When MLK Thrilled L.A. — and Me: A Rally in the Sports Arena Changed Me From Picketer to Freedom Rider
On August 11, 2001 I hosted a reunion for freedom riders who participated in the last ride sent by CORE in 1961. It was the exact date of our arrest forty years before. I wanted to see everyone and I really wanted to have a reality check about the reasons that we ended up in jail in Houston, Texas instead of Jackson, Mississippi. There was a good turn out by our small group of veteran freedom riders and a lively discussion at the reunion.
My participation began when I was a student at Los Angeles City College (LACC). During 1959-60 the student movement in support of civil rights started on campus. We picketed Woolworth lunch counters in Los Angeles to support similar sit-ins by students in the South.
On Sunday, June 18, 1961 I attended a freedom rally at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. At the rally the keynote speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Governor Brown (Pat) introduced Dr. King and Mahalia Jackson sang the Lords Prayer. A freedom rider spoke and I was so moved that I determined to participate in the rides.
The Los Angeles chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality started recruiting and training freedom riders in non-violent techniques during the summer of 1961. The rides sought to test the interstate facilities which were required by Federal law to serve both African American and white customers.
We left Los Angeles on August 9 by train enroute to Houston Texas. We had been invited by student members of the Progressive Youth Association to test the Union Station Coffee shop. On August 11 we sat in at the coffee shop. At first the owner tried to bar our entrance since we were an interracial group. Finally, he permitted us to enter and we sat at the counter for two hours without being served.
The police arrived, having been summoned by the owner and we were charged with unlawful assembly and taken to the Houston city jail. We were fingerprinted, mugged, and classified at the city jail and then transferred to the Harris County Jail. Ironically, I was booked as a "Negro" because of my dark hair and complexion. We declined to state "race" and they classified me as "High Yellow". Marjorie, a very fair skinned, green eyed female rider of African American descent was classified and booked as white. I was placed in the "tank" for black women and Marjorie went to the white womens tank. If we did nothing else during that ride, we did succeed in briefly integrating the jail.
Most of us spent about eight days in jail. The four while male riders did not fare so well. They were severely beaten and mistreated by the inmates in their tank and were released, earlier than the other riders, to be treated.
We were released from jail and stayed in Texas pending the court date. We helped to raise money for the legal costs of the hundreds of Mississippi freedom riders. CORE put up $150,000 to post bond for most of the Jackson, Mississippi riders. Our job was to speak at churches and other gatherings to raise money for CORE. At the first trial we were found not guilty because of a technicality. At the second trial, a week later, we were found guilty of unlawful assembly by an all-white jury and fined $100 each. Our case was appealed to a higher court and overturned.