A CORE Freedom Rider
Robert 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
Marion KwanBill Hall
Peggy Ryan PooleChar Potes
Robert Singleton 
Roy Torkington 
Bruce Hartford 

Bob: I was in Los Angeles in 1961 and the head of the Congress of Racial Equality in Santa Monica/Venice when the Freedom Rides started, and the Freedom Riders got beat up in Anniston. We were already picketing Woolworth stores, and we just decided that we needed to be down there with the fresh troops. And my wife, who was also part of our operation, and I went down together. I was the leader of the group, and we actually had two groups. One took off before we did, and upon return, we had a great deal of camaraderie with the Freedom Riders that we were with.

I did not work in the South during the Mississippi Freedom Movement. I got involved in a different way. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I was never allowed to go South for the [family] reunions. My parents had come from the deep, Deep South to Philadelphia. All of my folks, they would go to the reunions, but they would never take me. And I was a pre-teenager. I didn't know what was going on or what I had done that they had discovered, but I resented that.

And it wasn't until I joined the Army in 1954, and I was shipped to Augusta, Camp {UNCLEAR} in Georgia which was very close to Williston, South Carolina where a lot of my folks had come from. Some of them came from Augusta, Georgia too. And I was there for eight weeks and was shipped down there for some reason. I joined [the Army] in Philadelphia. And during that eight weeks, I found that I was given a tremendous — I woke to a lot of things.

Number one, there was a handful of Black people on my post, and we all had the same training, but they elevated me to a training platoon sergeant, mainly because I worked with this — there were four platoons, and in the four platoons, each had a platoon sergeant. And I was the one in the fourth platoon. I was trying to show the people that I had done a little bit of ROTC, just one semester at Temple, so that's one of the reasons they chose me. But as we cleaned the barracks and did the other things for inspection, I worked with the people who were not training platoon sergeants. We had training platoon corporals, and we were all buck privates, but this was a way of structuring how the orders were carried out from the administration on down.

I discovered that if I worked with them, when we cleaned the barracks for example, I got up there, and we had to have it for inspection. We had to be perfectly clean. The other three platoon sergeants were white, and they were training platoon sergeants, and they were upset with me working with the guys. They'd say, 'That's not discipline. You're supposed to tell them what to do, not do it with them.' Then I said, 'Well then, how am I going to know if they're doing it right?' Well, we had a real big falling out. The other three training platoon sergeants really were upset about me.

They were hoping that I would get caught off post, because the administration told us that they can't — The Army post was integrated, since 1948. In 1954, we had no problem. However, Augusta, Georgia was not. And if you go off post, and you get busted [for violating a segregation law], you go to the stockade until the IG [Inspector General] comes along, and sometimes that took six months. So they suggested that we don't go off post.

I, in fact, listened to that. I never went off post until the last week, after we came back from bivouac. And the other three platoon sergeants, training platoon sergeants, and I were waiting to be processed out so we could go back to where we enlisted from. I decided I wanted to go and see those folk that I had never visited before I got into the Army. And I got a pass, and I went in to Augusta, Georgia, and in Augusta, Georgia I got on a bus to go from the post to where some of my relatives lived. And the bus driver said, 'You have to sit behind that sign.' There was hardly anybody on the bus, but there was a sign about one-third of the way. I said, 'What for?' He said, 'Are you gonna give me trouble?' And I thought — 

Marion: This is 1954?

Bob: This was 1954. And I remembered what the administrator said that if you get busted — in the stockade. They won't even ask any questions. So I decided, and it was a hard swallow, because they had just taught me how to kill, you know, for eight weeks. And this person was certainly not my equal, and I could've wrenched his neck. But I swallowed all my pride. I went in to meet the relatives who used to come up to see me when I was in Philadelphia. Great cooks, by the way, and we had a ball for one day.

But that stuck with me. Here I was, training to go in and kill for this country, but I had to listen to a person who was a bus driver who told me that I had to sit behind a sign. And I was in my Army uniform. That bothered me, to the point where it just stuck with me. It just kept coming back.

My second {UNCLEAR} was Monterey, California where I became an interpretive translator of German. That's where I married Helen, by the way, she came out to meet me in Monterey. I went over to Europe after getting my training and went all over Europe and found that there was not a stitch of segregation or any semblance of what I found in the South, in the United States. All over Europe. We went to just about every country within reach. We went to France; we went to Belgium; we went to Lichtenstein; we went to Italy. We were welcomed into every place, never a question of race.

But I met a professor over there. I was taking Army language courses, pardon me, university extension courses from Berkeley. And he wanted to know, after I won this little essay contest, what are you going to do when you get out of the Army? And I said, 'I'm going to go to the University of Pennsylvania.' And he said, 'That's an Ivy League school. Are you rich?' I said, 'No.' But he said, 'Why don't you go to the University of California?' I said, 'What's the difference?' He said, 'The University of California is tuition-free.' I didn't believe him. And I went to the {UNCLEAR}, and sure enough. Except I didn't know he was from Berkeley. I looked up UCLA. I thought Cal was — I thought it was one campus, like the University of Pennsylvania.

I applied. I was accepted at UCLA, and when Helen and I — I got out of the Army, I came to UCLA, and there I discovered something very interesting. In the area of Westwood, there was what we would call now covert discrimination. There were places you couldn't go in Westwood, except they didn't tell you. You couldn't live in certain housing. That was before we had the big housing project to build, that was all [people] who were flooding into UCLA. You could apply for a job, because they had this big poster, big bulletin board, and if a person would say, 'Yeah, c'mon, yeah, I could use you right away.' And you walked in, and sure enough, they say, 'You know, we just hired somebody.' Or if you went to a housing —  So I became very interested in just testing this.

And there was an NAACP group on campus. They weren't doing anything about it, so I ran for president [of the NAACP] and made it. And the first thing we did was to go out and test this covert discrimination. That became a huge issue and was written up in the Daily Bruin. You know, every time we reported that we found forms of this, we were applauded by some, especially the student groups that what they called off-campus student groups. NAACP was one, but there were lots of others. And they just sort of joined.

It reminded me of when I was in the Army, how I got supported by those soldiers who I worked with when we were cleaning the barracks, but I was opposed by the other so-called leaders, platoon sergeants. And I bring this together this way. I became very interested in just that phenomenon. I mean, what is the difference between covert discrimination and overt discrimination? It was actually harder to fight the covert discrimination, because people lie a lot. And so we found that the Congress for Racial Equality had a technique, and even though I was head of NAACP at UCLA, we took the CORE technique, and we would send Black people in to apply for a job, a Black couple to apply for an apartment, or something like that. And if they got turned down, a white couple would go in right after them. Or a white person would go right in for the job, and they got the job of course. And we made a big issue of that, how this was worse than what was going on down South, because it was harder to bust because people lie a lot.

We got the {UNCLEAR} Religious Conference behind us, and fortunately, we got a new chancellor, a guy named Murphy who had been chancellor — who had been president in Lawrence, Kansas of the University of Kansas there. And he found there was discrimination in Lawrence, Kansas. Before he became our chancellor, he actually took Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain who {UNCLEAR} run cross country when I was in Philadelphia. They went down, and they integrated Lawrence, Kansas. People recognized him when he went in the door. He was like 12 feet tall. And he said, 'He's going to play basketball for us, if we welcome him. But if this place is segregated, he's not coming here.' They integrated the city overnight. The Chamber of Commerce and everybody else got together, and they decided, no more discrimination.

He left there, and then Wilt went on later, a few years later, he became part of the Harlem Globetrotters. He left and came to UCLA, the chancellor, Murphy. When Murphy came to UCLA, they resegregated Lawrence, Kansas, as soon as he left. And that education of his, when he found out that we were an off-campus group instead of an on-campus group, he asked the question, why? The campus NAACP. Well, at Berkeley, the NAACP was an on-campus group. And at UCLA, the NAACP was an off-campus group. They had no {UNCLEAR} something called Rule 17 or something like that, whereas if you were a political group you couldn't be an on-campus group. We said, 'We're not a political group. We're a social group. We're a group that's trying to change society.' But it wasn't until he came until we got recognized as an on-campus group.

Now I'm going through all this to show you how I got caught in the whole Civil Rights Movement. Because now, the NAACP, first he gave us on-campus presence, but now we had contact with all of the other groups that were on other campuses doing stuff of the kind we were doing. We got telegrams saying, 'Your basketball team is going to play in a segregated stadium, and we want you to tell the basketball team not to play if the stadium was segregated.' And we would run over, and we'd tell the captains of the team, and of course they complied. And the walls began falling down. It was just amazing how much power we had. Then came, of course, the sit-ins.

Marion: What year was that?

Bob: The sit-ins were 1960. And in 1960, we did sympathy pickets at Woolworth stores in Los Angeles and environs. We were actually closer to a place called Santa Monica and Hollywood. We started growing as a coalition. We started meeting to make sure that all of the picket lines had an adequate number to really get the message across. The chancellor was right behind us. He was on our side. He would stop me on campus and say, 'You still causing trouble?' I'd say, 'Yes.' He'd say, 'Good.' And so those picket lines — even after the original picket line that took on Woolworth for segregating against kids who wanted to sit there. I forget what city it was in.

Bruce: Greensboro.

Bob: That one was resolved, but they weren't resolved all over. And we wanted word from the national Woolworth corporation that they were going to stop this nationally, and we would follow them in movies, and we saw that their profits were going down, so we were following. We were trying to make this work. We got more and more popularity, and then Michael Harrington came to — he was sent by A. Philip Randolph and a couple of other Black politicians to organize a march on the convention.

[Referring to the 1960 national Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles that nominated John Kennedy for President.]

And Dr. King was in leadership of that too. He came, and he talked to the ministers at the religious conference, and they couldn't agree to follow him to march on the convention. So he thought he was going to fail, and he found that we had this coalition of students who were all over the city by then. We were in the [San Fernando] Valley, and we actually had high school students picketing some places. And he said he needed numbers, and he asked us to turn out all of the students who were picketing these Woolworth stores to help with the number problem, just marching on the convention. And we had of course an area wide conference; actually, we had some people come down from Berkeley, and we agreed we were going to do that.

And to thank me, because he did get those numbers, and the newspapers picked it up as a success, [Harrington?] brought Dr. King and Adam Clayton Powell to my picket line, unannounced. I didn't have a camera. It just killed me. I tried to get the newspapers to tell me they were going to give me pictures, but they seemed to have a {UNCLEAR}. Every time I'd call them, they'd hang up. And this just {UNCLEAR} me more and more.

There were forces that were stronger than what I thought existed that held these people together against us. Anyway, right about that time, of course, the Freedom Rides started. The Congress for Racial Equality —  I was actually a member of the Congress for Racial Equality of Santa Monica and {UNCLEAR}. That's where I sort of sucked them into what we were doing. But I liked their technique, and what I did was get all the students who were part of that effort to join me and to try to make a bigger picture of what we were doing, not just the picketing but all of the — we were trying to get the coalition that we had formed in order to sort of even out the number of people who were on these picket lines and make them happen, make them effective.

I got sort of elected to be head of that coalition, and as I found myself getting my name connected more and more to these things, when the Freedom Rides came along, Los Angeles CORE asked me to organize the people at UCLA, which I did. We had two groups. One group left, but there were some people who couldn't. CORE made you get your parents to sign if you were under 21 to go on the Freedom Rides. And I knew there were a number of people who were still on the edges. And my wife was with me all the way. She was really the one who was organizing all of the picket signs, because she was an art major. We had poster painting parties and all sorts of things that got us sort of in the middle.

People would come to us like if they were trying to start something and couldn't get enough cooperation, they would come to our organization and try to pull us in, just like Michael Harrington did. I could see that the Freedom Rides were important, but it was before the real — the burning of Anniston, the bus burning. We were talking about joining and somehow getting involved, but that bus burning was really what triggered our involvement wholesale. I could get my whole NAACP group on campus to sign up, but we couldn't get enough of the parents to sign off, so we would usually wind up with smaller — some groups would go but not in very big numbers. But the group that my wife and I went with in July of 1961, or was it 1960?

Roy: It was 1961. It was 1961. When we went down with that group, that really — it got bigger, as you know, because we went in — initially we met in — the initial idea of people going all over the place and having sometimes even just a couple of protesters, they tried to scrunch that and have us all go. We would start off in Louisiana, that was supposed to be — that was where the buses were ultimately headed in the first place before they got burned in Anniston.

But now they were calling for fresh troops, and they wanted us all to come down to Louisiana where we could get training. Reverend Lawson was training us all how to do this on the same basis so that we were all going in with the same idea. And he wanted us also to carry the message at Parchman [prison], because by that time, we had decided we weren't just going to — we had already filled the jails basically in the city [of Jackson MS] where we started. And then the county jails — they started putting us in the [Hinds] county jails, and of course we filled the county jails. And then we ultimately went to the state prison in Parchman where they separated us off initially, putting the white guys in what they called the first offenders camp, and the Black guys on death row, thinking that would scare everybody from coming. But in fact, they just kept coming. And ultimately, there was like 400.

Marion: So what year — what was the timeline on that? When you started?

Bob: Well, I was tying all this together, because to some extent, it just all slipped one from the other. The sit-ins slipped into the Freedom Rides. It was because I had worked with so many things leading up until that, until people knew my name and always wanted me to be a part of whatever was the next thing. And I'm mentioning all of the things we did at the time. It was just the Freedom Rides that took us down South. And when we got down South, at Parchman penitentiary, by the time we got involved, of course they were trying to fill all the jails, including the state prison at Parchman.

We of course didn't realize the impact we were going to have. We did have that impact. We took credit for almost everything else that happened after that. But in fact, all of the things that we're talking about here, all of the things that all of us were involved in, which sort of led up to some of the pressure on the Kennedys in particular to make the Interstate Commerce Commission, first of all, to make it illegal to have segregation on interstate transportation which I considered to be my greatest triumph, because it took me back to when that bus driver told me that I had to sit behind a sign back when I had just joined the Army.

Roy: I have one comment. When you mentioned being jailed, it occurred to me that for white guys, being jailed was absolutely terrifying, because of segregated jails. So you'd be put in with a bunch of rednecks.

Peggy: And [for the] white girls too.

Roy: White girls too, yeah. Yeah. So that was not something that anyone — 

Bob: I know a lot of guys who have told me that. Oh, they would beat the hell out of 'em, yeah. And I know a lot of guys who got physically maimed for the rest of their life, because they were — But there was really not much danger of that in the things I was working on, because, as I said, we weren't doing any integration or demonstrations — except in Louisiana.

But in Mississippi, it was political organization pretty much strictly except for that one day of voter registration in Greenwood. And where one of the local Black guys once referred to the county courthouse, and it's right on that river where they float those bodies in, it was on the Tallahatchie or the Yazoo River, I forget which one.

Peggy: Well, first of all, Robert, I'd just like to say how much I appreciated your story and your life, your dedication to this country really, to make it a better place. I mean, it really, really is touching, because in 1954 and before, you were really alone. I mean, you talked about being alone, but you were really alone, and your life was really in danger. So yeah, I really, really wanted to say that. I know how much I appreciated that. But I wondered if you and your wife went down together to do the Freedom Rides?

Bob: Yes, there were three married couples.

Peggy: That must've been very hard for you, not only putting your own life at risk but letting her put her life at risk.

Bob: You need to talk to her about that, because we had some differences of opinion. [General laughter] Especially when I recognized that she was the only Black woman in the group. At first, I thought there was going to be more than one Black woman in that group. And two groups left. The first group had several Black women in it, but our group had only one Black woman. And what I was afraid of was that she was going to be, at some point in the process, by herself without any ability to get any witnesses to say something happened to her.

But I couldn't talk her out of it. She was determined to go. She considers herself to be my guardian. [General laughter] And she was going to protect me from all evil. But I respected her immensely when she fought me and won. But then I was, of course, also afraid, because I thought I'd never be able to go back to Philadelphia. She came from a family of eight, and all of her brothers are bigger than me. So if something did happen to her, they'd probably meet me at the airport. And that'd be the end of me.

Bruce: I was in Bruin CORE, '63 and '64 which is a couple of years after you. And I was struck by what you talked about, about the covert segregation and the residential segregation. Westwood, for those of you who don't know it, that's the part of L.A. that's around UCLA. It's sort of the campus town. Well, all of L.A. frankly was segregated. They had very rigid segregation, but it was all covert.

Bob: Yes.

Bruce: But not everything was. As Bruin CORE, one of the things I still have is a cutting out of a Want Ad from the Daily Bruin. It went something like, 'Cook wanted for sorority. White only.' Because of course, a sorority of white girls, you couldn't have a Black person there. God knows what would happen. [General laughter]

The other thing I wanted to just let you know is that the Freedom Rides had such a powerful impact on the Black communities in the Deep South, in Mississippi and Alabama in particular, that ever after that, a lot of Black folk referred to any Civil Rights worker as a "Freedom Rider."

Bob: Right. That happens.

Bruce: When I started working for SCLC in Selma, people would refer to me as a "Freedom Rider," and I said, 'No, no, no. I wasn't on the Freedom Ride.' And they didn't understand what I was talking about.

Bob: Right, right. Exactly.

Bruce: And eventually I gave up making that distinction, because they weren't using it as a, 'you did this specific event in 1961.' They meant it as you were somebody who was putting yourself on the line for freedom. And you were a "Freedom Rider" in that sense.

Bob: Right.

Bruce: It had an enormous impact psychologically. But in terms of actually desegregating the buses, not so much.

Bob: I agree, I agree.

Bruce: At least not for awhile.

Bob: Not until the Kennedys moved, right.

Bruce: Well, not even after that. I mean, you know, legally yes, you could do it. But only the very courageous would do it.

Bob: I agree.

Bruce: And in fact, we did a July 1965 sit-in Luverne Alabama, a little town, the county seat of Crenshaw County. It wasn't a depot. They had a cafe there that sort of served as the Greyhound station.

Bob: Exactly.

Bruce: And they had a mob of 50 people that they mobilized to beat the crap out of us, and that was a year and a half after the Civil Rights Act and four years after the Freedom Rides. But still, anyway, I think the main thing I wanted to say was the enormous impact that the Freedom Riders had on the Black South.

Bob: I agree. It also busted CORE. CORE basically went bankrupt behind the Freedom Rides. They existed in name after that, because some people who were basically Republicans took over the Congress of Racial Equality, and they sort of disappeared over time as a real force, of the kind that began.

Bruce: Well, but CORE was always bankrupt.

Bob: I know. I know.

Bruce: Even before and after.

Bob: That's right. That's right.

Roy: I mean, CORE had a presence in the Mississippi Summer Project, in the eastern part of the state. In fact in Neshoba County where Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered, that was a CORE project. And Bogalusa where I was in 1965, that was a CORE project, and they had an active presence in Louisiana, at least in 1965. So they were still out there.

Bob: Right. They didn't go away as an organization right away. They had a lot of internal fighting over what kind of group they were going to be. Many of the Black Power advocates got involved and tried to get CORE to have only Black people in their leadership, and some of the right-wing Black people took advantage of that. And that sort of took them ultimately out. I have a lot of paperwork on that whole process, that whole history.

Bruce: CORE and NAACP had chapters. So even if the national group was bankrupt, different chapters locally kept on doing.

Bob: That's right.

Bruce: SNCC and SCLC essentially were national organizations, and if the national organization went bust, that pretty much meant that the whole thing did too. By the way, for the website, I'd love to see any of that documentation.

Bob: I just retired from Loyola Marymount University, and the archivist wanted to know — they make you sign up when you become professor that you are going to save your paperwork for them. Well, I told them I'd save it. And they said, 'Well, we don't just want that. We want the stuff you had even before you came here.' [General laughter]

Bruce: They are so greedy! These archivists, geez! [General laughter]

Bob: So I had to get these work study students to {UNCLEAR}, because I had most of it. You know, I was a pack rat. I had it, but I didn't really have it organized. I figured, OK, once I retired, I would start organizing it.

Bruce: Well, I would love to get photocopies. I don't need the originals, but photocopies of anything dealing with the South. Our website only deals with the South.

Bob: Well, they're going to digitize everything, so I'll try to get you the whole load.

Marion: I have one question. Do you consider yourself — I don't know. OK, I'm just asking — a Northern Black person? Because when you were there, the Civil Rights work that you do, how do you feel about who you are, working with your fellow Freedom Fighters or {UNCLEAR} in the Deep South. Psychologically, what were you feeling?

Bob: Psychologically, I thought I was in the Movement wherever it was going. I was trying my best to be that key, when I was a student, that brought as many of the activities that were happening nationwide. The reason I wanted on-campus recognition is that gave us a phone number, and we had a tremendous amount of information flows through that phone number. We were able to do research by letting people know we were ready to come out with a little research report that we had designed to say what was happening, not just in Westwood. We started really mostly interested in covert discrimination in Westwood, but of course it branched out as the organization continued to succeed and other things especially in the South. I wish I could say that we kept the information organized. We were looking for results more than we were paperwork.

Marion: So personally, as a Black man, what were you feeling then about what you were doing?

Bob: First of all, it was not just a Black man. It was also a Black woman — my wife. We were in there together. In fact, sometimes when I got the most discouraged, it was because of — I still hung in there, because she was also involved. And what I wanted was to be as much of an instigator as I could and keep things happening, because I knew it was all bigger than me. It was all bigger than any one organization I was in, even though each of those organizations that I was in, I felt sort of indebted to because there were so many loyal people who, even when I dropped the ball, they hung in there and encouraged me sometimes when I felt I was over my head.

I didn't really think of — I knew that the Movement was going on all over the place, and it was growing in ways that I wanted to learn how to be as relevant to it as possible. But I also knew I had to somehow carve out of this what I was going to do with my life. I was ultimately working on a dissertation for a Ph.D. in economics and geography that I should've done — I got by B.A. in '60, my M.A. in '62, and my Ph.D. in '82. [General laughter]

I kept getting offers. The Carnegie Corporation found that I had done some work in school finance, and they pulled me over to do some stuff with them. They made it look like maybe I could become one of their high mucky-mucks or something, but they really just wanted me to use the notoriety I had at the moment to help them accomplish what they were after. Things like that just kept stretching me out. Ultimately, I succeeded in snatching myself away from everything long enough to get my dissertation written. But in the interim, I felt that almost everything I was involved in was so important, and it had to be done. And if it wasn't done, I felt guilty that I didn't give it my all.

Marion: So you felt a sense of responsibility.

Bob: Absolutely.

Marion: That's interesting, because while you were talking, I remembered one of your earlier remarks that your family didn't want you to go to the South, and they kept you home.

Bob: When the family came up North, we had these family reunions up North, but then they would also have family reunions down South. I was not taken.

Marion: Why?

Bob: It wasn't until 1955 that Emmett Till taught me what they were doing and why.

Marion: And so here you are. They kept you from going down to the South, and that's what you did. You were a troublemaker. [General laughter] You did everything. You went all over the South.

Bob: Exactly.

Roy: Here's the problem. He didn't know how to behave when he was down there when he was a kid, and there was no telling what he would do to offend somebody.

Bob: Right.

Roy: Because I think this happened. They were keeping you from going down there before Emmett Till.

Bob: That's right.

Roy: That was in 1954. But there was no telling what he would do. He would've been a loose cannon. You know, they would've had to watch him. They would've had to put somebody on him all the time.

Bob: That's right. Tie me to the bedpost.


Copyright © 2019

Copyright ©
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the story and commentary above belongs to the speakers. Webspinner: webmaster@crmvet.org
(Labor donated)