A Freedom Rider Speaks His Mind
Jimmy McDonald

Originally published in Freedomways, Spring, 1961

See Freedom Rides for background & more information.
See also Freedom Rides, 1961 for web links.

[CORE member Jimmy McDonald was a Freedom Rider on the bus that was attacked and burned by a white mob outside of Anniston, AL.]

Civil Rights in the past seven years have become the rallying point of Negro students of the South. The sit-ins were just a prelude to the Freedom Rides. But what are these Freedom Rides, and why are they being employed at just this time?

The interstate Commerce Commission had, some time before the first such ride, declared that interstate travel should flow freely without anyone engaged in it having to suffer the humiliation of racial discrimination of any kind. Thus it is only fitting that a group of twenty-one persons should have left Washington on May 4, 1961, on an integrated bus ride through the South, merely to see if the dictum of the United States government was being adhered to or not. These people were not breaking any laws, or "trying to take the law into their own hands;" they simply were doing what the federal government had told them they could do and that no one could stop them from doing.

In spite of Southern cries of Northern agitation, it has become evident to all of us familiar with the struggle of the Negro people to make a reality out of their legal rights to equality that it is impossible for the Negro to make any effective progress towards this seemingly modest goal unless they receive equal support and encouragement from the North.

The people who participate in these rides come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are school administrators; others are doctors, students, practitioners of the arts and sciences, and, of course, many are ministers. Yet all have one thing in common: a feeling that was expressed eloquently by one of them: "As long as I travel around the world and people ask me about Little Rock, Emmett Till, and Charles Mack Parker, I feel that I have an obligation to myself and to the Negro people to contribute something worthwhile." Yet, even if no uncommitted European, no underfed African being exposed to the lures of Communism no embarrassed friend of the United States in the united Nations had asked these questions — so difficult to answer — the moral obligation "to contribute something worthwhile" would still exist. It seems horribly ironic that a perfectly peaceful, and legal, bus ride should turn out to be that "something worthwhile," and that it should result in the imprisonment and vilification of the riders.

Trade Unions: Could Help, but Lag Badly

In many of the Southern states where the trade union movement has been active, these unions have made very few and very weak attempts to organize a full civil rights program, even within the limited framework of the union. In some cases, there is discrimination in the membership, while the leaders preach the brotherhood of man from their lofty perches on top of white ivory towers in the North. But these people, as well as several elected and appointed local, state, and national officials, have made no attempt to aid in an effective, organized campaign, while just the use of their names would have had an important positive effect on the already existing movements.

Governor Patterson, of Alabama, in his "dignified" statement refusing to accept any responsibility for the "disgraceful behavior of rabble-rousers," who showed, he maintained, their true colors by allowing themselves to be unmercifully beaten by a mob of "law-abiding Alabama citizens," was just such a case. Here we can see how, if state executive officers, or just the chief of police, were to use their positions in a responsible manner, there would be a complete change of atmosphere. Instead of being thrown into segregated jails, the Freedom Riders could peacefully — and lawfully — sit together in integrated waiting rooms. And no one Southern white would lose the slightest shred of dignity by it. In fact, he would gain immeasurable stature by simply acknowledging the law of God and, incidentally, that of the United States of America.

Now, I have been asked on many occasions, "Do you hate these people?" And as pathetic as it sounds, I do not. In order for me to hate them, they must do something to me which harms me — and this they cannot do. But what I do hate is the society that produces such people, a society in which the white man has set himself up as the undisputed spokesman for the Negro. After all, if only the white can speak for the colored, how can the Negro object to this arrangement? All this, of course, disregards the obvious biological fact that the Negro has a mind and a mouth of his own and is as capable of using them as anyone else. Not to mention what also should be evident: only the Negro knows what the Negro wants and, at last, although he still can not say it at the polls, he is letting the world know what it is to be treated like a human being.

Who Needs to Cool Off?

In spite of this, we find responsible people demanding "cooling off" periods and moderation. This is not a new request, and we often have complied with it. I would be happy if they would moderately respect me as a human being and afford me the same dignities that are the right of everyone of us to expect and receive — which include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But according to these so-called moderates, I already am going too fast. They would rather I did nothing to secure the civil rights that have been denied me and my people since the first Negro slave was brought here in the seventeenth century. For 300 years we have been cooling off.

More recently, we were cooling off when they lynched our mothers and fathers. And did we not cool off when they raped and jailed Mrs. Rose Lee Ingram? Perhaps she, too, was disturbing the peace and refusing to obey an officer. We also were prepared to cool off when they told the Jim Crow school boards to let us get a decent education "with all deliberate speed," and Miss Autherine Lucy discovered which word they valued most. But after a while, a cooling-off becomes a deep freeze. Now we are trying to take a bus ride, on an interstate carrier, through several Southern states, and the Ku Klux Klan, White citizens Councils, and their brethren bomb our buses, board them, and bust us; all with the semiofficial blessing of the governor of Alabama and the chief of police of the city of Birmingham. It is not the Negro people who should cool off — they are cool enough already. Those who should cool off are the bomb throwers and their legalistic counterparts, the constabulary and judiciary of Anniston, Alabama, Birmingham and Jackson, Mississippi.

I am tempted to say, so far, so good. But, although we have made appreciable gains while remaining cooled-off, several rights remain for us to reclaim. Things are not so good. We intend to remain cooled- off — we can count on the Klan and the Council for all the heat we shall need; but we will not become docile. We will keep sending Freedom Riders down South and these are not "so-called" Freedom Riders; they are exposing themselves to all sorts of danger to insure the freedom not just of the Negro, but of every American. Segregation is a dangerous precedent, and if we accept it — shall we say, "sitting down" — not one American is free. Least of all those who segregate. We will continue to ride for freedom, in the bus terminals and in the rest of our country!

What other areas must be freed? We must see effective integration, and by that I do not mean one and two percent integration, both in New Orleans and in New Rochelle. We must be able to ride in any part of any bus going anywhere. And this includes taking a local bus to our homes, which can be in any part of any city — not just above 110th Street in New York or across the railroad tracks in Prince Edward County. We must be able to get any job we are qualified to hold — qualified to hold not just because we are Negroes and it looks good for the company to hire a few of us.

We know that we have the same capacities as anyone else. We know that we just want to use these capacities without interfering with the right of the white man to use his capacities. We do not want to take away his home, or his job, or his wife — we are happy enough with our own women. But we do not want our women to have to work for the white women because our men are denied the right to a well-paying and challenging job. We are tired of being porters with college degrees.

Desegregation — or Integrated Hell?

How can free, Christian Americans believe that many of their fellow citizens must be born in a Jim Crow hospital, raised in a Jim Crow ghetto, educated in a segregated school, told to eat only in certain restaurants, wait in separate waiting rooms (which cannot be equal), be forced to take an inferior job, die, and be buried in a segregated cemetery, and then go on to an integrated heaven? What will happen is that we all will go to an integrated hell — whether in this world or the next.

We have already gone far in changing this pattern. Student action groups have shown the way. They now must be followed by private citizens, both white and colored. They must be encouraged by the federal government, whose duty it is to see that the rights and privileges of all its citizens are respected. While the attorney general admitted, on June 14, "They [the Freedom Riders] have a legal right to travel," he added that since "the Justice Department has taken action, I don't see that the rides accomplish anything." Well, for one thing, they will force the Justice Department to implement, in deeds as well as words, the law of the land. Even its words so far have been discouragingly vague and vacillating. As long as the attorney general so refused to take a position, we must continue in our uncompromising efforts to see that the full force of law is placed in back of the laws.

The sit-in movement has proved itself a success. The Freedom Rides now add an exclamation point to that statement. Our next movement towards full equality will be an exclamation point to the success of the Freedom Rides. And a success they will be!

Copyright © Jimmy McDonald, 1961.

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