Stephen Green was a Freedom Rider in 1961.]
Those of us who've been invited to participate in the first reunion on the fortieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides have been asked to write down our memories of the summer of 1961, as one part of an oral history project. Mine won't be typical, but that's alright. None of them will be, for we were a remarkably diverse group, the 300 or so of us who were arrested in Jackson in May-June of that year, convicted of "disturbing the peace", detained at the Hinds County Jail, and transported upstate to the maximum security facility at Parchman State Penitentiary to serve our six month sentences.
My road to Jackson probably began in December, 1960. Benjy Rosen, my roommate at Middlebury College in Vermont, had agreed to join me on a non-stop run to Florida for the first week of Christmas break. With the savings from a job on an oil rig the previous summer and a great deal of help from my Dad, who was a corporate executive in New York, I'd bought a new Morgan+4, a British racing car. We thought it'd be cool to use it as an airplane - straight to Florida from Vermont in 30 hours, a week in the sun, and back home to New York for Christmas.
We got lost, of course, and found ourselves at a small filling station, surrounded by fields, on a back road in South Carolina. It was a two person operation - an older white man in overalls was the owner and watched us from the doorway of the station, and a young black man almost our age pumped the gas. Groggy from the overnight drive, we staggered around in the sunlight, stretching our legs. We must have looked like something from a different planet. Several times I tried to strike up a conversation with the attendant while he filled the car. He'd grunt in response, embarrassed at the attention. His eyes were down-cast, and he kept glancing furtively at his boss in the doorway.
For some reason, that look in his eyes came back to me many times in the next months. I'd grown up, privileged, in Kentucky in the late 40's and early 50's, so it wasn't as if that look and the other effects of segregation were a new experience for me. But at 20, I'd finally started thinking seriously about where my life was going, and when that happened, sometimes, not always, I'd think of that young man at the filling station, and where he was headed. The system was all there, in that tableau on the dusty concrete pad in South Carolina, in the eyes of a man and a "boy".
In early May of 1961 the shock came that sent me to Jackson. I was chairman of the "conference committee" at my small, pleasant college in Vermont. We'd invited Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the Yale University Chaplain, to address the students. He was "in the news" at the time for attacking the smug, comfortable attitudes of students there in New Haven, while war loomed in Europe and the Far East, and demonstrations were occurring in the South. Someone had taken a shot at him with a gun on the Yale campus. My job was to squire him around Middlebury, get him to the student union for the speech, and present him to the audience. He hardly spoke to me as I showed him around, and seemed amused at our pretty little campus. While I was introducing him to almost 500 students and faculty, he stood at the window and gazed out over the Green Mountains. There was a long and (for me) anxious pause, and then he turned around, walked to the podium, looked over the crowd, and said, "What a wonderful place to go to sleep for four years".
Two weeks later I was out of school for the summer and back home in Westchester County, New York. My Dad had arranged for me to crew on the sailboat of his friend Buss Mossbacher in the "Gold Cup," the world deep-sea racing championships to be held off the coast of Norway. The news was of sit-ins that were being organized at public transportation facilities in the deep south. A bus had been attacked and burned in Anniston, Alabama, with civil rights leaders inside....and the Yale Chaplain, William Coffin. The group had continued on to Jackson, Mississippi, where arrests were made. Civil rights groups, including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in New York, were training and organizing other groups on other busses to go to Jackson. It was starting; he was there; and I wasn't going sailing in Norway.
My parents were divorced when I was 14. Soon after that my brothers and I moved with my Dad from Kentucky to Elmira, New York. After a year in public schooling there, I went away to preparatory school in New Jersey. We moved to Westchester outside New York City. Practically the only constants in my life during this period were Thelma and Wiley, an older black couple. They kept house and grounds, and pretty much did everything for my Dad, my brothers and I. Wiley was from the hills of Tennessee, and Thelma was born and raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He was tall and angular, kind and disciplined, a Mason, and a Baptist church deacon. (Young Cassius Clay had been an active member of their congregation in Louisville). She was short and heavy, cheerful, and quietly managed the household, including Wiley and my Dad.
When I announced to the dinner table that I'd decided to go to jail in Mississippi instead of sailing in Norway, Dad took it well: I had explanations I ought to give to Buss Mossbacher, he said, but it was my life and it was time for me to begin deciding what I was going to do with it. Thelma was quiet about the matter, then and in the days that followed, as I traveled to the City to meet with people at CORE, and made preparations to depart.
On the morning I was to take the bus to Nashville for orientation and training, Thelma disappeared. I was late getting out the door, and in a rush to say good-bye to all, and she was not there. No one had seen her for hours. We fanned out to search the house, and someone finally found her in the basement, hiding behind the furnace. I ran downstairs to find her still standing there, glaring at me with tears in her eyes. "What are you doing! Why won't you say good-bye"? I said. She shook her head. "Because you don't know what you're getting into. I'm never going to see you again."
My recollections of the few days in Nashville are sketchy. We stayed and were briefed at Mehharie (?) College. It was my first contact with Dianne Nash, who with a small staff was our organizer and "trainer." Not much older than me, she was far wiser about what comedian Flip Wilson used to call, "The Church of What's Happ'nin Now." I remember her as intense, stressed and over-worked, but focused at the same time.
Groups were formed as they arrived, and were given history lessons. We were briefed on the antecedents of non-violent protest and the civil rights movement, the structure of the current movement in the South, and the demonstrations and protests that had preceded that summer's bus station sit-ins and arrests. We were told what we could expect from the authorities in Jackson, both before arrest and in detention, and how we should react to particular situations. Simulations were conducted, which included realistic taunts and slaps and pushes.
Non-violence was more than a tactic to Dianne and her colleagues: it was a philosophy. It was also a way of understanding and dealing with the authorities and the entire system of racial segregation in the South in relatively non-judgmental terms. When it was time to move, however, I saw a different side of Dianne Nash. I believe I remember her more or less simultaneously alerting the Jackson mayor's (or State Governor's?) office, the New York Times and the local FBI that another bus, with another group of demonstrators, was on its way to the Jackson bus station. When she spoke with those folks, she took no interruptions....or prisoners.
The Bus Ride
For some reason that I don't now recall, I had decided that when we went into Jackson, I would be wearing my black suit and a tie. It may have saved my life, or at least a severe beating. As the bus proceeded down to Jackson, through Clarksdale, Greenwood and Yazoo City, passing cars would honk at the bus and pedestrians would glare and gesture angrily. Then one of our group noticed that, at mid-day, the bus's bright lights were on. In effect, the demonstration had begun.
At one of our stops for passengers - it may have been Greenwood - I decided to get off and relieve myself. The small station was nearly empty, except for one uniformed policeman, but when I entered the men's room, there were at least a half-dozen angry men standing around. A couple of them had small clubs. As I went on about my business at the urinal, they were agreeing with each other that if they could just isolate one of those sons-o-bitch'n carpet-baggers, they'd beat him until these people understood that they weren't wanted in Mississippi. I tried to zip up at something like normal speed and then walk calmly out of the men's room, but I may have neglected to wash my hands.
Jackson Bus Terminal
Dianne had told us where the cafeteria was, and drawn us a diagram of the Terminal. We were to go directly to the lunch counter, seat ourselves, and ask to be served coffee, pie, or whatever. From the moment we got off the bus, however, it was apparent that we were expected. Flashbulbs greeted the first departing passengers. Police and crowds were everywhere. Dianne's calls had of course assured an official reception by the authorities, and the maximum exposure.
We were by no means the first group to have come down, and it was clear from the early appearance of the police as soon as we seated ourselves at the counter, that a routine had been established for the arrests. It went quickly we were warned severely that this was a "white's only" lunch counter and that we were disturbing the peace. I don't recall whether the "separate facilities" statute or ordinance was mentioned: the press were there recording the affair, and the officers may have preferred not to draw attention to laws that didn't play well in the rest of the country. Our role in this piece of theater was to explain that we merely wanted to be served a cup of coffee and politely refuse to depart. That done, we were hustled off to a waiting paddy wagon I think it was and on to Hinds County Jail for processing.
Not many years later when Mickey Schwerner and the others were killed during the voting rights drive in Mississippi, I could not help but remember and contrast the more or less scripted and very public nature of our lunch-counter sit-in with the sustained work and risks that were involved in the later phases of the civil rights movement in the Deep South. At the crucial, volatile time, we were surrounded by CBS, the New York Times, the FBI, etc., and it was highly unlikely that one or several of us would disappear.
Schwerner and the voting rights activists, by contrast, were all exposed for months, day and night, in little towns and on back roads of places that were full of good folks like those I almost met in that bus-station wash room. True, on the way in and the way out, many if not most Freedom Riders were exposed and took risks, but relatively speaking they were few. Even later in Parchman when some of us were beaten or slapped around for non-cooperation, it was unlikely that the Warden or Governor would have countenanced our emerging from prison with smashed teeth or broken legs, or worse.
I'm not questioning the courage of the Freedom Riders none of us knew from moment to moment exactly how it would go, and I'm sure most would have faced it calmly and bravely if things had gone badly wrong. I also realize that some of the public facilities sit-ins were less scripted than others. But when I'm praised for my courage as a Freedom Rider, I try to imagine driving alone on a dusty road late at night from a voting registration center, after a day of house-to-house registration visits, and seeing those headlights suddenly loom in the rear-view mirror.
Hinds County Jail
In a brief court appearance, the individuals in my group were charged with "disturbing the peace", and remanded to the Hinds County Jail to await trial. The Judge sternly informed us that under the particular Mississippi statute we'd violated, the sentence would be six months of incarceration. Our CORE-provided attorney, William Kuntzler, relished the verbal combat with the judge, but warned us that he could not be sure how much "time" we would have to serve. I began to think about fall and my senior year in college, but only passingly somehow this seemed more important.
Ours was, I believe, one of the first half-dozen groups to be arrested in Jackson, so both the hearing and the quick ride to the jail were media events. Once we were inside the jail, however, every effort was made by our keepers to treat us as common criminals all the normal procedures were implemented: the photographs, the taking of clothing and "valuables" and issue of jail clothes, etc.
I vividly remember my first breakfast: Thelma had habituated me to hominy grits and even chicory, but fatback with the bristle I'd never seen before, and couldn't quite bring myself to eat. At night came horrible screams from the "tank" near our cell, where drunks and addicts were kept. Someone had to explain to me that the suffering was probably not torture or beatings (although we could sometimes hear that going on as well) but the agony of detoxification. My other, second, street education was beginning.
Parchman Maximum Security
About two weeks after we arrived in Jackson, we were transferred upstate to the Parchman State Penitentiary. Groups of Freedom Riders were beginning to arrive spontaneously from all over the country, and our numbers were burdening the Hinds County Court and jail system. We were more than a sit-in; we were becoming a movement!
Where we were going was the toughest prison farm in America: many of us knew that from the songs of "Leadbelly" Huddy Ledbedder. All prisoners were formed into work gangs, and the produce from the farm and manufacturing there, guards and jailers proudly told us, made the place nearly pay for itself. Road gangs were worked so hard in the summer heat, that prisoners regularly broke their own shinbones with sledgehammers just to get into the prison infirmary.
The ride north on the prison bus, with sirens and outriders of course, and our processing and subsequent commitment to small cells on "death row", gave me a chance to meet some of the new protesters. In addition to the Southern black ministers there were communists from Haight- Ashbury in San Francisco, leftist journalists and Black Muslims from Chicago, radical university students and professors, professional activists like Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger and Stokely Carmichael, and just a lot of people who were unlike anyone I'd ever met in my life.
After processing, the Freedom Riders were segregated by sex and distributed to several wards in the "death row" section of the maximum security facility. We were told this was for our own protection, but wondered among ourselves if it were not done to prevent us from politically contaminating the regular prison population. Initially, we were put two prisoners each in a 6'x 9' cell, equipped with metal bunk beds and a toilet. The front of each cell was bars with a slot for meal trays, and faced a blank wall with one high window through which we could see the sky, but nothing else. A guard was posted at the heavy, sliding door at the end of the hall. We could faintly hear the other wards, especially at night when all was quiet.....but the acoustics were perfect for communication among the 50 or so prisoners on each ward.
In our first ward convocation, we introduced ourselves and spoke a bit about why we were there. When my turn came I was perhaps a bit exuberant, verbally imagining the many hundreds if not thousands of college students who would head to Jackson when the school year ended. A murmur of skepticism followed, until Stokely Carmichael, who was several cells down from me, yelled, "Hey, guys, did you hear that? We just need to hold on here until Harvard, Yale and Princeton let out, and then there's goin' to be an invasion of the Deep South by rich white kids!" The laughter died down in (what seemed to me like) two or three minutes. Stokely was a bit rough, but then as later, he was mostly right.
Many of the group on our ward were church pastors, priests, rabbis, etc., and so we all agreed that in addition to the impromptu "political" convocations each day, we'd have an afternoon religious service, led on a rotational basis by one of our number, and conducted in the manner of his particular denomination/religion. At first, in addition to the prayer and singing, some of these services evolved into discussions that were pretty secular, and included explanations of the rituals of a particular church. Interestingly, as the summer wore on, one form of service came to be used most frequently on the ward: the Quaker ritual of silence and informal, spontaneous reflections on thoughts or events of spiritual significance. A cross section of the group were just more comfortable with that.
In spite of the fact that Parchman was a work farm, we were not taken out in labor gangs as were the other, "normal" prisoners. In fact, we were not given any exercise or allowed out of our cells at all, except that once a week, in the evening, we were allowed to "shave" and shower. We were instructed to strip the sheet off of our beds and bring it with us. The cell doors were opened one by one, and naked, two of us at a time could proceed to the end of the hallway where we handed over our dirty sheet and were given a towel. In front the guard door, we could shower and shave with no mirror and, as the evening passed, an increasingly dull razor. We then returned our towel, were issued a clean sheet, and told to return to our cells.
This ritual was easily the highlight of each week. It was the only time we could actually see each other, but the trip down the hallway also became an occasion for rude comments, heard by all, and even a crude form of competitive theater. A bed sheet, we discovered, could become a judge's robe, or a hanging rope, or a cop's club, or a slave's head dress and pants, or a pasha's turban, or any number of costumes. The performances were more than entertainment - they also became a form of "communication" with the guards who gathered around the ward door at the end of the hallway, glaring at our depictions of the traditions of the South. Not surprisingly, later in the summer, just before we were transferred to the first offenders' unit, our sheets and mattresses were taken from us to reduce the props for our little productions.
But there were other forms of communication with our jailers. One discussion which we had constantly on the ward was whether, as political prisoners, we should refuse all cooperation with prison routines. Some of our number refused to leave their cells on shower night. We all refused to "quiet down" in the evening, and entertained the warders with protest songs. Others went on hunger strikes.
The response to this was sometimes physical beatings, but more often we received collective punishment. The food was periodically salted to the point that it was inedible. Those small, high windows on the hallway wall would be closed in the heat of the day and the air conditioning turned off. At night, the air conditioning would be turned up to maximum and, as previously mentioned, the sheets and mattresses removed from the cells.
Occasionally, a particularly non-cooperative prisoner was taken from his cell and sent to the "hole" for one or even several days. This was a 6'x 6' metal box in the ward's basement with no light, no food and an open hole in the floor for defecation.
Like many of the punishments in the prison's repertoire, this one proved to be spectacularly counter-productive. One of the Freedom Riders was a large black man who was a lead singer with the San Francisco Opera Company. For his sins one day, he was sent to the "hole", where he quickly discovered that the metal walls of his box made a perfect reverberator. That evening, as we began our usual sing-along of protest songs, there rose from the bowels of the Parchman Prison maximum security unit the notes of a beautiful spiritual. The volume was incredible his deep baritone could be clearly heard in every room of the building, by prisoners and guards alike. In silence, with tears of joy in some eyes and rage in others, we listened to the most moving concert I have ever heard, to this day.
With the publicity surrounding the Freedom Rides, the prison could not starve or beat him sufficiently to quiet him, so he was returned to his cell. Not long after that, we were moved out of maximum security.
Parchman First Offenders' Unit.
After several weeks on "death row", with our numbers at Parchman growing each week, the authorities decided to move us to a facility for first- time offenders. While we were still segregated from the rest of the prison population, denied any exercise outdoors, and (of course) separated by sex, we were now in one large room with rows of cots for sleeping and, I think I remember, tables for eating. Actually, the unit was two large rooms divided by a center area, walled off from us by high bars, where the food was prepared and guards armed with shotguns and pistols roamed. Both the cooks and the guards were themselves prisoners on good behaviour, or "trusties" in prison parlance. Culturally we had arrived, for in the evening after the pots and dishes were cleaned, the cooks would produce steel guitars and sing the prison songs for which Parchman was world famous.
Best of all, the Mississippi Freedom Riders were assembled face to face for the first time, including the recent arrivals in Jackson. The next few weeks were some of the most stimulating times of my life. Stokely and others continued my political education for me, it was mostly listening. I learned to play chess. Those of us who'd been shut in maximum security for some time could catch up on the news with those who'd just come down. And, we could now walk and jog and be physically active.
I'd been a wrestler and runner for seven years, and had suffered from the inactivity and close confinement in maximum security. But that too had changed. One fellow protester who'd newly arrived had been listening to his car radio while on vacation, and decided on the spur of the moment to drive to Jackson and get himself arrested. He was the coach of the Oklahoma State University wrestling team, perennial NCAA champions, and offered to show me dynamic tension exercises with a small face towel, to work virtually every major muscle.
About a week after we were switched to the first offenders' facility, we were informed that the coming Sunday, as was normal in the unit, we'd be visited by local pastor who would conduct a religious service. It was another attempt by the State prison authorities to attempt to treat us as regular prisoners. At the appointed time, we were assembled near the wall of bars, and an older, red-faced man in a robe and sash was led in by the trusties, who then locked the door and stood at the ready just on the other side.
The pastor seemed nervous, but launched into his "prison" sermon with gusto nevertheless. He was here, he said, because that was the place for a man of God, ...."with people who had lost their way....down in the in the muck and the mire of sin". As he plowed along, his words came faster and faster, his voice pitched higher, and his face became more flushed and covered with sweat. When he finished, he asked if any of us "boys" had questions. He had another congregation to get to, but he'd be happy to oblige.....
In the back of the group stood a tall, excruciatingly thin University of Chicago graduate student who'd been one of the hunger strikers. He wore only a sheet around his waist and wire-rimmed glasses, and had shaved his head. He raised his hand, and in a soft voice said that yes, he had a question. The pastor seemed pleased. The student thanked the pastor for making the effort to come today. "However", he said, "I've been wondering as you were speaking, if Jesus were in our midst today, would he be up there with you, or back here with us"?
The pastor looked as if he'd been smitten in the forehead. He stared at the group as if seeing us for the first time, stammered a bit, and turned suddenly to run for the door in the wall of bars. The trusties, unprepared, scrambled for their keys as the pastor shook the door to be let out.
For many of us, the first offenders' unit was also the first opportunity to talk about what was going on with white southerners, such as the trusties. One such was a young man in his late 20's who was serving the last year of a seven year sentence for having murdered a family of four, who were tenant workers on his farm. I saw him fiddling with his shotgun one day at the wall of bars, and approached him. We discussed the merits of pumps and automatics, and then got into hunting and fishing.
He was a little surprised that one of us Yankee 'wierdos' might be interested in such things, and over several days we had regular talks about baits for certain fish, shot sizes for doves, and the like. Eventually, we came to why he and his people were the way they were, and why we would presume to come down to tell him and them that their way of life was wrong, un-Christian, and un-American. It took a long time to get to that part of the dialogue, through the bars.
And then one day, nearly two months after our arrest, it was all over. We were informed that bail had been posted by CORE, and we would be leaving prison the following day. As we milled about, discussing the "arrangement" that might have been struck, my friend with the shotgun motioned for me to come up to the barrier. I remember that it was a very awkward moment, and that it was a long time before he spoke. He said he'd appreciated our talks, and that he was not sure any more that he knew how he felt about what was going on and what we were doing. Then he looked me in the eyes and said that I must understand that I should never come back, if there were further civil rights actions. He said, as I recall, something like this: "If I'm out of here, and this stuff continues, and it comes to my town, and you're involved....I'd have to kill you. That's the way we are down here, Steve".
The next day, male and female Freedom Riders alike were assembled in an exercise yard of the prison to await our release and bus transportation back to Jackson. We squatted, blinking in the bright sun, chatting happily. As I talked with a young woman from Chicago, a lit cigarette butt bounced off of her head. We both turned to see a young, blond guard sitting on a chair, a shotgun across his knees, smiling at us. I told him that some of us demonstrators occasionally had doubts about interfering, but when somebody did something like that, we didn't have any more doubts at all. The guard pulled a silvered pistol out of a holster on his hip, stuck it hard under my nose and, still smiling, said that, 'yeah, and you know what would happen if we weren't here and I didn't have this uniform on'. It was a conversation. Then the busses arrived
We returned to Jackson to find a network of local supporters, black and white. Home cooked meals were served. Barbers came to homes of refuge to give haircuts. Prescriptions were filled. Used clothing was found for those who needed that. Assistance was provided to arrange rail, bus and flight schedules, and rides were provided to stations and the airport. We were overwhelmed by this kindness, often involving some risk to those who provided it, out of sight of the cameras and uniforms. Each one of us understood that while we returned to homes, families, jobs, schools, etc. far away, the real struggle for desegregation of public facilities and for voting rights would be waged by those who were now thanking us in the only way they could. It was humbling beyond words, and at the moment of parting at the bus or rail station or whatever, we often could only express ourselves in glances or hugs.
Most of us departed for home knowing that we might have to soon return to Jackson for an arraignment hearing. The Hinds County Court had set bail for our release from jail/prison at $600. per person. CORE had found these funds for over 300 of us, but would forfeit them if we failed to return for arraignment later in the summer. It was a legal version of the "conversation".
And so, some 3-4 weeks after our departure, CORE contacted us by phone. For many, the journey would again be by bus, and again via Nashville and Dianne Nash. The mood of the Deep South had shifted slightly though, in the months since the burning of the bus at Anniston and the first waves of national and international publicity. President Kennedy had put the full force of the Administration behind the legal battles that had been joined on desegregation of public facilities. Congress was stirring. Moderate authorities and politicians in the South acknowledged that some change would have to come, even while denying that the lunch counter sit-ins and ugly publicity were causative factors in that change.
But in the back country of the South, a backlash was setting in, and as the Freedom Riders gathered in Nashville, we discussed this. Dianne Nash warned that care would have to be taken on the bus trips back down. We'd leave in the evening and travel at night to avoid attention, and the usual precautions would be taken: the FBI, and State and local police at stops along the way would be alerted that we were coming.
In Memphis at our first stop, sometime around midnight, it was clear that something had gone wrong. The police were there in force in the large cafeteria and waiting room, but so were groups of young men who sat at tables without ordering, or stood at the magazine rack without reading, or just leaned against the wall, glaring at us. We had a half hour until the bus left, so some of us ordered coffee or sodas, and sat down. Voices were low, and the tension was palpable.
At some point, for whatever reason, this scene seemed to me to be ridiculous, so I stood up with my coffee cup and walked over to a table of fellows, pulled up a chair, and sat down.....next to a young man my age with no sleeves and a Marine Corps tattoo. I can't remember now what was said at the beginning, but soon we were talking about why we were all sitting or standing in that stupid waiting room in the middle of the night. A few other Freedom Riders joined us, and the discussion for a while became intense.
I was particularly engaged with the young Marine, who'd just finished basic training and returned home a few days earlier. Neither of us noticed that most of his companions and all of mine had left the table and the waiting room, when the departure of our bus had been announced. The police were gone too. But somewhere in those few minutes we had connected, that fellow and I, and so when we realized that we were virtually alone, he looked at me and said, "Come on! We'd better hurry; I'll walk you to the bus".
The bus hadn't left, but it was boarded and ready. For a few seconds, we stood in front of the door and finished. He didn't agree with any of what had gone on that summer in Mississippi, he said, but he thought we had courage, and he understood better why people might do something like this. Then, he held out his hand, and we shook.
The bus was an old one with small, high windows, a narrow aisle, velour seats with wooden backs, and little if any interior light. As I stepped up next to the driver, it erupted in cheers. Making my way slowly to the back, people with tears streaming down their cheeks silently patted my shoulder or squeezed my forearm. I will carry that moment to my grave.
The arraignment in Hinds County Court was a bit of an anti-climax for many of us, but was interesting in its own way. William Kuntzler again appeared representing Freedom Riders who had, without a question of a doubt, disturbed the peace, the system, and a way of life in Mississippi. An arrangement had been agreed, as I recall, whereby our sentences were reduced to time served in return for an altered pleading of nolo contendre. (Years later of course, the U.S. Supreme Court would reverse our convictions.) At one point in the hearing in Jackson, however, Kuntzler, who had a large, stentorian voice, rose to his feet and proclaimed that he would like the Court record to show that through most of the proceeding, the presiding Judge had been reading a comic book! The request was denied.
Even at the time, it was clear to most of us who were involved that the Freedom Rides were part of a long continuum stretching back to Greensboro and Birmingham, and forward to the struggles for school desegregation and voting rights, wherever they would occur. I personally felt that I would not be directly involved in that future that the movement was and should be in the hands of people like Dianne Nash and other capable blacks whose commitment was sustained and community-based and total. Dianne might never reach Gov. Ross Barnett or that comic book-reading judge, but she was better equipped than I to carry on the dialogue with that young Marine, and maybe even the shotgun-toting trusty.
I had issues, though with my father, my friends, my college mentors, and everyone who, I thought at the time, had ill prepared me to deal with or even comprehend the injustice and anger in the streets and back roads in America. Like many other returning Freedom Riders, I'm sure, I was greeted in my community with the accusation that the sit-ins were too much, too destructive, and that we had been playing with fire. My response was that if they thought integration was too much, wait until they had a whiff of black power. The cities were going to burn, I snarled, when I returned in the autumn of 1961. My father, understanding and supportive but puzzled, began referring to me as, "that thin-lipped son-of-a-bitch across the table".
Back at Middlebury College I went to the one black in my senior class, a fellow named Ron Brown. We were on the track team together. I asked him to join me on a speaking tour of New England colleges, and he turned me down flat. Wasn't interested. His contribution to the "movement", he said, would be to earn lots of money and exert a constructive influence that way. Ron's reaction should be perhaps seen in the context of the times this was the very early 60's, and most of our classmates were intently focused on getting the best offer they could from the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company. True to his word, Ron became very successful in business and later, Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration. What influence he exerted, others can decide. We did not speak again, until our 25th reunion.
I went on that speaking tour, though that was pretty much it for me, as far as involvement in civil-rights actions. But the Freedom Rides had changed my life and my direction, toward the Peace Corps and ultimately a career in writing/journalism and in the United Nations, in international emergency assistance. My politics drifted left. That summer effectively closed some worlds for me, and opened many others. But I would not trade that moment in the Memphis bus station for a medal in the Gold Cup sailing championship....AND the best offer from the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company.
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Last Modified: January 30, 2003.