the cops casually looked on. After a week, the intensity dissipated.
Racist outbreaks continued throughout Chicago and we marched through the streets of Cicero, a working class suburb, to protest mayhem and violence there that drove Negroes out and away. But there were brighter moments. Dr. Percy Julian, an African American research chemist who developed cortisone, had been named Chicagoan of the year. His move into the middle class tree- lined suburb of Oak Park was threatened by hoodlums but we joined hands with his neighbors to welcome him.
We leapt into segregated swimming pools, pushed our way into segregated enclaves in the Chicago park system, and forced integration at the Trianon Ballroom near 63rd Street and Cottage Grove.
We chartered a bus to Washington to lobby for civil rights legislation only to be devastated by the blatant and pervasive expression of Jim Crow in all its public places and in its passive acceptance by its inhabitants, Black and White..
At the University of Chicago, we formed the Student Representative Party, won a narrow majority in Student Government, and fought McCarthyite forces that denounced our activities as communist led.
On a trip to Springfield, Illinois, to lobby against the Broyles Bills (ostensibly to protect us against communist infiltration, they would have severely slashed basic civil liberties), we sought dinner at the restaurant in the Abraham Lincoln Hotel. Because our group was interracial, we were denied service, Waitresses disappeared, and my efforts to find someone in charge were in vain. So we sent out for sandwiches at a nearby cafi, ate them at the tables in the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, and returned to Chicago on the Central West bus we chartered from Bob Resnick.
The next day, Springfield newspapers described us as a rag tag group of communist dupes who had forcibly taken over and left the hotel restaurant in tatters. Senators Broyles and Libonati warned of our threat to the American way: "If they were so dirty on the outside, how could they be clean on the inside?" Soon the State Legislature appointed a committee to investigate the University of Chicago and Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) from which we had come to determine the extent of communist influence at those private institutions of higher education.
We called for a student assembly at Kent 106, a lecture hall, but when hundreds appeared, I shouted for us to march on Rockefeller Chapel. Fortunately it was open and we filled the place, elected a steering committee, and called for suggestions. I moved that we welcome the investigating committee in formal gowns with a book burning on the Midway, American flags everywhere, and a total lampooning of their inquiry.
The idea caught on and received favorable press, so the legislative committee decided it would not come to campus but would hold hearings at the Atlantic Hotel downtown. So we reserved the Grand Ballroom of the Atlantic Hotel for an "I Am an American" Ball in which we would crown the most "American Looking Boy and Girl." One newspaper columnist entered Pithecampus Erectus from the Field Museum; another wrote a column supporting Bushman the Ape from the Chicago Zoo. The legislators responded by holding the inquiry in the State Capitol.
We organized busloads of students in suits and ties and long dresses to fill all the seats in the gallery of the State Assembly and we watched John Maynard Hutchins, the Chancellor of the University of Chicago, parry with Benjamin Gitlow, a professional ex-communist conduct a hopeless inquiry. Asked how he could not admit that the unruly group of students who had taken over the Abraham Lincoln Hotel were communists, Hutchins responded with words to the effect: Even if I were to admit that they were unruly — which I do not — there is no reason to confuse rudeness with redness.
I returned to campus, enthralled and convinced that the political attempts to suppress free speech were rooted in the same forces as those of racial oppression, and that each would require uncompromised confrontation. The Broyles witch hunt had begun because we challenged a Jim Crow practice. Politicians sought to discredit our demand for equal rights in, of all places, a space dedicated to the great emancipator, by trying to link our efforts to perceived enemies of the United States.
Nowhere was this linkage more evident than in the denial of the great actor and singer, Paul Robeson, to a venue where could perform or to a passport that would allow him to find a stage almost anywhere else on the planet. His message would inevitably include his telling the truth about oppression of Blacks in America, possibly impacting our nation's capacity to win the support, resources, and markets of third world countries,
I met Paul Robeson in the Princeton, NJ home of James Embrie on New Year's Eve, 1952. Brashly, I approached him, asked if he would perform at the University of Chicago, and with his warm acceptance, we worked out terms and details of his appearance. Upon return to campus I was confronted with massive resistance. Neither Student Government nor any student organization would dare sponsor him. Finally, in an all night session with SRP, the party we had formed to fight for social justice on campus, we won a narrow vote. Then Dean Strozier called us in. Trustees, alumni and donors would withhold their gifts. The American Legion would picket. Threats of violence. Frank Kirk spoke for all of us: "But what a statement for academic freedom!"
Mandel Hall sat 1066; we added chairs and piped sound out to Hutchinson Commons. It was a cold, rainy night. People stood under umbrellas. They came from St. Louis and Cincinnati, Detroit, Akron, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. It was a glorious concert. And after, in the five room apartment I shared with Marc Goff, Frank Kirk, Gene Gendlin, and Jan Majde at 5219 Drexel, he sat in our one upholstered chair (a hand-me-down from my father), surrounded by awestruck students, piled up on the floor about him, and until dawn, handed down his hope and optimism, his belief in the people.
I was working for my Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Chicago under Louis Wirth, head of the Committee on Race Relations when, in the middle of a speech, Wirth keeled over and died. After helping wind up the work of the committee, I found a mentor in Dave Riesmann, on loan from Harvard, who convinced me to study gangs on the South Side of Chicago. With a grant from the Institute for Juvenile Research, I took the streets and became a social worker for adolescent hoodlums, much like those who had blocked the entries to Hirsch High School, and negotiated peace between them and the black gangs who were seeping into the area adjacent to the University.
The threat of racial violence permeated the Woodlawn area, south of the Midway, where low income whites filled tenement houses built for workers in the 1892 Worlds Fair. Rusty Holcomb and I had conducted a surveillance of the White Circle League of America and reported its plans to foment a riot to the NAACP and the Commission on Human Relations.. She cooked dinners and organized rent parties at 5219 Drexel. In 1954, we married and began a family.
In the 1950s, Hyde Park-Kenwood became an intentional and comfortable inter- racial community, and in time, with my wife and three infant kids, I moved into a big old four story house at 4845 Kenwood, near the University of Chicago, bought with proceeds from the sale of my share in Compass Tavern, the birthplace of "Second City." It was a fitting sequel to improvisational theater..
We filled the ground floor with offices for the "Chicago Freedom Action Committee," a group formed with St. Clair Drake, Rev. Morris Tynes, Dr. Charles Thompson, Rev. A. Lincoln James, Rev. Rawls, Enoc Waters, Fr. Hogan, Dr. Falls, Timuel Black, and other Chicago area activists. I was its Secretary-Treasurer.
Volunteers filled the Recreation room, grinding out leaflets on hand-turned mimeograph machines and planning demonstrations. Middle class liberals joined with workers and students in the broad second floor living room for meetings and song. Dr. Martin Luther King came by, sat back in the Robeson chair I got from my father, and talked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the basic struggle for dignity in the South.
We plunged into developing a support network for the Southern movement, raising funds, recruiting and training volunteers to go South to join students at Lunch counters and on Marches. We spoke at Churches, Union meetings, community gatherings, marched in the streets of Chicago, and everywhere we enthusiastically sang lyrics of freedom.
In the Spring of 1961, the civil rights movement faced a new Administration. Although, in Morgan v. Virginia (June, 1946), and Boynton v. Virginia (Dec, 1960) the Supreme Court had ruled that facilities in interstate travel could no longer be racially segregated, Greyhound and Trailways bus lines followed the lead of Southern School Boards, stalling integration. And law enforcement in the South and in Jack Kennedy's government (which counted on the Senators, Representatives and votes from that region) did not want trouble.
The right to sit in the front of the bus and to desegregate the bus terminals across the South was not the battleground that human relations liberals would have chosen. We were focused on access to the ballot box and fair employment practices, political and economic necessities. But the idea of the Freedom Rides emerged from young Black leadership who knew that African Americans in the states of the old confederacy had nothing and no-one to vote for and they could be lynched for trying. They had braved the assaults, walked the gauntlet of jeering white separatists to desegregate a school, had confronted White only traditions at lunch counters and theaters, parks and swimming pools, courthouses and retail shops, and had been carted off to fill the jails and refuse bail. They knew that the building of a movement came out of first-hand encounters and personal victories, visible to those who had been oppressed, and confronting the powers whose oppression violated morality and the law. Now the mantle of leadership in the centuries-long struggle for equal rights passed to a new generation of African Americans, acting in behalf of the nation, bearing a disciplined commitment to nonviolent direct action, responding to hatred with love.
Not willing to settle for "all deliberate speed," the buzzword for blocking integration, emboldened by the Montgomery bus boycott, Greensboro and Nashville sit-ins, they prepared for confrontation with the armed and violent enforcers of Jim Crow. .
Jim Farmer, the head of CORE, now the Congress Of Racial Equality organized thirteen Freedom Riders to ride the buses and test facilities from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. Blacks in the group would sit up front, Whites in back. They would integrate the rest rooms, waiting rooms, ticket and lunch counters, even those that still displayed the demeaning designations of discrimination. If there was conflict, the new Kennedy Administration would have to enforce a ruling of the U. S. Supreme Court. After a couple of harrowing weeks on the road, Jim Farmer left the group to bury his father who had died in Baltimore. John Lewis left to accept a fellowship in India, sponsored by the American Friends Foreign Service Committee, and on Mother's Day, in Atlanta the CORE group divided into two. One took Greyhound and was attacked by a mob of White supremacists in Anniston, just outside Birmingham, who slashed the tires, firebombed the bus, and rushed Freedom Riders as they fled the flames, beating them mercilessly .into the ground.
The other group took a Trailways bus directly to Birmingham, where the Ku Klux Klan conspired with Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor to keep the police force at a distance for the first fifteen minutes after the bus arrived, to give the Klan a free hand. A huge mob of Whites waving lead pipes and baseball bats tore into the Freedom Riders, savagely beating Charles Person, Jim Peck, and others. After their agreed upon wait, the police commissioner moved in, arrested the surviving Freedom Riders and threw them in jail until John Siegenthaler, deputy to Bobby Kennedy, the new Attorney General, arranged to fly them to New Orleans.
In Nashville, Diane Nash intercepted John Lewis just before his scheduled departure as a missionary to India. Together, they mobilized students of Jim Lawson's nonviolent training program, and unanimously agreed to carry on the Freedom Rides Their dedication to desegregation could not be thwarted by violence or the threat of violence. Diane Nash notified Farmer, Martin Luther King , Siegenthaler, and the press, and new contingents of Freedom Riders boarded a bus (with a back-up team on the train) to Birmingham.
Bull Connor met that bus, arrested the Freedom Riders, and marched them off to jail. In the dead of night, Connor drove his captives to the Tennessee state border where he ordered them out onto the dark road and banished them from the state of Alabama. John Lewis led the group through the woods until they saw a shed, knocked on the door, and were welcomed by a Black family. They called Diane Nash in Nashville, some hundred miles away, and waited. At the break of dawn, two cars pulled up and drove the group back into Alabama, heading straight to the loading platform at the Birmingham bus terminal to wait for a bus to take them on the next step of the journey.
In Washington, Bobby Kennedy offered to guarantee safety for the Freedom Riders if they would just call off the Freedom Rides for now. Trying to avoid a confrontation that would have profound political implications for his brother, the President, Bobby sought the help of Alabama Governor John Patterson who avoided the Attorney General for days, while no bus moved from Birmingham to Montgomery.
For days, Governor Paterson of Alabama avoided Bobby Kennedy's calls. Only when confronted by Siegenthaler in Montgomery and on the phone to Bobby, did he agree to provide protection for the Freedom Riders. State police would guard the bus from the time it left the city limits of Birmingham until it arrived in Montgomery, when that city's police would take over. Twenty-one Freedom Riders boarded the bus at Birmingham, and sat in a manner to desegregate it as other Black and White passengers entered. Some Blacks hesitatingly sat with them up front. Whites crowded as far forward as they could get, even when it put them next to Blacks. As the bus departed, a state-trooper's plane flew overhead, and state patrol cars escorted it along the highway.
In Montgomery, sticks and bricks flew in through the window. There were shouts of "Kill the Niggers!" Jim Zwerg pushed himself in front of the others and stepped out first. Furious that a white man was a Freedom Rider, the mob grabbed him, shouting that he had betrayed his white skin. Others tried to flee the bus and while a few got to safety, most were beaten mercilessly.
John Siegenthaler appeared in his private car, just outside the Bus Depot, in time to see a group of women pummeling two female Freedom Riders. He bumped his car onto the sidewalk, honked his horn, and leapt out to rescue them. One Freedom Rider climbed into the back seat of his car and as he tried to help a second, she said, "Mister, this is not your fight. I'm nonviolent. Don't get hurt because of me." In a moment of hesitation, the mob grabbed Siegenthaler and demanded of him, "What the hell are you doing?" He responded, pulling out his federal Identification badge, "Get back, I'm a federal man!" He was struck by a lead pipe and went down.
Inside and outside the terminal there was pandemonium. Freedom Riders were battered with baseball bats, pipes, and fists. Floyd Mann, director of the Alabama Highway Patrol, fired a shot into the air. The vandals stopped, stared at him, and scattered. There was silence.
Some Freedom Riders picked themselves up, badly bruised, and staggered out or over to Jim Zwerg who laid unconscious; Paramedics arrived to carry him away in one ambulance, as Siegenthaler, also unconscious, was loaded into another.
On May 30, 1961, the night of the riot in Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr. flew in from Atlanta to address a rally assembled in Rev. Ralph David Abernathy's First Baptist Church of Montgomery. With darkness, thousands of Whites surrounded the Church, threatening and cursing the Blacks and the federal marshals who had been hurriedly deputized to protect the people, throwing rocks, bottles, and flaming, oil-soaked rags into the Church.
Martin Luther King reassured the people, "We've got an ugly mob outside. They have injured some of the federal marshals and they've burned some automobiles. But we are not giving in. The Freedom Riders are not giving in. We shall go on."
At 3:00 a.m., the marshals were struck ever more fiercely with stones until finally, they pitched tear gas. The mob sputtered and staggered off, but the gas also drifted into the Church, choking the people inside. They stumbled out, gasping for air, as Martin Luther King intoned: "Do not panic. Let us remain calm. Let the world know that we are going to continue to stand up for what we know is right. We are determined to be free. Fear not. We've come too far to turn back. We are not afraid and we shall overcome."
On May 31, 1961, I got the call. Wyatt Tee Walker, Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference explained that the Freedom Riders needed recruits to sustain the momentum until the end of College terms would provide a fresh crop of students to pick up the next lap. He reached me at my home,
After years on picket lines and in protest rallies, marches and sit-ins, campaigns for fair housing and civil rights legislation, I was now confronted with a summons to the front line trenches. I called back and got through to Martin Luther King. "Wouldn't they see me as a meddling outsider from up North?" I asked, timidly. I knew the answer, and Dr. King hesitated not a moment to remind me.
"This is not a matter limited to the South. No American is free anywhere in our country until all Americans can be free everywhere." It was time to step out of my safe and comfortable house.
On the morning of June 1st: Rev. Richard Gleason (minister at the Bible Witness Mission in Chicago), Leslie Word (a laborer who hailed from Corinth, MS), Felix Singer (a Chicago writer), and I were to meet at O'Hare. Felix had been delayed and would join us in Montgomery. I sat with Leslie, an urbane, poetry-inspired guy, and marveled at the ease with which he talked with southern flight attendants while never compromising his dignity.
Bernard Lee, Secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met us in Atlanta. A solid and warm young man, Lee had come through conflicts with relaxed glory. As he drove us into town in a van he had nicknamed the "Gospel Wagon," he calmly handled all of our questions on timing and strategy, on prison conditions and arrangements made by the cause.
Current thinking was that federal injunctions will be upheld and all those currently incarcerated will be released within the next week or two. We learned that when in court, we will be given defense attorneys. When in jail, all communication with the outside world will be maintained through assigned contact persons.
We arrived at an apartment hotel in a plushy area. "Atlanta," Lee proudly assured us, "was wide open." The next morning, as we left our overnight quarters, we found out what "wide open" meant in the South. Our modest inter- racial group was stared at in horror by Whites and shunned by Negroes crossing the street to avoid acknowledging us. Puny, decrepit hot-dog stands bore signs directing "Colored" to place their orders through grimy little holes. Cabs were marked for "Whites" or for "Colored."
We took a Colored cab to Edward King's office, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, at 197 1/2 Auburn St., N.E. And there we met Diane Nash, sitting atop file cabinets, legs crossed, eyes blazing, welcoming us into the adventure, filling us with warmth and commitment.
We were joined by two CORE members for this first leg of our trip: Elizabeth Wykoff (a 46 year old professor of classics and Greek who taught at Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wells, and Mt. Holyoke, and published translations of Sophocles and Euripides) and Price Chatham (a writer and first amendment activist from New York). The five of us were to buy tickets to Jackson, Miss, with a stop-over at Montgomery. We were to proceed quietly, (not test facilities) on the route between Georgia and Alabama's State Capital. Once there, we were to proceed to the home of Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and would be given training in a nonviolent workshop. We would test the bus terminal in Montgomery which had presumably been de-segregated. We were told that we may be arrested, and if so, later groups would be directed to Montgomery and to Jackson. If all went well, we would join with others coming from Nashville and ride together from Montgomery to Jackson.
We were told to travel light, carry little cash or clothing. Before departing, we were given a chance to withdraw. Diane Nash pointed out the possibilities: we may be subjected to violence, we could face sentencing of up to ten months. Those who were to board the bus should be prepared for the worst. Money paid in fines to secure releases could be better used to pay fares for others who would remain in jail. I was elected spokesman for the group. We were driven to the bus terminal and separated, planning not to acknowledge one another until we reached Rev. Abernathy's home.
We waited a long while for the 11:30 bus to Montgomery. As we moved about the terminal, I noticed that a stocky, limping man with a bow tie appeared to be following Rev. Gleason, then me. At the scheduled time for departure, I looked about for Leslie Word and stumbled upon a separate, unmarked waiting room, which simply happened to be occupied only by Negroes. Leslie was not there. I wandered downstairs where Bathrooms were still designated "Colored" although such mandate was supposedly no longer enforced. Then, as Rev. Gleason entered the waiting room filled with only black folks, the man in the bow tie directed him down the stairs to me. We agreed that "bow tie man" must be an FBI agent.
Leslie appeared in the main waiting room. Trying to ignore him, peering out of the corner of my eye, I saw another Negro alongside him. Did the presence of this new African American mean that our movement was, however slowly, gaining some support from the grass roots?
The bus originates in Atlanta, but it was inexplicably delayed. There was our buddy in the bow tie chatting with a driver. He must be our driver! The eyes of the two affixed on Rev. Gleason, then me, then on the two Negroes in the main waiting room. (the Black stranger must be one of us!) Other men in suits hovered about our pal in the bow tie. One went out to the bus boarding platform, another covered the waiting room. Two more bobbed back and forth excitedly in response to our individual movements. And they took our pictures — the six of us!
Our driver began loading. Rev. Gleason and I boarded but the door slammed in the faces of Elizabeth Wykoff, Price Chatham, Leslie Word, and our stranger. Should Gleason and I go on alone and meet the others in Montgomery? With an eagerness to accommodate, the bus driver told us he would return our tickets if we wished to wait for the 5:15 bus. It was clear that our efforts at being inconspicuous had failed miserably. They were onto us.
I stepped out and approached a couple of the plainclothesmen who had been shadowing us. "Look," I brashly addressed them, "you're just going to have to come back and do this all over again later today, unless you can get all of us on board now. Won't you see what you can do for us?"
They grumbled words to the effect of "we have nothing to do with this,." and "who do you think we are?" but stalked off to talk with bow tie man. Our driver joined them. Then, some passengers who were going shorter distances were herded off to a local bus and our full group was boarded. We sat together in the seats vacated by the shorter-distance passengers.
After this experience of our interracial group insisting on riding together, with photographer's flash bulbs glaring in our faces, and with the bus driver and plainclothesmen negotiating changes with some customers, other passengers on our bus visibly squirmed with the awareness of who we were, and just what we must be up to.
Passing papers back and forth, we discovered that our "stranger" was Jesse Harris of 7120 S. Wabash Avenue, a Chicagoan who hung out at some of the same jazz joints I loved around 63rd and Cottage Grove. He had come to Atlanta from DC, where he was a student in Howard Medical School, active in SNCC, and had helped round up others who will join us in Montgomery.
Rev. Gleason, shaken by our encounter and showing signs of anxiety, slipped me a note:
I've been thinking about the Alabama situation & how circumspect we must be — At the stops the Whites & Negroes must really ignore one another — because recalling Anniston, one of these passengers might, at one of the stops, call the police. Or something worse. This ride has already turned out quite differently from what was expected.
I responded with arguments that: (1) we were already identified as being together; (2) there was nothing wrong with our fraternizing on the bus and nothing for which we could legitimately be arrested unless we tested terminal or comfort stop facilities; (3) We do occupy the back-most seats and are keeping our voices down. But I agreed that even with FBI. "protection" we should be more cautious. So we quietly stared out upon the stark poverty of men plowing behind mules, barefoot women in washed out dresses that sagged unevenly from their thin frames, and ramshackle sheds that had long since given up their last flecks of paint to sun and rain.
In Columbus, we were met by representatives of the White Citizens Council, bearing their placards of hate, swarms of police and photographers. We tested facilities and returned to the bus. A new driver started towards us as if to say something, hesitated, and turned back. A young lady with flowing auburn hair asked, "Pardon me, are you Freedom Riders?" We equivocated, speaking of freedom in the abstract. She so wanted us to be crusaders, we broke down, and became friends. A Bostonian en route to New Orleans, she promised to call CORE when she arrived, and to return as a Freedom Rider to Jackson.
Another White Citizens Council, press, and cops crowded our arrival in Montgomery. In the turmoil, I was separated from our group and rushed to a Colored cab, only to be intercepted by a Black woman. "Don't you know better than to assume that someone is on your side just because he's Black?" she shouted. "Don't trust him, and don't get him into trouble! He has to live here." She shoved me into a White cab with Elizabeth and gave Rev. Abernathy's address:1327 S. Hall St. The driver radioed it to the police as we drove, followed by cars of reporters and unknown others.
We were welcomed by the Reverend, his wife, Tom Gaither, the Montgomery co-ordinator, and Virginia Durr, an elderly and different kind of Southern White woman who stood solidly with our cause, and would remain there long after we went on. Laws forbade Whites from sleeping in the homes of Negroes in Alabama, so we snuck into the home of Mrs. A.W. West at 729 S. Jackson St., a wonderful, generous, and militant woman. In the morning, she and her housekeeper, Frieda, fed us a royal breakfast of bacon, pork, grits, eggs, rolls and coffee, fortifying us for the fast ahead.
June 2nd: In the morning nonviolent workshops, it was clear that Gleason was jumpy, scared, and unprepared. Rev. Abernathy questioned him closely, but the Jehovah's Witness swore he was prepared to serve his Lord in jail and really wanted to go forward with us. He would have to be watched.
Jesse Harris (a Howard University student) was chosen as spokesman for our expanded group, now including Rev. Richard Gleason, Leslie Word, Felix Singer, Carolyn Reed (a Nurse's Aide at Meharry Hospital in Nashville), Cordell Reagan (a freshman at Tennessee State), Elizabeth Wykoff (a 46 year old professor of classics and Greek who taught at Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wells, and Mt. Holyoke, and published translations of Sophocles and Euripides), and me.
On board the bus, those of us who were Black sat up front. Richard Gleason and I sat in back. Some riders, Black and White, looked the other way, and tried to avoid becoming involved. Some Black passengers smiled approvingly, and a few of them picked up the pace, moving up front and leaving empty seats in back. One Black man turned to me, recounted some of his battles in World War II, and offered to help us now.
"I fought for my country. Now, how can I fight for my people?"
As the bus pulled away, I invited him to join me up front. We walked forward, and the Black veteran sat down on an aisle seat. I sat across the aisle from the veteran, alongside an elderly White woman who occupied the window seat. She asked me to move, saying that she was about to get off. Then, when I obliged, she moved herself to the middle of the two seats, making occupancy of either one of them impossible. I stood in the aisle, awaiting her further movement. After a long interval, she looked up at me and said that I should find another seat, it would take her quite a little while because she had "tintillations" in her leg. By this time, all of the other seats were taken and there were a number of people standing in the aisle. When I pointed this out to her, she said she wasn't going to get off the bus any time soon, but she wanted two seats to stretch out her legs, due to her "crippled condition."
Seated on the arm of her chair, I asked if she thought it was fair to occupy two seats while others were standing. Finally, she moved to the aisle seat, and I stood up, offering the window seat to a Black woman who had been standing further back, in the aisle. The Black woman paused, grinned, assessed the situation, accepted, edged her way past the White woman in the aisle seat, anxious to avoid the tintillating leg, and triumphantly took her seat at the window at the front of the bus.
A chorus of curses rang out from White passengers, confirming my success, calling me a "Commanist agitator" and a "Nigger lover." until the bus stopped at a place I had never heard of before, a town that welcomed us with a cluster of White police officers standing alongside a formidable row of squad cars. It was called Selma .
The bus driver ran out to meet the welcoming crew and moments later he escorted the Sheriff on board. Jim Clark went straight for me, grabbed me by the front of my collar, and demanded in a gruff, powerful tone, "You a trouble maker?" "Yes, Sheriff, he sure is!" shouted the Whites.
"You a Nigger-lover, boy?" the Sheriff jerked my collar.
"I love all people," came my response from the nonviolent workshops. But in my heart I knew I had lied. I could not love this man who stood for oppression of my brothers and sisters. I stared at him, trying to find a dimension I could love, but I came up despairingly dry. And I despised him that much more for my failure.
"You wanna make a complaint?" he asked the White woman whom I had manipulated into sitting alongside a Black lady.
"No," she said, "I've gotta' go on to Texas. My folks are waiting for me."
White passengers hovered around her, urging her to fix me. I was a threat to the South, they explained, and had to be stopped. I moved to the back of the bus and slipped my notes and vital phone numbers to Rev. Gleason, while the Sheriff joined the mob in trying to persuade her.
"It'll only take a moment," he assured her, and I'll hold the bus while you come with me for just a few minutes and sign a statement. No one's going anywhere until you get back on board.." The Whites continued to egg her on.
Her mighty tintillations unassuaged, she arose, anxious to please the Sheriff, and ran, did not walk, without the trace of a limp to the tune of applause from her fans to the waiting cluster of officers. They never even told me her name, address, or what she said.
"You been disturbing our peace, boy. Consider yourself under arrest," said Jim Clark, as he clamped me into handcuffs and pushed me down the aisle to the doorway. Jesse Harris offered to get off at Meridian and come back for me. Only vaguely sensing what would be in store for me, I told him no, urged him to go on to Jackson, but to call the Abernathy house from the next stop.
Then I saw, and was humbled by expressions of distress on the faces of Black passengers. With a feeling of last words, I pulled back from my captor and faced all the bus to say, "Don't worry. They can get me, but they can't stop us! There will be more of us, Negro and White, riding for freedom. More and more coming through until every one in every corner of this land will be free!"
I had tried to sound proud and defiant and I exulted in the smiles from Black faces that pierced the silence as Sheriff Clark shoved me down the steps and into the back seat of his squad car.
There was no lawyer, and no offer to provide one. Unless I was willing to face trial then and there, I would be held pending bail on two charges: Disturbing the Peace and Assault. I was taken to the private law offices of Mallory & Mallory for a hearing to determine the amount of bail.
Judge Hugh Mallory heard the statement that was supposedly given by the witness. "He was disturbing the peace, Sheriff, pushin' them Black folks over my knees, and I got tintillations in my legs!" Jim Clark assured his honor that the woman had been returned to the bus before it left.
"You a member of the Freedom Riders, boy?" asked the Judge. I confessed, and he set bail at $750 for each charge [equal to $6,000 in 2014]. $1,500 constituted two months of my salary at the Chicago Commission on Youth Welfare where I doubled as Community Unit Director and Director of Research. It was everything I earned in a semester of part time teaching at the Gary Center of Indiana University.
The witness would not be back in the state until July 1st, so I would have to wait in the Dallas County jailhouse until trial, now set for July 6th. At least that's the date they would try for, but they would have to subpoena the witness first. So it might be a while longer.
When I explained that I had twenty bucks and some change, which they took along with my street clothes, watch, and ID and that $1,500 was a sum greater than any I could possibly afford, the Judge did not react. Then I asked him if this were considered a legal proceeding, or could I speak my mind. Hugh Mallory assured me that this was not a court or a setting in which I need to inhibit my speech. So, filled with naoveti and piss, I spoke.
"If you'll pardon me, your Honor, setting bonds and trial dates like this just forces neutral people, folks who otherwise might not get involved, just want to support the Freedom Riders. You give us no alternative but to fill up your jails and create enemies of people who should live together in peace." My plea, predictably, fell on deaf ears.
They checked my clothes, watch, wedding ring, and issued me prison garb. I was allowed one collect call. No one answered at home (they were all, I later found out, at a demonstration) so I tried Charlie, my boss at the Commission. "With all your years of contacts with race relations organizations across the country," I asked him, "do you know of any lawyers or anyone who might help me in Selma?"
"Sorry," he replied, "Alabama is a civil rights desert.
"But Charlie," I urged, "Can you send me my vacation pay? That would at least help."
"Sorry," he answered, " You should've thought of that before you left."
He promised to call my home. He never did. He said not a word to anyone about me, my arrest, or my plea for help. I would later learn from co-workers that Charlie returned to the staff meeting from which he had been interrupted, brushing off the call as a private inquiry. Later, when I was flown back to Michael Reese Hospital, he would ask me for my resignation. My going on a Freedom Ride had embarrassed Mayor Daley.
The solid steel door clanged shut. My heart sank and I struggled to be brave, humming to myself. This little light o' mine. I'm gonna' let it shine...
My whole world disappeared on the other side. I'm gonna' let it shine.
Thrust into a dark corridor in the camp of desperate, bigoted white convicts. Would this be my antechamber to death? It didn't seem quite real. Not yet.
This little light of mine... I faced what would surely soon be the emptiness of the hereafter, struggling to recall the 27th Psalm as Ralph Abernathy had selected it for us: Even though an army were arrayed against me, my heart would have no fear, but falling back on the songs by which I had been enveloped in Baptist Churches, North and South with the ardor of our crusade ... let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
I masked the terror from myself. Maybe it was some form of shell shock self- denial, but I rationalized a sense of historical inevitability and morality of purpose, convinced that this was the best legacy I could leave three infant children.
This was, after all, the cause to which I had dedicated my life. Years ago, when any chance of success seemed so remote and unlikely. And now it belongs to those who have stood up for themselves, refusing to remain victims of discrimination. I felt good. But what I wouldn't give to be among them now.
The warden took me from the Sheriff and pushed me into a cell with barely enough room to stand alongside a cot, in front of a toilet bowl without a seat. No windows. No lights. Only a bare concrete floor. Thank God it was a single; I had no room mates.
I tossed in the cot, disavowing all feelings with a protective numbness. It seemed so third person; I was out of my skin, resigned to die here for the statement of a purpose in my life.
I mused, intermingling Freedom songs with "Sh'ma Israel, Adenoi Elohenu, Adenoi Echod." It was the only prayer that I knew. The Hebrew pronouncement of monotheism was wrapped up in the comfortable memory of my mother pronouncing the words at my bedside, just before Brahms lullaby, sung in her native German. As I tossed on my concrete cot in Selma, I felt a deep ache, and I knew I was a long way from home.
Too soon, it seemed, the lights went on. Banter among the other prisoners about wet dreams and pissing. Clanging at the bars of my cell; somebody pushed a tin of inedible food onto the floor and disappeared.
From the other cells, men were chortling about George, being locked up for being drunk again. And then they started needling me, asked who the fuck I was, why the fuck I was here, and do I fuckin' know where I am. I gave my name, tried to sound low key, said I was charged with "Disturbing the Peace." They laughed and jeered. "Must've been some piece."
"Chester here broke him some lady's neck. That was breaking a piece!" Laughter.
"Where you from?" they probed. "What the fuck yew doing in Selma?"
"I was on my way to New Orleans."
"New Orleans! Listen to him! What kinda' shitface.." "Where yew from?" "Sounds like Noo Yawk." "Yew from Noo Yawk, shitface?"
"Chicago. Shitcago." "Same fuckin' thing."
A guard collected my tin of food As I pushed it back through the bars, seeing that it was untouched, he sneered something about my not having the right attitude. "Gonna' be real hungry. Yew'll wish yew'd et every damned thing on yer gahddamned plate."
My dungeon door opened and I was ordered out into the bullpen, along with five other prisoners who clambered out of two of the other cells, containing four bunks each. Five grungy white men eyed me. Everything in Alabama was segregated. By law. Especially the law. And the jails.
I went to the little heap of paperbacks, found the Bible, and tried to ignore the mumbling of the other prisoners, speculating on my likely being "one a- them coon-sucking perverts from Shitcago" when we were ordered back into our cells and the Deputy Sheriff stomped into the aisle beyond our bars, shoving two stumbling good ol' boys before him.
"There he is," he pointed to me, "There's the gahddamned fucking Freedom Rider!"
The good ol' boys, reeking with alcohol, leaned into each other and against the Deputy Sheriff. "Yew'd like to git yer Mama into bed with one a' those black bucks, boy?"
"Who are these guys?" I asked the Deputy Sheriff, wondering how they could get into the sanctorum of a prison. "Are they officials of the court? The city? The state? Why are they here?"
"Naah, they're just ramblers. The whole town's talking about yew, boy, and they're just takin' a good look."
"Sheeyit, yew little punk," one of the ramblers drawled, "We here are Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Yew heared me, you shit-faced, cringing little Kike, I know yew heared of the Klan. We take care o' things around here. We don't like yer comin' into our town from some place up North where yew got all them riots and crime and nobody's safe on the streets. We got a good town. We gets along fine with our Niggers, take good care o' them. Coons bin happy and content just the way things are, they got no complaints. Any of yew guys ever hear any coon complain?" The prisoners all chimed in about how happy Black folks are in Selma; they sure don't want no trouble.
"Yew wanna get 'em all excited," said the other Klansman, " thinkin' they can riot and steal and rape our women the way they do up North."
Stunned, I remained silent as the Klansmen, obsessed with the size of African American genitalia and their irresistibility to white womanhood, rambled on with their prurient inquisition
"How'd yew like a Nigger to fuck yer sister? Want yer wife to have some of his tar-baby pickaninnies?" "Naah, yew want to shove some Nigger up against my wife! Who the fuck yew think you are, trying to have niggers fucking my wife?"
The Deputy Sheriff pulled a lever opening the cell doors to the bull pen, and the five prisoners tore through that side of our cellblock to grab and haul me out of my cell, and to pin me back.
"Answer them questions," the prisoner whose arm locked my neck ordered, "or I'll slap it outa' yew." I thought of Chester's piece and tried to feel like Abernathy or Martin King or Wyatt Walker but knew I was failing the test.
"We are all the children of God." I repeated, trying to convince myself as much as them. And "I believe that we are all brothers," I intoned, silently praying to be forgiven for my mendacity.
The threats persisted, but the violence didn't begin until the Klansmen, fixing to leave, told the prisoners that if they were in that cell, they'd whip the pulp out of me, and as Southern Gentlemen, they should do their duty to defend segregation and the cause of the South.
As I was pulled up by the throat-hole of my shirt by an enormous brute, the Deputy Sheriff cautioned, "Yew can take care of him, boys, but the FBI's been askin' about him, so don't leave no marks."
"Chester here don't mind." Said George, "He's in for murder." The Deputy Sheriff and the Klansmen left amid peals of laughter. And the beating began.
Chester dangled me like a top, shouting "Yew think a Nigger's as good as my wife?"
I trembled out my pious phrase. "We are all equal in the eyes of the Lord."
"Sheeyit," said Chester as he slapped me to the ground. Slowly, I stood back up, recited another verse of the 27th psalm: Though war should rise up against me, Even then will I be confident. "What kind of chickenshit fuckhead are yew? C'mon, defend yerself!"
Two prisoners took over the assault, beating me with their open hands across my face, head, back, chest, and stomach. "I was in the service for nine years," a black-haired ashen faced hoodlum, in for Grand Larceny boasted, "where I got showed how to whack troublemakers without leaving no marks for the FBI."
""I fought and risked my gahdamned life for this country in the war," a blonde Aryan, awaiting extradition to Michigan reminded his buddies, "to keep things the way they were, and this sonovabitch comes down here to change ever'thing any of us fought for!"
Nothing our government did during World War II, I realized, could have given them the slightest hint that it the freedom they fought for was meant for all Americans. Segregated troops and rank discrimination only reinforced the Southern way of life.
The Grand Larcener slapped me so hard I could not hear for a harrowing while. He swore he'd whack me so bad, he'd break both my eardrums. Lying through my teeth, I told the fiend that I was trying to continue to love him. He spat and stalked off.
The blonde awaiting extradition ripped the Bible from my hands and threw me to the ground on top of it. I picked up the Good Book and returned to the recitation:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
The two of them started over, slapping and whacking with open hands. My ears were on fire and I was sure that I would never hear again, when suddenly the beatings stopped. Dave, a thin-framed Black porter, bent over a wet mop, shuffled into the Bullpen. So long as he was there, mopping the concrete floor of the bullpen and each cell, I could live. Dave mopped every corner good and clean, never looking anyone in the eye, never speaking. We were bonded.
While the prisoners exchanged carnal comments, I tried to think about other times and places, happier moments that mingled their allusions and my ideals.
Dave withdrew and Chester lined up some of the other guys to squat in back of me, so that he could push me over them. I was yanked up and pushed over a stooping stooge again and again.
"We gets along just fine here," George the drunk asserted. "Don't need no gahdamned comanists ridin' no gahdamned busses stirring things up!" Chester powed a few more blows into my solar plexus.
"Ain't it a bitch," the Grand Larcener complained, "He thinks he and some gahdamned federal gov'mint gawna' cum into Dallas County and tell us how to treat our Niggers!"
"Fuckin' comanist should go back to Russia," the blonde fugitive from Michigan chimed in.
From time to time it seemed like they had to be talked into the need to protect white womanhood before resuming their onslaught.
The Deputy Sheriff reappeared. "It's OK boys. Yew don't need to worry about not leavin' no marks no more. We got a necktie party out there fer him, and if he don't leave here feet-first, he ain't leavin' this town no other way."
I made my peace. It would all be over soon. Now shall my head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me. Yes, like David. Sh'ma, Israel, the Lord Our God...
I was being beaten with a greater fury, the blows went on for a long time, and I could no longer stand up straight, but I was elsewhere. I had known men like these as boys. I saw their hatred in the eyes of the pasty-faced teenagers who tucked back the sleeves of their tee shirts to flaunt flexed muscles, blocking access to Hirsch High School. But through them I had discovered people in the adjacent Black community and the enthusiastic commitment of CORE at the Parkway Community Center. They had shaped my life.
Those harsh voices were the sounds of white citizens throwing rocks and flaming oil soaked rags at the home of Roscoe and Ethel Johnson, the rioters in Cicero, and the voices of state legislators hunting for communists.
In the end, each struggle led to companionships with people I came to love. The songs of those moments filled me now. We're fighting for our freedom, We shall not be moved....
I tried to catch my breath, but my chest hurt too much.
And then Dave appeared, mopping the floor again.
"How come yew back so soon, Dave? Miss some little speck somewhere?" the prisoners taunted the shuffling porter. "This shit-hole ain't never been this clean." "Never took that much 'tenshun before!"
I knew Dave was there for me, but neither of us could say a word. This was where and how he lived and he held out as long as he could, but as we both knew he'd have to be, he was finally driven off.
In the Dallas County Jailhouse, I was limp, coming in and out of consciousness, listening to the men whip each other up with their justifications to kill me. I was the anti-Christ, allied with men they had dehumanized as animals lusting for their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. They had to defend their women and their way of life.
They stomped me, but I would not give them the satisfaction of my pain. Oh, Freedom, Oh Freedom, Oh, Freedom over me.... It would be over soon. I drifted into a kind of twilight, trying to recapture that exhilaration we felt in Churches and rallies. We would overcome! Please, God, let my kids know I went with dignity. And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave...
The pounding stopped, ...and go home to my Lord, and be free.
Were they coming to carry me off? Was I totally out of it? An apparition of Dave loomed from the end of the bullpen, staring straight at me, then gently tossing something to where I lay on the floor. "Yew kin git dressed" it said and I felt the touch of my corduroy pants and cotton shirt.
"Yer lawyers are here fer yew" Dave's words resounded in my head, pumped bright red, refreshed, revolutionary blood to my heart, ran down my limbs, got me into my clothes, stood me in the aura of their echo on my stocking feet, stood me in wonderment and awe.
He set my shoes just inside the bars and I never saw him again.
Quietly, but with palpable contempt, the Deputy Sheriff put me in the hands of three impeccably tailored, gently mannered, earnest Black lawyers.
"How do you keep from hating white folks?" I blurted out, no longer able to control the tears that had been trapped deep inside.
At the next stop after Selma, Jesse Harris had called Rev. Abernathy, and he turned to all three Montgomery attorneys who had represented the civil rights movement in the courts of Alabama. Solomon Seay, Fred Grey, and Charles Connolly decided that they would best drive up to Selma together. They would do so only in broad daylight. They had appearances to make, calendars to clear, and had better be assured protection by the FBI. On the afternoon of June 3rd, 1961, they saved my life.
Seay opened the door from the Dallas County Courthouse to news photographers snapping pictures. Beyond them stood a huge mob of White people. Across the square had assembled an equally large mob of Blacks. It would be four years before the Selma movement would transform the South.
The two mobs stared at each other silently as plainclothesmen ushered the three lawyers who carried me, battered, fractured, and bruised, to a waiting car. We sped off, leading a small caravan of federal cars back to Montgomery.
The Rev. and Mrs. Abernathy sponged me gently and put me in their own big soft bed with a satin quilt. A Black Doctor examined me; the White prisoners had fractured every rib in my body. No Black hospital could care for me, and I wouldn't trust a White one. After a week and a half, as soon as I could be moved, I'd be flown North to a safe hospital. I talked with my family, wrote voluminous notes, and slept thankful dreams.
That Sunday, before going to the airport, I was brought to the First Baptist Church. When the Choir finished " 'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," Rev. Abernathy had me stand proudly on my crutches beside him. "Did they beat you, brother Ralph?" he asked.
"They can knock me about, Rev. Abernathy, but they can't beat us," I replied.
The whole congregation locked arms and rocked rapturously to We Shall Overcome.
While recuperating in Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Charlie Livermore, a once shining liberal, came by. I had learned that he had said not a word to anyone about me, my arrest, or my plea for help. Charlie had returned to the staff meeting from which he had been interrupted, brushing off my call as a private inquiry. He now came by to tell me that the Mayor wanted my resignation. My going on a Freedom Ride had embarrassed Dick Daley in his relationships with Southern Democrats and threatened the delicate balance he maintained between the black and white wards in Chicago. A carbon copy of a paper I had written on the racial inequities in funding social services, education, and recreation had surfaced at an Urban League Conference. My neighbor, Bill Berry, head of the Chicago Urban League didn't know how he got it.
Rabbi Jacob Weinstein of K.A.M. Temple where, in the '40s, my Hyde Park friends and I had started the first inter-racial teen canteen, was now Vice Chairman (under Lyndon Johnson) of Jack Kennedy's Civil Rights Commission. He told me of Rusty's pleas to him when she got the call from Montgomery that I was in jail in Selma. He had called the FBI and demanded they look in on me. They never did, but their inquiry had delayed the full throttle mayhem unleashed against me in the bullpen. Weinstein now urged me not to resign, and he organized a letter-writing campaign among clergy of all faiths to the Mayor, praising him for having me on his staff.
Bill Gellman, the President of the local chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, did likewise with social agencies in the metropolitan area.
But I got the silent treatment at work. All my assignments were cancelled and nobody spoke with me. At staff meetings, chairs on either side, in front and in back of me stood empty. None of the social agencies that had praised me would consider me for openings. Eventually, C. Sumner ("Chuck") Stone recommended me to take his place as Executive Assistant to the American Foundation on Continuing Education while he went to Washington, D.C. to run a new African American newspaper.
That was the best year I had with my Dad. His office in the Field Building was a few doors from mine, on LaSalle Street. We had lunch regularly and developed a new measure of respect that leavened the love we had always struggled with.
Our family life became ever more interwoven with the movement for civil rights. Dinners were a community affair. My additional income from part time College teaching let us empty out the rental units, and we turned them and all our spare rooms over to freedom fighters on their way South, or to those recuperating from a term in Southern jails. Catherine Burks Brooks and Paul Brooks took up residence on our fourth floor. John Lewis, then President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to visit for a couple of weeks and convened a national conference of SNCC there. We found housing for delegates from all over the country in the homes of neighbors throughout Kenwood. John met Jim Foreman, a member of Chicago Freedom Action who would later become the Executive Director of SNCC.
The Freedom Singers and Guy Carawan from Highlander Folk School filled the air of that Recreation room with songs that lingered long after. The energy of that time and place seized my kids, neighbors, and expanding network of friends. We knew we were right, and we sensed the emerging awareness of the nation.
A Settlement House in Washington, D.C. was relocating from Capitol Hill to the Anacostia area, a low income neighborhood of old homes, housing projects, and apartment buildings. It would have to design, develop, and implement programs and services for almost 100,000 residents. As the only social service agency in the area, it would serve everyone, black and white, finding ways to adjust to desegregation. It was a glorious and rare opportunity to build a community and I became the Executive Director of Southeast Neighborhood House. In 1962, we moved to the nation's capital and I set about integrating the struggle for civil rights with social work, a cause in which, 54 years later, I am still engaged.
Copyright © Ralph Fertig. 2011
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