The Freedom Rides: Were They in Vain?
Terry Sullivan

The Register: Diocese of Peoria Edition
July 22, 1962

The Freedom Rides have become a part of history, but at least in the judgment of one participant they still exercise an influence on events of the present and future. In the following article a Catholic journalist who took part in the movement tells the story of the Rides as a connected whole and gives his assessment of their significance. Terry Sullivan, 24, a native of Denver, attended Regis College there and later the University of Chicago. He has written for Work and the Catholic Worker, and is now reporting for the New World, Chicago archdiocesan newspaper.

One year has passed since the first Freedom Ride, a year of new growth and increasing intensity in the movement for racial justice in the United States. Because I took part in the Freedom Rides, and because I know those who, more than I, helped to make they what they were, I understand the moral force they have generated in the lives of several thousand who now work and often suffer in the cause of racial justice.

It concerns me that my fellow Catholics, when they are not openly critical, give such grudging support to this movement to bring social change by non-violent means.

But I hope that, given an understanding of the motive of the action, and an awareness of what it achieves, they will come to se it as an effective effort to create a more Christian social order.

The Freedom Rides illustrate the non-violent movement well. They show it at dramatic scope and intensity, a relatively large group from all sections of the country using a radical tactic of non- violence, voluntary imprisonment.

Also the Rides concentrated on one locale, and this the strongest fortress of segregation, Jackson, Mississippi. It was a major battle, a pitched battle, and the segregations, in winning it in one way, have, I think, lost the war.

There is a picture in the newspaper files for May 14, 1961, of a Greyhound bus burning near Anniston, Ala. Its windows are shattered. Some of its passengers the lead party of the first Freedom Rides has been assaulted by a car caravan of violent pro- segregationists.

Later the same day, Mother s Day, a Trailways bus arrived at the Birmingham station and was met by a second mob. On this bus were the second party and a small group of hoodlums, who had boarded the bus at Anniston and pummeled the niggers and nigger-lovers to the back of the bus.

In the station, James Peck, white, and Charles Person, Negro, were beaten with fists and lead pipe. Peck was later hospitalized, requiring 53 stitches in his head.

This violence put an end to the first Freedom Ride, a well-planned venture of some two dozen people, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), to test for segregation in bus terminals from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, and thereby call public attention to it.

Several of the group had hospitalized from smoke inhalation or other injuries. The threat of violence had become dire.

The battered group gathered once more at the Birmingham station, but after several drivers refused to take them they gave up the effort to ride by bus to New Orleans, and took a plane there.

The violent segregationists had met the non-violent integrationists. They succeeded in stopping the movement for a moment, but in its long range effect, their action was like pouring gasoline on a small flame.

A song we sang in prison to a Calypso tune summarized this first Ride:

I took a trip down Alabamy way,
     Freedom s coming and it won't be long
And I met great violence on Mother's Day
     Freedom s coming and it won t be long.

Into this situation, at the critical point of the Freedom Rides, came students of the Nashville Non-Violent Movement.

The CORE office advised them to wait for more people. The older men of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference tried to dissuade them because of the danger. They themselves were keenly aware that they might be killed. But they felt they had to go. The remarkable courage and initiative they displayed contributed more than anything else, I believe, to the momentum of the Freedom Rides.

These students are Southern Negroes, new Negroes seasoned veterans of the Nashville sit-ins.

What is Characteristic of them is characteristic of most of the militant Southern Negroes today: a devout and cheerful Christian faith and an adherence to the philosophy of non-violent resistance to social evil as a logical expression of that faith.

Part of the group set out by buy for Birmingham, a few days after the first Ride had ended.

The police took them off the bus as it neared Birmingham, held them without charge until late at night, then transported them back across the Alabama-Tennessee line and left them on a deserted stretch of highway at 2 a.m.

Others in the group, who had stayed behind to take examinations (it was the last week of school) dropped everything and set out by car to Birmingham.

Meanwhile, the first group had managed to telephone Nashville from a farm house, and a car was sent to pick them up and take them to Birmingham, where the two groups united at the Birmingham station.

By this time the Birmingham police were willing to keep order, but the Nashville students were met by the same refusals from the bus drivers that had finally discouraged the first Ride.

They were in no mood to give up, however, and, making freed with the facilities of the white waiting room, they waited all of one day and a night until they were allowed to board a bus.

This bus, carrying Freedom Riders, news people, and bus company officials, proceeded non-stop with police and Justice Department escorts at 80 miles per hour to Montgomery.

Curiously, the police escort disappeared as the bus neared Montgomery. Since the bus arrived a full hour ahead of schedule, Martin Luther King s followers were not on hand to meet them as expected, police were strangely absent, and the job of greeting was left to a good-sized mob.

The mob, seemingly well organized, systematically chased the reporters form the scene and broke the cameras of the photographers before attacking the Nashville students. One agile tam of photographers preserved photographs of James Zerg, who bore the brunt of the violence as the lone white in the group a common element of such mob violence.

(The Nashville students said that Birmingham policemen out of uniform were recognized among the leaders of the Montgomery mob. The Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, a local minister, stalked back and forth in the station as the violence flared, wearing his black Klan robe (the rank-and-file wear white.)

When the police finally appeared after some 20 minutes, several of the riders were hurt, James Zerg requiring hospitalization. That night, a rally at Martin Luther King s church was besieged by the mob, and by this time the federal marshals had come in.

The Nashville students couldn't be stopped. Several days later, joined by three members of the first ride, including CORE s executive director, James Farmer, and five members of the New Orleans CORE group, they returned to the Montgomery station and set out for Jackson, Miss.

The police lid was conspicuously on at last and remained so throughout the Freedom Rides. The buses, heavily escorted were met by fixed bayonets at the Mississippi state line.

The bus proceeded nonstop to Jackson where a double file of National Guardsmen funneled the Riders into the white waiting room.

There all 27 were arrested by the city police. Shortly afterwards, the riders were convicted of breach of the peace and sentenced to 66 days in jail, in lieu of a $200 fine.

But within the week, more Freedom Riders were coming into Jackson. There were already 65 people in the Jackson jails by the time my group of seven arrived from New Orleans on June 7.

Throughout June, July and early August a steady stream of groups or individuals arrived at the bus, railroad and airport terminals of Jackson to be arrested for entering the wrong part of the terminal.

Eventually more than 300 persons were jailed in what became a national crusade to give Negroes equal rights in the public terminals.

This kind of response is the source of the continuing power of the non-violent direct action movement. It is not essentially a matter or organization.

CORE had lost the initiative for a brief but critical time before the Nashville students jumped in.

Throughout June and July, CORE, in cooperation with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, provided organization and finances.

But the real impetus of the Freedom Rides came from the largely spontaneous response of individuals.

A number came in groups that had no contact with CORE. Some individuals came to Jackson on their own, only coming in contact with other Freedom Riders when they arrived in the jail cell.

Most people have several motives for joining such an action, and certainly some join for rather frivolous one, but two elements, I think, moved most of us to come, assuming we were basically sympathetic towards the action.

One is wrath, strong moral indignation at seeing others shamefully used. The widely published picture of the bloody James Zerg moved many to a sense of outrage.

But the murders of Emmett Till and Charles Mack Parker were equally outrageous, and brought no effect response.

The second necessary element is the inspiration of seeing others courageously asserting what is just, despite violence and imprisonment.

These first Freedom Riders, having dared greatly and suffered much, were a magnetic force from the Jackson jail. Come and do 66 days with Jim Farmer! urged CORE, and we came.

Prison was the climactic experience of the Freedom Rides for most of us. It changed many others who felt some personal involvement with out cause.

At first, the Freedom Riders were held in the Jackson city jail and the Hinds county jail. (The first group were take to the Hinds county prison farm, but after two incidents there of slapping and blackjacking two Negroes persisted in answering questions yes and no instead of yes suh! and no suh! became known, they were returned to Jackson the same day.)

Because of the glare of publicity, the conditions at the two jails were exceptionally pleasant. Some of the policemen obviously had to grit their teeth in an effort to be courteous to us, but here and elsewhere, some of our jailors were genuinely friendly.

As more Riders came, the jails became filled and, finally at 2 a.m. on the morning of June 15 the Freedom Riders were transferred to the Mississippi State penitentiary at Parchman, some 180 miles northeast of Jackson.

Parchman Farm has 20,000 acres of farm land, a large number of isolated rural prison camps, and a minimum of embarrassing publicity. We soon felt the difference.

We were forced to leave all our clothes and possession s behind (we were allowed these in Jackson) as we entered the Maximum Security camp.

Other prisoners, except for several in Death Row, had been removed. For most of the summer our only clothing was a pair of prison shorts, undershirts being added when the weather grew colder.

We were given a King James Bible, but all other reading matter was denied us, nor could we buy or receive candy, tobacco, etc. We were allowed to write and receive one letter a week to family only, but mail was censored, so that encouraging letters to us, or revealing letters from us, never reached their destinations. (Letters criticizing the Freedom Riders were sure to reach us, no matter from whom.)

Confinement was the worst hardship. Each two-man cell was 6 by 9 with double steel bunks, sink and toilet.

Food trays were handed through the door and we were let out of the cells only to take showers twice a week, nor were we given any work to do. The cells were in a row close enough that such things as corn bread and Bible could be passed down the cell block hand-to-hand.

All this meant a relentless lack of privacy, and taking turns with a cellmate pacing from one corner to the other day after day.

The atmosphere of the prison produced a feeling of nervous dread, a sort of counterpoint to the awful boredom and frustration of confinement.

The camp itself was forbidding, surrounded by a 12 foot electric fence with rolls of barbed wire at the top and guard towers at the corners. Entering the building, we passed through three sets of steel gates.

The lights burning all night, the baleful prison guards, and the clanging steel gates daily emphasized the harshness of the surroundings.

My cell mate and I once confessed to each other that the sounds of the guards approaching rattling of keys, and the opening and closing of the successive gates still produced a feeling of uneasiness after months of such routine, though usually it meant only that it was time for meals or showers.

One reason was that in the first two months at Parchman many of the Riders made protests of one kind or another, and the approach of the guards had been the prelude to grim and shocking scenes.

Some of these protests involved large groups, some were individual actions. Many were spontaneous and somewhat ill-considered, but the abuses were real, and some form of protest was amply justified.

The first such protest occurred the day we entered the prison. Tow of us refused to cooperate with being transferred to the state penitentiary. In contrast to Jackson, where the Negro trusties were allowed simply to carry us out and load us into the waiting van, the prison guards reacted violently to this passive resistance.

They first dragged us roughly across the prison grounds into the building. When we would make no move to undress there, a guard repeatedly pressed an electric cattle prod into our flesh, and, this failing, tore the clothes off us.

Later, when a guard dragged us from the cell to be fingerprinted (we had all been fingerprinted previously in Jackson), he used a wrist-breaker, severely lacerating our wrists by twisting and jerking the instrument.

Toward the last of June, the entire group joined in a thunderous chorus of one of our freedom songs rather than obey an arbitrary order to stop the normally quiet devotional singing, which was our daily practice the whole time of our imprisonment.

As punishment our mattresses, sheets, etc. were taken away for three days and the blowers were turned on all night, making it next to impossible to sleep on the cool meal bunks without covering of any kind, except our shorts.

Loss of mattresses was a common punishment and almost all of the Freedom Riders, including the women, who were housed in a different section of the same building, suffered it at one time or another.

In July, at the peak of the Rides, all the white males were removed to a newly constructed camp some miles away to make room for a large group of Jackson Negroes who had joined the Rides.

The Negro men, at the culmination of a series of individual protests usually involving wrist-breakers and solitary confinement sang loudly at midnight on July 22 to protest the humiliating treatment and the use of such terms as nigger and boy.

Twenty-four of them were put in a 6 by 6 metal solitary box on one side and 23 were put in the other, and left there until they were beginning to suffocate.

The prison was not as bad as these protests incidents would indicate, and for most of us, it was also an educational experience of great benefit. Particularly in August and September, when only a small number of us remained, the life was quiet and uneventful.

The summer s experience had mollified the guards, and they were not so ready to exact the absolute obedience whey originally seemed to expect as their due from prisoners.

All through the summer, there were periods of relative calm, and, from necessity, we developed a rich and varied culture.

The group singing of our devotions was a source of comfort and renewal. Several individuals made very craftsmanlike objects, such as chess sets, with bread chewed into a paste and then alled to dry.

On Saturday nights, we had talent shows and each of us would sing a song for the group, some of them original compositions. Since many in the group were well educated and had experience with such things as labor organizing, Israeli communes (kibbutzim) film-making, etc. it was possible to carry on a lecture series.

Discussions, word games, guessing games, and arguments about the Bible, our one book, passed many long hours for us.

The other prisoners were friendly. In what little contact we had with them, the Negro trusties occasionally managed to slip us tobacco and new clippings.

Despite this intense and prolonged effort on the part of so many, the Freedom Riders failed in their immediate and avowed objective, to desegregate the Jackson terminals. When the Riders had gone home, the terminals were still segregated.

Partly, this was due to the surprising resistance of the state of Mississippi, its stiff-necked determination to defy all the pressure that was brought to bear, even to arresting the group of 15 Episcopalian priests which included Gov. Rockefeller s son-in- law.

It was due also to a fairly understandable failure on the part of the Riders and CORE to stick to their original intention of staying in jail rather than paying fines or posting bond.

This is a standard article of the non-violent creed but one that is not easy to follow. The example of the first and most militant group accepting bond and appealing their cases (within a 40-day time limit, which became the prison term for most Freedom Riders) proved, as in other things, contagious; the more so since the sentences were raised to four and then six months for those who came later.

As a result, fewer than a dozen stayed to serve their sentences. This not only dissipated the force of the Rides, but it gave the state officials the chance for legal maneuvers which devastated CORE s finances.

The momentum of the Freedom Rides did not end in Parchman prison, however. Just as the violence that had met the first two groups caused the movement to spread and intensify, so the attempt to contain the non-violent thrust by prison sentences cause it to break out elsewhere.

Several of the Nashville group, released on bond in June, returned immediately to Jackson and as a result of their imaginative agitation more than 40 Jackson Negroes joined the Freedom Rides in their home town.

This was the birth of a non-violent direct action movement within the most relentlessly repressed Negro community in the South, and it has continued with increasing strength in the year since then.

Local people are more effective in direction action projects, because they do not beat the stigma of being outsiders.

More than this, they can live with the situation and work to change it as a continuing everyday effort, and so to be more flexible in their methods, using direct action when persuasion and discussion fail. (CORE groups in Northern cities achieve much by these less militant tactics, but the climate of public opinion in the South so far rendered them ineffectual there.)

Even so, the outsider, having less to fear in the way of economic or other reprisals, has often been necessary to make the beginning that encourages the local people to act, and this was true of Jackson.

The inspirational effect of the Freedom Rides was not limited to Mississippi Negroes, but can be seen in communities everywhere in the country.

CORE groups in cities like Chicago quadrupled their memberships and greatly increased their activities. CORE itself has become a nationally known organization with such power as to induce over half of the restaurant owners along highway 40 between Washington, D.C. and New York to abandon discriminatory practices by the mere announcement of a plan to send 500 sit-inners along the route.

New civil rights groups and community organizations have adopted non-violent direct action as the most dynamic way yet found to promote racial equality.

A careful reader of the newspapers (some of them) this winter, would have read of demonstrations in Baton Rouge, La., and Denver, Colo., of sit-ins in Atlanta, Ga. And Englewood, N.J.

What reaches the newspapers in an often inaccurate or distorted way reflects only a small part of the new civil rights movement that has taken root everywhere in the country, and it is the Freedom Rides that have given a decisive impetus to this movement that has been many years a-building.

The effect on the Freedom Riders themselves was, in many cases, profound. When I visited New York in November, after being released from Parchman, I was surprised to see so many of my old prison companions, far from home, passing daily through the CORE office on their way to Fayette County, Tenn., to help the evicted Negro sharecroppers, or to Baltimore to take part in the highway 40 project.

For many, the Freedom Ride was a first experience with direct action and prison, and they found they could no longer be content with routines of job and school, having been part of an action so transcendently important and so dramatically fulfilling to youthful idealism.

They lost their hears to the movement, and, like so many Southern Negro students, they find it good and necessary to spend a year or two hitch-hiking with meager funds to help out on the newest civil rights front.

The Freedom Rides have demonstrated again what we are prone to forget, the necessity and the value of suffering in the cause of right. The cross has ever been the true symbol of Christianity.

As the Church is watered by the blood of her martyrs, so social movements that would find Christian justice as in the past for the working man and as now for the Negro grew and ultimately succeed by the suffering and hardship of their members.

It is not really so surprising that this is so, and that it is necessary so. It is rather surprising that it should seem new to us.

Copyright © Terry Sullivan

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