Freedom Rider, Freedom Fighter
Helen Singleton

[As told to and discussed by Freedom Movement veterans and family members at a story-telling session, U.C. Berkeley, September 30, 2018.]

Movement VeteransFamily Members & Guests
Ron BridgeforthM. Diane Benton
Cathy CadeLouise Rosenkrantz
Helen SingletonGail Brown
Eugene TuritzAlison Brown
 Jennette McNeil
 Kei Yanausulo

Helen: My husband, Robert Singleton, and I were involved in several social activism issues prior to the Freedom Rides. Well, we were collecting food for the people in Tennessee, the sharecroppers in Tennessee who had been thrown off their land and had tent cities down there, just because they were trying to vote. So we were involved in that.

And we were involved in supporting the sit-ins that took place in North Carolina in 1960. And we organized picket lines. I drew the picket signs. But anyway, we were supporting the Woolworth pickets for the sit-ins in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and in Hollywood, and out in the San Fernando Valley, wherever there was a Woolworth's store nearby. We were picketing it so that the people at the top of the corporation could make a decision. Because those particular stores didn't segregate, but the stores in the South were segregated.

And we were involved, not me personally, but my husband was involved in integrating the barbershops in Westwood where UCLA is. The barbers in Westwood claimed they didn't know how to cut black hair. And we threatened to have their licenses revoked. And so they eventually learned how to — well, the people at the state level who give the licenses said that they know how to cut black hair. So that's another thing we were involved in. We were involved in integrating the apartment buildings around the campus. The landlord didn't want to rent to Black students and all that, so we helped to change that. And then the Freedom Rides came along, and we did that.

I was born in 1932. My awareness of need to do something began, or it comes from three different directions beginning when I was a child, growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As you all know, Philadelphia is the birth place of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence. So in elementary school, we were taught ad nauseam the themes of freedom, equality, liberty. Every year we took field trips, take the kids down town to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross' house, the flag, the whole bit. And I really thought, 'What a great notion that we have this; we were founded on these high principles.'

However, my mother was one of those 6 million people, I think, who migrated from the South to the North, to Philadelphia, her and all six of her siblings. Every summer became almost the institutional idea to return to the South and bring your family. My father, however, he had migrated from Oklahoma. He loved to drive cars. He loved to make cars, you know, take parts and fix it and all. So we always had a car of some sort. And I am the third of eight children, and so these family reunions that took place every summer usually took place the last weekend in August. And what I noticed over the years growing up was that in order to make this trip, my mother would have to cook a huge amount of food, and it would usually take her a day and a half, all night sometimes. And I wondered, because I would hear her complaining about how her feet hurt, and just as often as not, since I'm the third of what became eight, she was pregnant with the next one. And it was an ordeal for her just to get us ready to go home.

I was going to school during the '40s, and I was going down to Virginia. My mother came up from Virginia. Lawrenceville, Virginia, which is about 17 miles just north of the North Carolina border. So we had to go all the way through Virginia to get to my grandmother's house, farm. And of course, when you're that young, you start asking questions. And I began to see, from that trip, I could feel the tension in the car, usually by the time we got to Washington, DC.

And there was no Interstate highway system back then. There were roads. You just didn't get on I-95 and keep going. You had to go on little roads. And my father, here he was a Black man travelling through the South with probably a pregnant wife and a bunch of kids in the back seat, and no way to protect the family if anything should happen. And that's why when I say I could feel the tension in the car, they'd usually be pretty happy until we got to Washington.

So when we got down South, there were other incidents that would happen almost every summer, and as you grow older, you want to go off the farm; you want to go into town; you want to go to the swimming pool, the library and so forth. And they would always whisper among each other, the grownups, telling the children, 'You can't go. You can't go in the store.' And in Lawrenceville in particular, Tuesday was the only day that Black people could take service in town, at any of the stores. So naturally, I recognized that there's a contradiction here between all this liberty and freedom that I learned about in school up North. Not that there weren't any problems up North, but it was a very clear notion to me that something was amiss here with what I was learning from nine months in school and then two months in the summer.

And what it did to me was make me feel as if I was not valuable, not valid in the society down South. And yet up North I felt pretty good. I went to a good school, several, elementary, middle school and high school. And I had friends wherever they came from. In the history of this country, there were immigrants coming from Europe mostly, at that time, and migrant African-Americans coming up from the South, and we sort of met and developed these communities. And we all went to school pretty much together.

And I grew up and married Bob Singleton, and he was in the service, and he was sent over to Europe, Germany, and I went over there and saw that there was no problem getting served in a restaurant or staying at any place you wanted to stay. And it occurred to me while I was there, even {UNCLEAR} then, where do I belong? I'm born in America, so I'm supposed to, as an American, feel patriotic, as this is my country. And I knew I'm not German; I'm not European; I'm not African, actually, even though I'm of African descent. So I sort of made up my mind while I was there that when I get back to the States, I'm gonna do something if the opportunity presents itself, or maybe even if it doesn't.

So when I said at the beginning that there were these three things that gave me this awareness, one was learning all about freedom and liberty and my country and the other one was what my mother had to go through just to get us home, to her home. And then one day I was 19, and it was 1961, and Bob and I had been married for awhile, and he was involved, and we were both involved in all these things that I mentioned earlier. And I had just had a miscarriage, and the doctor sent me home a couple of days later. He told me to take it easy, you know, so I was lying on the couch. And the news came on, Huntley Brinkley [national NBC news]. It spoke about these Freedom Riders who were taking off from Washington, D.C. and that they were going to go through the South, and they were going to be testing, the United States Supreme Court decision, in Boynton vs. Virginia which ruled that segregation in the terminals that service interstate passengers must not be segregated.

I didn't know it at the time, but there was a Supreme Court ruling in 1947, in the case of Morgan vs. Virginia, which had ruled that segregation in any interstate travel vehicle, any vehicle crossing state lines must not be segregated. And so I'm lying there feeling sorry for myself, and I thought, 'Wow, those people are really brave.' But I had no idea at that moment that I would be one. However, Bob was a field rep for CORE, and he was President of the NAACP on [the UCLA] campus, and he immediately started organizing and recruiting Freedom Riders. And he was going to go with them. I said, 'I'm going too.' No sense in my lying here, and besides, I've got reasons. All these things that have happened to me in my life. He didn't want me to go of course, but you know who won. [General laughter]

It seemed to me that what the Freedom Riders were doing was exactly the right thing, and since what we had been involved in prior to that time was in another place, like we were sending food down to Tennessee, and we were supporting the sit-ins in North Carolina. What occurred over the next couple of weeks was that the Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., and their plan was to sort of emulate Mahatma Gandhi, and that is to take it all the way to the sea. There was this march or ride in their case, and they were going to end up in New Orleans. They were going to go from Washington, D.C. into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Which, if I have time, was a little different and an improvement over the Freedom Ride which was called the Journey of Reconciliation back in 1947 when they tested the Morgan case which, by the way, Thurgood Marshall argued both of these cases before the Supreme Court and won. In the case of Morgan vs. Virginia, it was Irene Morgan, a Black woman from Maryland, I think, who was just trying to go home to Virginia, or maybe it was from Virginia to Maryland, I'm not quite sure. But she knew her rights, but she was going by the local laws, segregation, and she bought her ticket at the Black ticket counter, Black ticket window, she said, and got on the bus and sat in the back where she was supposed to, but as the bus got crowded, the bus driver asked her to get up and give her seat to a white couple. And there was another Black woman sitting next to her with a baby, and the Black woman got up, and Irene Morgan refused and told the other woman to sit down, but the other woman got up anyway.

Irene Morgan herself had just had a miscarriage, and she was not feeling like getting up. And so the bus driver made her get off. I don't know if you know this story or not? The bus driver made her get up, and she fought, and so the bus driver went and got the local police. He pulled over or whatever they did back then. He went and got the police, and the police — then she fought the police. So she was arrested and fined $500 for resisting arrest and $10, or was it the other way around? I'm not quite sure. $10 for just not moving to the other seat. She paid the $500, she said, 'Because I resisted arrest.' But she refused to pay the $10 for not giving up her seat. And she said, 'I'm taking this all the way to the Supreme Court.'

But she first didn't bother to take it through the local courts, because she knew she would lose. So she argued her own case through the local court system, to the state. But when it came time to take it to a higher court, she went to the NAACP, and Thurgood Marshall took the case. And the ruling then was that — this was a bus that she was on — and the ruling was that vehicles crossing state lines, including trains, could not suddenly change their rules. The Interstate Commerce Commission had authority over interstate travel, and that's a federal agency, and the Justice Department and the Attorney General had the power to make them enforce the Supreme Court rulings, and so that's when the Congress of Racial Equality got involved.

That was 1946 when the ruling came down, and by 1947, CORE, which is the Congress of Racial Equality founded in Chicago, they were not a Southern based organization, and they decided to test the ruling. And what they did, however, they only went through the Upper South. They started in Washington, and they went to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland, across like that. And they also decided not to let the women go, and the women who had been working for CORE —  You got that funny look on your face! [General laughter]

The women who were working for CORE and helping to do all this planning, I guess I can say it among — you guys you're not kids. They were pissed off, and this is what they said. But the men {UNCLEAR} the women can't go. So they also didn't follow — and they were supposed to, because they were founded by people who were followers of Gandhi. And they didn't do at least two of Gandhi's tenets. When you're going to engage in social direct action, you're supposed to notify the authorities, give them the opportunity to make changes, and you're supposed to notify the press. Otherwise, nobody knows what you've done. They didn't do either of those things.

Also, as they took the Journey of Reconciliation to test the states in the Upper South, they got arrested, and they were sent to jail, but they posted their bail and got out. So they were enriching the system that was oppressing them, and Gandhi said you're not supposed to do that. Go to jail. Don't pay. So when that was not basically successful, nothing changed, so I don't know what the NAACP was doing in the mean time. They were working on other cases.

But in 1960, a young Black student at Howard University, who also had a sense of what his rights were, because his mother had been active, and he was on his way home for Christmas break from Washington, D.C. going to where he came from which was Selma, Alabama. And the bus stopped at a terminal to let the passengers — he sat in the back like he was supposed to, I think. I'm not sure about that. But anyway, the bus pulled into a terminal after it had crossed state lines, and he went to the counter and ordered a bowl of soup or a hamburger or something, and they refused to serve him. He went straight to the NAACP, and Thurgood Marshall was still there, and the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And this is 1960.

And the Supreme Court expanded on Morgan vs. Virginia. They said not only do we have control of — the Interstate Commerce Commission has control and authority over interstate travel, but also, the terminals that serve the passengers who are interstate travelers. So then the Congress of Racial Equality said, 'Well, here we go again. This time we'll call ourselves Freedom Riders, and this time we will go to the Deep South. This time we'll let the women go. This time we'll notify the authorities. This time we'll notify the press. And this time we won't pay our bail. Jail, no bail.'

And they did all that. They sent a letter to the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, his brother the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, who had the authority to order the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the Supreme Court rules. And they sent a letter to the president of Trailways Buses, the president of the Greyhound Bus Company, and then they threw in J. Edgar Hoover just for {UNCLEAR}, and I think that's what made things happen, quite frankly, because J. Edgar Hoover notified members of the Klan. And the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan lived in Aniston, Alabama.

And Martin Luther King's sources told him that they knew that something was going to happen, and that's one reason why, if you see the documentary on the Freedom Riders, they were disappointed that Martin Luther King, Jr. would not go with them. But he had already been to jail a lot of times, but then so had some of the Freedom Riders. But he knew that there was a danger, and his life was already being threatened all around. However, I think you probably know the rest of the story, and that is that they left Washington, D.C. and they managed to get through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Then the buses got bombed in Aniston, and then they got beat up in Birmingham and beat up again in Montgomery. Well, the Grand Wizard — we learned all this later — the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan had informed the chiefs of police who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan and others that the Freedom Riders are coming, and this is what their purpose is. And the Grand Wizard said, 'Let them through, until they get to my town.'

Woman: And you were on that bus?

Helen: No, I was not on that bus. I was lying on the couch at home. I just had a miscarriage, and I was watching, just like a lot of other people. And I saw what happened. And I knew that when the buses got bombed and people got beat up, and those Freedom Riders could no longer continue, that they needed more people to keep the Freedom Rides going. They needed fresh troops. And we were the fresh troops.

What was good was that people from all over the country came, and so a new deal — and I didn't know about this {UNCLEAR} a new decision was made by CORE — I don't know if it was by CORE, but southern Senators talked to the Attorney General, and after what happened in Alabama was because they had notified the press, it was all over the world. And it was a difficult situation for the President of the United States, because this was now almost a national security issue because the Kremlin, Khrushchev, was about to have a meeting with John Kennedy, the President of the United States. And up till now, the President of the United States could point a finger at Khrushchev and talk down about how you treat your people, human rights issues. But now Khrushchev could point back at him and say, 'Look how you treat your people.'

So it was something that now, since the authorities had been notified and something like this had happened, and the whole world was watching, something had to be done. And so a new deal was cut, really by the Southern Senators and the Attorney General with, I suppose, the blessing of his brother that instead of mobs, you allowing the police and the white public in general to have their way with the Freedom Riders, they're not safe. Senator Eastland of Mississippi suggested, we've got something worse than getting beat up by a mob. We'll take them; we'll arrest them and put them in our jails. We'll take them out to Parchman penitentiary, way out in the Yazoo Delta. People will forget them. People won't know whatever happened to them, and it won't be in the news anymore. And that'll be that.

So that was the new deal that they made, and so when the fresh troops showed up to continue to ride, they were arrested. And the Congress of Racial Equality then decided, rather than go all the way — well, I don't think it was their decision, because when they went into Mississippi, they got arrested.

And so we didn't make it all the way to New Orleans. Anyway, that's where I got arrested. And we were taken to the city jail. Well, we went by train from New Orleans to Mississippi, and we were arrested at a train station in Jackson, Mississippi. In fact, they knew we were coming. Well, they knew all the Freedom Riders were coming, and we were met by the chief of police actually and his staff, and we were put in a paddy wagon that they had kept waiting in the hot sun, because this was July 31st, and taken to the city jails, given what they considered to be a trial, a mass trial over the next couple of days, and then taken to the county jail, and then the bus came and took us all out to the penitentiary where we spent our summer vacation.

Ron: How many days? How many days were you — ?

Helen: We were, according to the terms under which we were arrested, we could post bail and get out immediately, which none of us did, or we could post a bond, which you can get back after six weeks, and if you don't post your bond within that six weeks, then you must do your full time which was, I think, six months or something.

[Another factor was that under Misssissippi law at that time, if the Freedom Riders did not post an appeal bond within 40 days they lost the right to appeal their arrest, trial, and conviction on constitutional grounds. So the most of the Riders stayed in jail for 39 days and then posted bail and appealed.]

And this was only a misdemeanor, and we were charged with breach of peace, and that's why the book I was telling you about is called Breach of Peace. And like I said, we didn't post bail, but some people back home at UCLA and other places around Los Angeles got together and raised money to post our bond after the six weeks. And of course, the case was taken back up to the Supreme Court, and we won. Of course we were acquitted. But we spent the summer — and they called it the maximum security unit, which it was. That was death row. So whenever a new group of Freedom Riders came in, we would say, 'Welcome to MSU.'

Gene: So you never actually got on a bus.

Helen: No, I got on a train. And a plane.

Woman: Were you housed with the general population? Or were you housed separately?

Helen: No, I was housed in maximum security. With other Freedom Riders. We were separated, of course. By the time I got there, they were separated. Originally, they put the Freedom Riders in with the others, thinking the others would beat 'em up. But what occurred, from what I've been told, the first ones that got there were put in with the other prisoners, the other inmates, and began talking to the other inmates about prison treatment, organizing, and all that sort of stuff.

By the time we got to New Orleans, because like I said, Bob was organizing people to go, and he and I went with the last group, because he wanted to get the other two groups off first. So we went with the last group, the last group from UCLA and Los Angeles. Some others came from other parts of the country, all up into September. So it was late July; it was July 31st actually when we were arrested. So others had come since May and June, when the original Freedom Riders were injured and hospitalized, and during the summer, more Freedom Riders kept coming from all across the country. And most of them were sent to Mississippi.

And some of them, when they got to Parchman penitentiary, they began to talk to the other inmates and organize what do you call it? Not exactly sit-ins but what union workers do. I forget what that's called. Work stoppage. Because Parchman was a farm. It still is. So the inmates were taken out in their chains and stripes every day to work the fields and grow the crops and stuff. I [can] tell you about some of the food at the prison and all that, if you want to hear that.

Well, anyway, some interesting things happened to me. One was during this mass trial that we had. Let me just tell you another little thing. Before we left Los Angeles, there was a graduate student at UCLA who was a good friend of Bob's, because the two of them had taken many courses together as graduate students, and I think Bob was the only Black guy in the class, and this other white fellow was from Australia. His name was Bill, and he first caught Bob's attention because he laughed a lot at what the professor was saying, as if to say, 'No, no, that's not the way it is,' you know? And he had a strong cockney accent. So he and Bob became good friends, and we all became friends.

And this summer of '61, he was a scholar, but he was an exchange student on a scholarship, so he was ready to go back to Australia just at the time that we were going on the Freedom Rides. So we gave him a going away party, and he left, or so we thought. He left, and then he saw the news that a group of Freedom Riders was coming from Los Angeles. So he went to Jackson, Mississippi, and just as we were being arraigned, going into the court; this is after a night of being in jail. We're going into the courtroom the next day, and the press was all around. And here comes this — as I got off the bus, here comes this white guy, and he says, 'Helen!' And I ran up to him, and we just hugged and all. 'Hey Bill! What are you doing here? We thought you were in Australia.' And so the press people, they just jumped back like, 'Oh, in public, a white man and a Black woman hugging.' Anyway, that was an interesting thing to just see, and I wasn't aware of it until I saw the faces of some of the people.

Anyway, we got into the courtroom, and of course, they separated Blacks on one side of the courtroom, and whites on the other side of the courtroom. And I looked over there at some of our white group who had been arrested with us, because we were an integrated group, and I saw a girl. Well see, we were arrested almost daily. People coming from all over the country. So they were arraigning us all who had been arrested in the last week or so. So I saw in the courtroom over there on the white people's side, somebody with hair that I said, 'Uh oh. That's not white hair sitting over there.' [General laughter]

I couldn't do anything about that; however, when we did get arraigned and charged and sent to Parchman, over the next several days, after I got processed in and walking down the corridor of the maximum security unit to the jail cell that they told me to go to where there was another Black woman in that jail cell. There were two white women in this jail cell, and two white women over here. The two white women in jail cell 6, one of them was the girl I'd seen in the court. So after the doors clanged shut and everything, and the trustee had left the corridor, I went over to the wall, because you can't see the person; they're on the other side. And I just went over to her, and I said, 'Hey.' She said, 'Be cool.' [General laughter] 'Be cool!' Anyway, so I was cool. [General laughter]

Anyway, as the days went by, most of us were students, so having just completed a semester at whatever school we came from, we organized ourselves into teaching. We became lecturers and professors, and each one of us sort of talked about whatever our major was, and this was to pass the time. And we had a morning lecture and an evening/afternoon lecture. We had singing in the evening and singing in the morning. And I was at Santa Monica City College, and I was taking what you call the track to go into UCLA as a junior, and so at the same time, I was making up some courses that were academic courses that you should've had in high school, but I hadn't taken, and one of them was algebra, and one of them was geometry.

Summer school had just completed, and I had just finished these courses. And I have never been a math major, but I'm good enough at it to do things like keep a budget and all. However, being an artist, I got through those kinds of courses just by memorizing, visualizing formulas and all that sort of stuff that you need to know when you're taking those courses. And so I had a pencil, because you're allowed to write letters. They allowed us to write letters home. And I did across my jail cell all the formulas, just to waste the time, all the theorems that I had just finished, because it was in my head and I could remember.

And that's how I wasted some of my time, spent some of my time. One day, however, I'll tell you a sad story, and then I'll tell you a nice story, and that's it. The low point of the whole adventure was — not an adventure, but the whole journey was when I was separated, because I was the only Black woman in the group that was arrested in our group from UCLA. And one night I was separated, because they separated Black, white, male, female. And they threw me into — they literally threw me into the county jail cell by myself, and there was nothing there except the little pallet on the floor. It was dirty. I looked at it, and I said, 'I'm not gonna sleep on that.'

So there I was. And it was a hot summer evening. And then [tap-tap-tap], there was a little rat came across the floor just like that. I looked, and he wasn't a little rat. I mean, he was a rat. So we sort of checked each other out for a minute, and there was a lot of trash on the floor. And so, at some point, the rat ran over to where there was a pipe that had come down from somewhere in the building and ended right there in my jail cell. And rat went up the pipe, and I got down on my knees and stuffed all that trash up the pipe real quick. And I just felt like this is the lowest thing you can do or place to be, and I didn't know what to do after that. I was certainly not going to fall asleep, because I could hear the rat trying to get back in, so I did what we do. I started singing. And I sang, and I admit, I wasn't just singing Freedom songs. [General laughter]

I was Sarah Vaughn. I was Nat King Cole. I was Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day and all the songs I could think of, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing." That's what I did for the rest of the night until morning, and they came and got me and took me off to Parchman with the rest of the guys.

Now what I noticed while I was there at Parchman was first of all, this is the South. They're very religious people. So the only books we were allowed were Bibles. And the only visitors we were allowed to have were men of the cloth. But I noticed that after a week or so, a priest came to visit the Catholic girls, and when they came, they got to go out and sit in the anteroom for awhile while the priest ministered to their souls. And a rabbi came after another few days, and the Jewish girls got to go out. But I'm a Baptist, and no Protestant minister came. So — 

Man: You became Jewish. [General laughter]

Helen: The next time the trustee woman down at the end said, 'The rabbi's here.' [General laughter]

Helen: 'Call out your number,' because the doors opened electronically. The bars opened. So I called out number 7. That's my jail cell number. I stepped out into the corridor, and she looked at me, and she said, 'I know you ain't no Jew girl.' Because she was a Southerner. She said, 'But your soul needs to be saved, so you can go ahead and see the rabbi.' [General laughter]

That's not the end of it. Because we went there, and we went into this other room, and they sat us on a bench. And these visits were monitored by a deputy, and the deputy told the rabbi, he said, 'You may not tell them anything that is going on in the outside world. You can only minister to their souls.'

So the rabbi said, 'OK,' and he did what rabbis do. And then he would turn to the deputy and said, 'So I can't tell them that Roger Maris just hit his 51st and 52nd home run?' And the deputy said, 'No.' Well, he said, 'Nah' [with a Southern accent]. 'Nay, you can't tell 'em that.' And we {UNCLEAR} And the rabbi would go on with some administration, and then he would turn to the deputy again and say, 'So I can't tell them — ' then he'd tell us some more news. [General laughter] And that deputy never caught on. [General laughter] He never caught on. Or at least he didn't let on. And I'm going to end it there. [Applause]

Woman: That's a great ending.

Ron: Have you told this story often?

Helen: Well, I tell parts of it. I don't always have this much time. Sometimes I'm speaking with Bob, and he has his own stories to tell. And especially when we're talking to kids at universities, it's usually a fifth period or sixth period or something like that, and they've got to go on to their class. So it's usually an hour which gives us only half an hour or 45 minutes together to tell both our stories. And then there's Q&A, so it doesn't always go on like this. So I'm selective.

Ron: Does anyone have a question you'd like to ask of her?

Woman: I have one question. I'm not sure how relevant it is. Tell me again what year you were born in?

Helen: 1932.

Woman: That's what I thought you said. Thank you. You're remarkable.

Helen: I'm 85. I'll be 86 in November.

Woman: Wow! 86 in November.

Helen: I'll be 86 in a couple of months, yeah.

Woman: My mother was born in 1929, and it's just an extraordinary difference. You carry your age well. I think that last story that you just told, it's such a wonderful story, because you put into it so much, both about the people who you were there with, and you get a sense of both the seriousness of it and also how it did really matter to you all what was going on in the real world. And there's that ambiguity about whether or not the guard actually knew what was going on. I mean, it was like — for him not to understand that in fact this was happening — 

Helen: As far as I could tell, he didn't know. And when I was arrested, I forgot this part altogether. When we were arrested at the train station, we were taken in this paddy wagon to the city jail. While I was sitting there waiting to be booked and have my picture taken, I looked around, because I wanted to be aware of my surroundings. After all, I was in custody. And I was surprised when I looked on the wall in back of me, there was a picture of — well, you guys may not know, because you're not from Los Angeles, but the Los Angeles police chief, William Parker, saying, 'I want you!' He was recruiting. This was a recruitment poster. He was recruiting those policemen, redneck policemen from Mississippi. And I'm sure that Jackson, Mississippi is not the only state or city where he sent that poster to. And they were offering those people all kinds of incentives to come to Los Angeles and join the Los Angeles police force. That's what I was looking at just before I went in to get my mug shot. People have often asked me, 'What were you thinking when you had your picture taken?' I had just seen that, and like I think Stevie Wonder says in a song, 'I was amazed but not amused.' Yeah. [General laughter]


Helen: They told us as part of our orientation. They told us, part of our orientation when we got to New Orleans, this was before we went to Jackson. We knew we were going to become Freedom Riders the next day when we got up, because we were going to get on the train and go to Jackson and probably get arrested. So in New Orleans, the people from CORE met us and took us to this place just to do some training. And they said, 'OK, now, tonight —' And this is an integrated group of young people, not all young, but they said, 'OK, tonight, since you're in New Orleans, I know you want to go out, so don't go out in an integrated group, racially integrated group. This is the South. And things can go wrong. Things can happen.'

They said also to the Black potential Freedom Riders, 'Don't go out with less than a dollar on your person, in your pocket, your wallet, your purse, because you can get arrested for vagrancy,' which is one of those peonage-type laws that happened after the 13th Amendment was passed that freed the slaves. They passed a law that more than likely most of the freed slaves could be caught and arrested for, and that is for not being employed and having any money. So they said, 'If you're Black, don't go out with less than a dollar, because it's called the vagrancy law.' And so we had to abide by that sort of thing. And you begin to realize that this is a serious situation that you're in. So we didn't. Of course they said, 'We don't want you to get arrested before {UNCLEAR}' [General laughter]

Woman: Get arrested early. [General laughter]


Helen: I had the opportunity to speak at a conference given by the Missouri Arts Council, and it supposedly had nothing to do with me being a Freedom Rider but about the arts, because I was a consultant. However, I began my presentation with my experience as a Freedom Rider, pointing to the fact that when I was on my way from Jackson to Parchman, I sat in that prison bus and looked out the window at the countryside of Mississippi, and I thought —  And so I was telling this to the audience that day, and I thought, 'Wow, this is a beautiful place, actually. It's so lush. These magnolia trees, they smell so nice, when there's not somebody hanging from them.'

But I thought, 'This part of the country — ' This is 1961. The South has what could be an economic juggernaut here, if they would get rid of their social issues. And they have the beach area — when you don't have a hurricane. They have a coastline. Mississippi has a coastline. Alabama, Georgia, they have a coastline. And this is the poorest section of the country. This is 1961. And I thought, 'If they would just change their social problem, corporations — ' And this is what I'm telling this group of arts people.

Corporations would headquarter themselves in the South, whereas at that time, they would not. I have done all my information gathering. I knew this to be the case. Corporations would not headquarter themselves in the South because they had to build extra rooms for the whites and the coloreds all the time. It was costly. You know, corporations don't want to spend extra money. And really, it subsequently became the case that once — at that time, the Civil Rights Act had not been passed. In '64, the Civil Rights Act was passed in which it became illegal to segregate like that, and sure enough, corporations began — I mean, that wasn't the only reason, but once it became illegal to have the kind of system, that way of life that they liked so much, they became one of the fastest growing, economically developing parts of the country.

And this was just my opening diatribe to the arts group. That really wasn't what they came to hear, but what they came to hear was how to manage integrating your arts organizations, your board of directors. And so I subsequently talked about that, but the fact that that was the topic that they asked me to speak on reminded me of what I have been through as a Freedom Rider. What can happen when you bring about what became the big word which is diversity, on your boards, and diversity in your society and so forth.


Ron: Ms. Singleton, I want to ask you a question. What did your mother cook? This is for the trip South.

Helen: Rolls that smell real good. For the trip South, fried chicken, homemade rolls, some collard greens because you had to be careful, because we were going over bumpy roads; you don't want the juice to spill, but greens, potato salad, and throw in some fruit for the kids, you know, some peaches. We used to eat raw vegetables straight out of the refrigerator. Tomatoes, carrots, celery, throw in some of that. But nevertheless, to cook for a big family in the hot summer when you're pregnant or you might be, for a long trip, because the trip took 14 hours back then. And like I say, there was no highway system. And so she cooked all that good stuff.

Gene: But you didn't say because you can't stop at a restaurant.

Helen: Oh I did say that. Oh, I didn't say that? [General laughter]

Woman: We knew! We knew why she was cooking.

Helen: I mean, that's the reason. That was the reason. And just to finish that part of it, after I had been living out here in California for awhile, my mother would still go down South at the end of August, and so she got kind of old, couldn't drive. My older sister would drive her down, and my older sister called me to tell me this in L.A. She said, 'I picked up Mom the other day, and we went down to Virginia for the Homecoming, and we stopped off at a restaurant.' And my mother said, 'Oh, we can't go in there.' And my sister said, 'Yes, we can. Don't you remember? Helen went down South and was a Freedom Rider, so you can go into this restaurant.' And she said, 'Is this what Helen did?' [General laughter]

But before that, you asked him the question or somebody the question, 'What did your parents think?' The way CORE was running the Freedom Rides, a lot of them were students, and if a student was under 21 years old, they would have to get permission from their parents to go out and do this dangerous thing. But Bob and I were just a little older. I was actually 28, and he was 25. So we didn't have to call our parents.

However, this stuff was in the news all summer long of what was going on, so we decided since we don't know where we might end up, so we figured we'd better tell them. So we called them, and we were in Los Angeles. And Bob's mother, you could hear her on the other end of the line that she was about to start crying or something. She cried easy. This was her baby boy. Well, he wasn't; he had a younger brother, but this was her oldest child actually, her first born. And he was out there doing all this crazy stuff, so she was not happy; let's put it that way.

My mother picked up the phone when I called, and I didn't tell you this part, but on one of those occasions as a small child, when we went and tried to go into town when we went down to Virginia, my sister and I went into a store, and I wondered even then, 'Why won't they wait on me? All I want is a comic book.' And the woman behind the counter didn't bother us. She was white. She didn't bother us, but she also wouldn't take our money. We didn't offer any money. We were just sitting there, and pretty soon we were sprawled out on the floor of this store, reading these comic books. And she didn't say anything. And like you said, sometimes white people down there were afraid to do the right thing. So they just let us read.

But my mother had dropped us off at the corner while she went into another store, and when she came out and saw that we were in this store where she knew we shouldn't be, I never forgot the look on her face. She wouldn't even come across the street. She just said, {UNCLEAR} This kind of thing. She was afraid. She had fear on her face. And later I understood what the problem was, but that was the sort of thing that I grew up with every time we went down South.

So now we were about to be Freedom Riders, and we called our parents. My mother picks up the phone, and when we told her what we were about to do, she said, 'Why do you have to do this?' And speaking of people who think that they shouldn't do something, it just welled up in me. And it came out, and I said, 'If you had done something, I wouldn't have to.'

Woman: Oh my God.

Helen: And I didn't mean to be mean. I realized later I shouldn't have said that, but I didn't realize also that my mother had done something. She was one of those millions of people who had left the South so that me and my sisters and brothers wouldn't have to go through what she had gone through. And as we were just about — You know, Bob and I, we felt we were doing this for the kids, future kids, OK?

Because we had witnessed the murder — we had been around when Emmett Till was killed, and we didn't want our kids to have to grow up in this kind of a world. So we were doing it for the children. And it just so happened that on the day or day before or day after, I'm not quite sure, that we entered Parchman Penitentiary, a child was born who later became President of the United States, and they named him Barack Obama. And, we got to meet him, because he honored us — well, actually the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. wanted to honor five women Freedom Riders, and I was one of them that they chose.

And we got to — well, when the word went out, this was their annual fundraiser, and when the word went out that the Freedom Riders were going to be honored, Barack Obama said he wanted to be the keynote speaker. So he was President at the time, of course. So we went to Washington, and he spoke and honored us and presented us with something, I forget, a little plaque or something. But we got to meet him backstage in the green room, and one of the women who was organizing it said, 'He's going to come through that door there.' After the dogs had done their sniffing and everything, and all the security people had checked us out, he's going to come through that door right there.

Now this is a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. All of the major donors were there, of course. And of course they got to be in the green room too, to meet the President. So the woman who was organizing had all the major donors lined up right next to the door, where the President was going to come through. And all of us Freedom Riders were lined up. Like this is the door; the major donors are here; the Freedom Riders were here. When he came through the door, I was on this over here with the Freedom Riders. I just did like this, and he came right over! [General laughter]

Helen: And OK, OK, we also decided — 

Ron: Agency, huh?

Helen: Yeah! [General laughter]

Helen: {UNCLEAR} decided to sing. We started to — 

Cathy: Wait, I want to say that you held your arms wide open, and Obama walked into this.

Helen: Yes, OK. Yeah, we started to sing, 'We Shall Overcome.' And he walked through the door, and I did like this. And I don't know why, I just did it. And he came over and got a big hug. But we also told him that just as you were born, what we were doing we were doing for the children, and just as you were born, the same day, we were entering our jail cells in Parchman Penitentiary. And the Freedom Riders were going on. And he said, 'I might've been in my diapers, but I knew something was going on.' [General laughter]


Helen: Well, my father was an activist in the community. Philadelphia has these aldermen positions, and so he and my mother were very active at the polls. They worked the polls and stuff. So I have four younger brothers, and being Black males in Philadelphia, each one of them had been into some little altercation with the police at one time or another, and when that happened, my father would go down to the police station and get my brother out. And they said, 'Oh Calvin. I didn't know he was your son.' You know, because he knew all them and that sort of thing.

However, when I told them that I was going down to Mississippi, the reason my father got so upset, my sister said, because he said to my mother, 'I can't go down and get her out. I don't know anybody down there.' And my mother knew what could happen. Well, they both knew what could happen. So he was totally frustrated, because my father was very protective of his three daughters.


Helen: Ron, I wanted to point out when you were talking about agency, it wasn't a question. It was a statement. Now, we have been our own agents. But I think what you said about the young boy with the gun, with the shotgun, he knew how to survive in the South at that time. And violence is what we were talking about as Freedom Riders. The reason we were the fresh troops and didn't want the Freedom Rides to end was because of the violence. We did not want violence to overcome nonviolence. That's why we — 

Ron: Are you a Ghandian?

Helen: A what?

Gene: A Ghandian.

Ron: A person who has a philosophical commitment to nonviolence.

Helen: I have sort of a philosophical commitment to not get angry at someone {UNCLEAR} see happening, so it makes it a little easier to be nonviolent if you're not even mad. [General laughter] I have found over time that — well, my mother would say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I don't go for that quite, but it's true.

Ron: You're an artist.

Helen: Hm-hmm.

Ron: What's your genre?

Helen: Well, no, actually I'm an arts administrator more than an artist. And I say that because I haven't painted anything in quite a number of years. But I started out as an artist, as a young kid, going to an art school in Philadelphia when I was about in third grade. You can't do that with kids these days. I used to get on the trolley and go down, all the way down to South Philadelphia by myself. I was seven years old. Just to learn how to paint and do sculpture and all kinds of stuff. Nobody bothered me. Now, I wouldn't let my kids do that. You have to take them everywhere.

But I went to Moore College of Art which is in Philadelphia. It was, I think it still is, an all girls art school/college. However, one reason I was a student at Santa Monica College and not at UCLA as a freshman was because I didn't take all the courses in high school that you have to take as college prep. I took what my mother said was the appropriate — well, not just my mother, my high school counselor said you're going to need to get a job, because we can't afford to send you to college. And you need to know how to do something other than what she did for a living which was domestic work.

And so I took courses in bookkeeping and stenography, so I took typing and learned all those business school skills. And that came in very handy later when I was an artist, and I realized I'm not going to make a lot of money doing this. I can do the administrative part. So I became an artist manager, managed other artists. And like I say, I wasn't good at — I never say I wasn't good at math. It's just that I didn't do it the same way everybody else did it, and I used my visual acuity, if you will, to get through. But it turned out as an arts administrator, I ended up doing the budgets all the time, and I don't have a problem with that.

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