[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
I first heard Dr. King speak when I was in high school, as a student in Berkeley, California in 1959. And soon after that, we were picketing one of the local realty firms (Nokamura Realty) for perpetuating the color lines in the hills and not selling to Blacks. A couple of years later, I ended up in New York City in '61 in the summer, and the call went out for people to join the Freedom Rides.
And there was really no way I couldn't go. I had to go! I've spoken with several of the other riders, and they all felt the same way. It was something they literally were obligated to do. There was no choice in the matter. As was said later, "If you weren't part of the solution, you were part of the problem".
Besides my cell-mate, there are several others I wish to honor.
My cellmate, Byron Baird was a former Cornell student. At the time of the rides, he was about 30, and he worked in special-effects on Broadway, doing movies, television. If there was a movie where a machine gun would shoot bullets across a car, it was his job to make it look like the bullets were hitting the car. If there was a commercial (e.g. for a product like Comet), that was supposed to clean your sink but really didn't, he made it made it appear as if it did clean your sink. [Laughter]
Because of his background in engineering, he developed ways of communicating through the walls of Parchman. These are stories that a lot of folks don't know.
Because we were relatively late in the rides, we knew that the men, unlike the women, did not have body cavity searches. That gave Byron an opportunity. He managed to sneak into Parchman: a piece of a razor blade, some very thin pins, pencil lead, a wooden match stick with some thread (he then tied the lead around the matchstick to make a crude pencil) and some onion skin paper. He wrapped these up in foil (3 or 4 packages) and then stuck them between his cheeks and his gums.
In telling his kids about that story and then looking at his mug shot, they said, "Yeah, his cheeks are kind of puffed out." It's cause he had stuff up there. The paper and pencil were used to write down a diary as well as the verses to the songs that we made up. The pins were used to send secret messages to his wife using a pre-arranged code of small holes below or above certain letters or words. The razor blade (you were probably wondering what that was for) was used to shave small pieces of soap from the bar we were given when we went to the showers. He then was able to write on the back of our outgoing letters which his wife was then able to make visible (using a chemical wash and heat from an iron). Using this method, he sent a very kind and reassuring message to my parents.
The coup to his smuggling however, was his radio. When we were in Nashville for training, he left us for a while and went to a store and got a hearing aide. This was one of these things built into glasses. He took out the hearing aid part (throwing away the glasses), hooked up a tuning coil to the hearing aid mechanism, and wrapped a whole bunch of wire around it. The original plan was to get some spirit gum and put it in back of his scrotum as a third testicle. That quite didn't work out, so he went to plan B in which he took two rubber finger probes, and put one around one way and then the other the other way, and inserted it in his rectum. And that's how he snuck a radio into maximum security (MSU) at Parchman State Penitentiary.
Through all our moves (first in the Jackson jail, then up to Parchman for maximum security, then first offender's camp, then back to maximum security, and then finally release), he had to find the time/privacy to reinsert all of his contraband. As you might imagine, there were some tense moments, but the guards never suspected a thing.
As a result of Byron's radio, we (and this would be in August) were able to keep in touch with the Mantle/Maris home run race, the Berlin crisis, news of other Freedom Riders and whatever else was happening out outside of jail. Early on in Parchman, he got a radio station in Cleveland. He thought, "Oh boy, that's pretty good, you know?" But no, it was a low watt station from Cleveland, Mississippi, folks, not Cleveland, Ohio. [Laughter]
When we were at first offender's camp, soon after we moved in, there was a problem with the bathroom. They had to do some repairs on the plumbing. Workers come in with a jackhammer, dug up the floor, repaired the pipe and laid down some new cement which was wet. So Byron got his towel, went over there and pats it on the wet cement. I said, "Byron, What are you doing?" He then uttered what would become a somewhat famous line, "You never know when you might need some cement." Spoken like an engineer. Spoken like an engineer.
We spent about half the time in first offender's camp and then the other half of the time at maximum security, and because of his contraband, we were always worried. Before our arrival at MSU, the guards had come in with fire hoses and hosed down the riders. Byron (and the rest of us) never knew when that might happen again. So he needed a place to store the radio, if he didn't have time to reinsert it. At MSU, we had double bunks, and once in a while they gave us a broom to sweep out the cell. Byron then broke off some bristles, got his cement powder (which he had smuggled over from first offenders as tooth powder) and built a little shelf underneath the bunk.
When I went back for the reunion, I was very disappointed that those bunks are no longer there, because I found my old cell (#7), and I really wondered if that shelf was still there.
It was also at first offender's camp that Byron built the chess set that's in the back of Eric Etheridge's book, Breach of Peace, He did it out of chewing up bread and forming it in little pieces. He made the black pieces by simply dipping them in coffee. When we finally bailed out, he left the chess set, and it ended up in the Jewish Museum in New York City.
Now even though we were voluntary prisoners (we could bail out whenever we wanted), we still thought of escape.
[As a matter of principle, most of the Freedom Riders adopted a "Jail No Bail" policy, refusing to pay fines for unconstitutional arrests and illegal convictions. By staying in jail they keep the issue alive. But under the laws in effect at that time, if they remained in jail for 40 days they lost their right to appeal. So after serving 39 days they each filed an appeal and posted bond.]
Byron managed to jam the cell door lock into an unlocked position using again the infamous bread dough. We were thinking about escaping even though we didn't have to. It is what prisoners do. You lock someone up, put a barrier, they're gonna try to figure a way through it. It's not about rehabilitation; it's about anger and eventually depression. We didn't know quite how we were gonna get through the other three doors plus the three on the main gate, one of which was electrified. We thought, "Gee, that's gonna be a little harder, but we'll figure something out." We never did, but as a result of that experience, I realized why prisons are so poor at rehabilitation or behavior change.
My time is getting short, but I want to talk about one other thing that took place. There were some concerns by some of the other riders that Byron (because of his tradecraft or spycraft), might be an FBI agent. I said no, as far as I knew, no.
However, there was a fellow, Paul, who was a Half-Trusty and who was Black. His real name was Peter Hunter, and he had been recruited by the Sovereignty Commission to get information from the riders. When he could, he would talk to the riders about his plans, where he might go, what he might do after his release, etc. In truth, he was trying to get us to talk about Cuba--trying to get the proof that the riders really were a bunch of Communists. That that was the real goal as I found this out later when the Sovereignty Commission files were finally opened. Later, this "Paul" Peter Hunter supposedly escaped from Parchman. A news article at the time quoted a guard as saying he just "walked away," when in truth, no one "just walks away" from Parchman. I believe he was paid off.
After the rides, Byron returned to New Jersey and continued to work for social justice. His arm was broken by company goons when he was fighting for farm workers (UFW) and he (and his first wife) did other things as well. He eventually ran for the New Jersey Senate and at the end was Speaker Pro Tem of that group. He was responsible for New Jersey's "sunshine law". He died on June 25, 2007 at the age of 77.
I thank you.
Copyright © Rick Sheviakov, 2013
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