People often ask me why I joined the Freedom Riders. I had three good reasons. My Country, My Mother, and Me.
I learned in school that if you flunk a test, you have to take it again and, in order to pass, you must figure out what was wrong and get it right the next time. The United States of America was founded on the Equality Doctrine — All Men Are Created Equal. However, she flunked the test of that doctrine, in practice, immediately by instituting slavery — the opposite of that doctrine, and flunked again by upholding segregation laws that re-created slavery's inequities. By taking action to end these laws, the Freedom Rides helped America begin to live up to the test of its founding doctrine. I needed to participate in that action.
Each summer, my parents took their large family to visit our grandmother on her small farm in Lawrenceville, VA, seventeen miles north of N.C. The trip from Philadelphia, PA to Lawrenceville took fourteen hours along the old roads. However, getting there required particular preparations. My mother spent the night before the trip in the kitchen preparing breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. She got tired, since she was often expecting the next child. She did this so we could make the trip without stopping to eat since restaurants along the way would not serve colored people. It seemed wrong to me as a child then. However, this was just one of the indignities of black life in America's south.
There were more. As I tried to enjoy our brief stay, I noticed signs around town forbidding us from entering certain rooms, or parks, or swimming pools and heard adult conversations referring to places where coloreds cannot go. I learned that we could only go into town on Tuesdays to buy things we needed, and must drink from a particular water fountain. If you go to a white person's house, you must approach by way of the back door.
I experienced these insidious insults, in the place of my mother's birth, each summer year after year. Normally, I had a strong sense of my worth, thanks to her, but these rules of behavior tugged at my self-esteem. When I became an adult and realized that the Freedom Rides would give me the opportunity to change these rules, I did not hesitate.
Bob and I were students and had been married a few years as the Civil Rights Movement intensified in January 1960 when we learned of the Sit- Ins spreading across the south at Woolworth's stores. We followed these events with great interest and sympathy. Bob immediately organized picketers in Los Angeles to protest Woolworth's stores policies of racial discrimination in the south.
We had no children but were expecting for the second time due to a previous miscarriage. Unfortunately, I miscarried again on May 1, 1961. As we tried to accept our loss, we learned of the first Freedom Rider bus bombing in mid May. We were not only interested in and sympathetic to these events, but saw that, unlike the Montgomery bus boycott, we could be involved. I got clearance from my doctor and returned to school for the summer session which ended in July. By then Bob had organized several groups to join the Freedom Riders to assure that the rides would continue. He was also planning to go, but was concerned for my safety if I joined. Any woman who has experienced the loss of several children is likely to become depressed. I did not want to stay home and perhaps sink into that state of mind. I was quite aware of the dangers, but getting involved in a mind- focusing event was therapeutic. The Freedom Rides were an opportunity for all of the reasons I have mentioned. However, in my case, by helping to change America, and bringing my mother a form of reprise, I also helped myself meet a new challenge.
Copyright © 2011, Helen Singleton
Copyright © 2011
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