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Fred Halstead

The Jackson Freedom Ride

(Spring 1962)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.2, Spring 1962, pp.35-39, 59.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WHAT later became the Jackson Freedom Ride and Jail-in was originally planned in the New York office of the Congress of Racial Equality as a relatively modest undertaking. It was meant to test a 1955 Supreme Court decision against segregation in interstate transportation facilities.

A group of Negroes and whites left Washington, D.C. May 4, 1961 on a Trailways and a Greyhound bus, planning to take a direct route through seven Southern states to New Orleans. There, on May 17, the anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision, a Freedom Rally celebrating the end of the test was planned.

Though the twenty-two original Riders, most of them CORE leaders, were not prepared for what happened in Alabama, they did know they faced danger. In a similar test by CORE in 1947, called the Journey of Reconciliation, racists had threatened a riot, local police had arrested twelve testers and three of the men served thirty-day sentences on a Southern road gang.

But this time the testers clearly had Federal law on their side. James Farmer, CORE national director, wrote President Kennedy and officials of the bus companies, informing them of the planned test. The riders had resolved to test integration of seating, terminal eating facilities and rest rooms. If arrested by local police, they planned to reject bail and serve time in jail in protest.

En route from Washington they tested in Virginia and North Carolina – where sometimes they got served and sometimes they didn’t. In Rock Hill, S.C., two Riders were pummeled by attackers but not seriously hurt. In Winnsboro, Henry Thomas, a Negro, and James Peck, a white, were arrested when they sat together at the terminal lunch stand. They were released after a few hours and charges against them dropped.

The Riders had no trouble in Georgia, but when they phoned from Atlanta to Rev. F.L. Shuttlesworth, a militant Negro leader in Birmingham, they were told white racists were expected to mobilize at the station there. Their first hint that trouble was even closer came when the driver of the Greyhound bus stopped just outside of Anniston, Alabama and spoke briefly with another Greyhound driver going the other way.

In Anniston, the bus was surrounded by a mob armed with metal bars. Windows were broken and tires slashed before the police arrived and let the bus get out of town. But the mob piled into cars and pursued it.

About six miles out, one of the slashed tires went flat, the bus stopped, and the mob surrounded it. A fire bomb was thrown through a rear window. A newsman took pictures of the burning bus which were to arouse the attention of the world.

“It was incredible,” said Freedom Rider Albert Bigelow, “the bus was filled with smoke and outside these hoodlums were shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘Sieg Heil.’”

All the passengers escaped the fire; but some of the Freedom Riders were beaten as they alighted and the bus was completely destroyed. After police arrived again, the mob dispersed and the injured were treated. The Freedom Riders were taken on to Birmingham by ten volunteer auto drivers mobilized by Rev. Shuttlesworth.

The Trailways bus was running an hour behind the Greyhound. When it reached Anniston – and the news of the bus burning – the ordinary passengers got off, but the Freedom Riders stayed on. They were beaten and forced to the back of the bus by eight attackers who boarded in Anniston and took the front seats. Then the bus drove on to Birmingham.

“For the entire two-hour ride,” reported Jim Peck, “the hoodlums craned their necks to stare at us with looks of hatred.”

Meanwhile at the bus station in Birmingham, a crowd of about thirty “heavy set men” had been waiting all day. Reporters – both local and national – knew what was coming. The Columbia Broadcasting Company even had its top man, Howard K. Smith, covering the scene. Every child in Birmingham knew that police chief “Bull” Connors’ department was in collusion with the segregationists. CORE and local Negro groups had requested Federal protection.

But the Federal authorities did not provide it.

When the bus arrived, reported Smith,

“the toughs grabbed the passengers into alleys and corridors pounding them with pipes, with key rings and with fists. One passenger was knocked down at my feet by twelve of the hoodlums and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp.”

Then the police arrived and the attackers moved down the street where, said Smith,

“I watched some of them discussing their achievements of the day. That took place just under Police Commissioner Connors’ window.”

When asked later why he had placed no policemen at the station, Connors said too many were off duty because of the holiday. The date was May 14 – Mothers Day. Federal authorities offered no such excuse, but Attorney General Robert Kennedy promised to safeguard interstate passengers in the future.

The bruised and bandaged Freedom Riders showed up at the bus station the following morning for the next leg of the trip – to Montgomery. Drivers for both companies refused to take them out, and another mob began gathering. They decided to skip the bus trip and fly on to New Orleans to be there in time for the May 17 Rally.

After a harrowing wait of many hours at the airport, during which another large mob gathered and two flights were canceled because of a bomb-scare, the original group of CORE Freedom Riders finally took off, reaching New Orleans shortly after midnight on May 16.

The morning papers carried the story of how the Freedom Ride had been “stopped” in Birmingham.

But in Nashville, Tennessee, a young Negro woman, a student at Tennessee State who had transferred there from Chicago and had been active in the exceptionally militant Nashville student sit-in movement, decided the Rides would have to go on “or everything we have worked for is gone.”

She was Diane Nash, a member of the leading committee of the Nashville student movement which had connections with the Nashville Christian Leadership Council and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The NCLC is for Nashville, what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, is for the South as a whole. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was at that time simply a coordinating center for student sit-in groups at some 16 Southern Negro campuses. (SNCC now has a permanent office in Atlanta, and is in the forefront of the most militant mass struggles that have broken out in the South since mid-August, 1961. Its leaders are young Negroes, including Diane Nash, who is currently based in Jackson, Mississippi.)

The relationship between the Nashville student groups and the NCLC was described by David Halberstam in the June 22, 1961 Reporter as follows:

“The Nashville sit-ins, for instance, were started by students, with the Nashville Christian Leadership Council moving in later. ‘There was an agreement that the ministers would have some control over the movement and would be consulted,’ a sympathetic observer has reported, ‘but they had to agree to participate, to sit in, to be on call, to attend emergency meetings – and those kids have daily emergency meetings – to take the same risks and make the same sacrifices the kids did. This was the price for retaining their influence.’”

When Diane Nash began rallying the students to carry on the Freedom Ride which the CORE group had just been forced to temporarily abandon, an agent of the Federal Justice Department tried to talk her out of it. Halberstam reports the conversation:

“The situation in Alabama was such, he said, that to go in at that point would be dangerous and irresponsible. ‘It was like talking to a wall,’ he remarked later. ‘She didn’t hear a word I said.’”

Following an all-day meeting in Nashville at which it was decided to continue the Ride, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith of NCLC and ten students, Negro and white, headed for Birmingham. Diane Nash stayed behind, organizing support. Thus began the saga of “the Nashville Twelve.”

When they reached the Greyhound station in Birmingham, the drivers refused to take buses out to Montgomery, where racist mobs were reported to be organizing. The students refused to leave the station, tying up the bus service. They were arrested there May 17, together with several supporters from Birmingham including the intrepid Rev. Shuttlesworth.

After over twenty-four hours in jail under “protective custody,” several of the group were driven to the Tennessee border in an auto caravan led by Police Commissioner Connors himself, and dumped on the highway. The story is told that they walked across fields to another road, reached a phone and called Diane Nash in Nashville. She drove out, picked them up and they returned – on back roads to avoid police – to Birmingham.

It is a matter of record that they arrived back at the bus station around noon May 19, to the chagrin of all those who wanted the Ride to stop.

Joined by other students arriving from Nashville, they held the station down until Saturday morning, May 20 when the company finally provided a driver. The bus pulled out about 9:00 a.m. with twenty-one Nashville students aboard, under guard of the state highway patrol and officials of the US Justice Department. The breach at Birmingham had been filled.

Attack in Montgomery

The Riders were attacked in Montgomery by a mob of about three hundred whites who injured at least twenty persons before police stopped the riot. Most seriously beaten was Freedom Rider James Zwerg, a Southerner born and raised, and the only white male in the group.

That night was a night of car burnings, bomb threats and racist mobs in Montgomery. It was the night fifteen hundred people were marooned by a racist mob in the Ripley Street Baptist Church at a meeting addressed by Rev. Martin Luther King and James Farmer, who had returned from New Orleans.

It was the night Attorney General Robert Kennedy was finally forced to take specific action and call out the Federal marshals. Alabama’s Governor Patterson also called out the state’s national guard units. The Nashville students had made it clear that Patterson’s former policy of allowing racist mobs to rage, would not stop the Freedom Rides, and that Attorney General Kennedy was not going to be able to sweep the whole problem under the rug.

There followed three days of discussions and planning among all the major organizations involved in the Freedom Rides. Representatives of the NAACP, the SCLC, the Nashville student movement and CORE were there. At a private meeting, dominated by the Nashville students, the decision was made to continue into Mississippi, where Jackson was the next major stop.

The Freedom Ride had been transformed from a test by a single relatively small organization into a massive effort involving – each in its own way – all the major groups in the civil rights struggles, with a general call for volunteers from throughout the country.

On Wednesday, May 24, two Trailways buses pulled out of Montgomery under National Guard escort. Aboard were twenty-seven Freedom Riders, including the Nashville students and three of the original CORE group, James Farmer, Jean Lewis and Henry Thomas.

The buses drove – without a rest stop – straight to Jackson. There, all twenty-seven were arrested, charged not with violating the state’s segregation laws, but with a “breach of the peace” statute. Mississippi’s tactic would be to tie the Ride up in the courts. This would require, of course, that the Federal government not take decisive executive action against Mississippi’s legal subterfuge.

On the same day, Attorney General Robert Kennedy made his public appeal for a “cooling off period,” asking that the Freedom Rides be abandoned “until the present state of confusion and danger has passed and an atmosphere of reason and normalcy has been restored.”

The request was denounced by leaders of every civil rights organization involved, including the NAACP. An editorial in the June 1 Afro-American summed up the general feeling:

“If there were a series of bank robberies Mr. Kennedy would not dare ask the banks in any given section to close. He would see that they were given protection.”

The first twenty-seven Jackson Riders were convicted May 26, given a six-month suspended sentence and a $200 fine. To work out the fine would take sixty-seven days. Twenty-two Riders, including CORE national director James Farmer, refused to pay. The tactic of the movement would be to crowd the jails.

Thus began the first sustained and massive Jail-in in the United States since the free speech fights of the Industrial Workers of the World a half century ago.

Volunteers came from all parts of the country, passing as a rule through Montgomery from the East and New Orleans from the West. They often stopped briefly en route making contact with local anti-segregation groups – a profound experience.

“The girls I met in the CORE group there [New Orleans] were human beings such as I have never before met in my life. They live and breathe the movement,” wrote Freedom Rider Mary Hamilton, in the pamphlet Freedom Riders Speak For Themselves.

Most of the Riders were not members of CORE, but volunteered for the occasion. The historic continuity of past social struggles was not insignificant in this more or less spontaneous selection. This reporter, in interviews with over twenty veterans of the Jail-in asked the question: “What percentage of the Jackson Freedom Riders would you estimate had some sort of radical political background?” The average of the estimates was 50 percent.

Freedom Rider William Mahoney, a Negro student, described some of the types in the September issue of Liberation:

“My cellmate, a Negro worker, came because he had been chased home by white toughs once too often . . . On my right, in cell 12, was the son of a well-to-do business man who had come because it was his moral duty. His aim was to ‘change the hearts of my persecutors through the sympathy and understanding to be gained by nonviolent resistance.’ He spoke proudly of his father who had fought hard and ‘made it,’ and was constantly defending North America’s economic and political system from the attacks made upon it by myself” and the man in the next cell.

About half the 322 persons arrested in Jackson were whites. Of the Negroes, some forty were from Mississippi itself, and many were veterans of the sit-in movement. Most were students or unemployed youngsters just out of school. About sixty of those who did time in jail were women.

After the first few bus and trainloads into Jackson, the Rides became routine and didn’t make the headlines. Freedom Rider John Lowry, in a speech at Queens College last October, described one such experience as follows:

“Three of us, Elmer Brown, a Negro and Norma Matzkin and myself, who are white, left the Port Authority bus terminal in New York July 2. Our first sign of segregation was in Raleigh, N.C. where the facilities were integrated, but you could see the shadow of the letters ‘white’ over the entrance where the sign had been taken down.

“From somewhere in South Carolina on, we couldn’t get served together, but we didn’t make an issue out of it because we had been instructed not to do anything that might interfere with our getting to Montgomery safely, and on time.

“We arrived there early on the evening of July 3, were picked up at the station by Tom Gaither, a CORE representative, and driven to the home of Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, one of the leaders of the famous Montgomery bus protest. We were told not to answer the phone or open the door because the Klan was harassing the house. The next day we attended a picnic at a farm outside town with a lot of local high school kids.

“On July 6 five others arrived from the Mid-west to join us for the trip to Jackson. One of them was Ike Reynolds, who had been on the bus that was burned at Anniston.

“We had a brief training period, including lectures by Gaither on the theory of non-violence. He emphasized the concept of an ‘active state of love’ toward those who might torment us. I remember that in the discussions someone substituted the word ‘compassion,’ but Gaither insisted on ‘love.’

“We also practiced ‘socio drama’ – a CORE technique of training by enacting a situation that might happen to us. We giggled at this but inwardly we took it seriously. The practice gave us some confidence.

“The eight of us went to the bus station in Montgomery, Friday evening, July 7. One, Bill Hansen, was not supposed to identify himself as a Freedom Rider so he could make a telephone call if something happened. But a reporter had been given a list of all eight of us and kept asking ‘Where’s Hansen?’ It produced some tense moments at the station but the reporter finally shut up.

“The bus had a police escort out of Montgomery. I remember catching the eye of a white girl on the bus as I entered. She was about 18 and very pretty, and she gave me a big smile. After the word went around among the passengers that we were Freedom Riders, she turned in her seat and looked daggers at me.

“A white man about twenty-five said in a loud voice to Norma: ‘I bet you’ve f—d a nigger too.’

“One passenger was particularly cordial to us. He was a Negro and said he had made several trips on buses with Freedom Riders. I don’t know if he was an agent of some kind or what, but he gave us the impression that he made it a point to observe these trips.

“The bus stopped in Meridan, Mississippi, not far from the Alabama line. The town square was packed with people and police, even policewomen. A big fat cop got aboard and announced: ‘This is not a rest stop. Only those with tickets to Meridan can get off here.’ Then he yelled out the window: ‘We can’t do anything. They’re sitting segregated.’ (We had been told to do this so we wouldn’t get arrested before we got to Jackson.)

“A Negro woman passenger with an infant asked to get off to get milk for the baby. The cop said, ‘I’ll get it for you,’ and he did. He didn’t charge her for it, just handed it over and got quickly off the bus.

“I remember that as the bus pulled out I saw two boys about ten years old, one white, one Negro, on the edge of a fountain in front of the city hall. They were sitting together, talking, obviously friends.

“When we stopped at the station in Jackson, the bus driver – who had acted in a matter-of-fact and neutral manner throughout – said simply: ‘There are Freedom Riders on this bus. Please let them off first.’”

In Prison

They were quietly arrested in the station and sent to the Hinds county jail, then transferred to the maximum security unit at the State Penitentiary at Parch-man. When the trucks in which they rode stopped at the prison walls, they could hear the singing of the other Freedom Riders inside. They were stripped, examined, questioned, given light underwear – their only clothes for the entire stay – and locked in cells.

They, and the hundreds of others, submitted to this under the impression that the hand of the Federal government would be forced, that a concrete victory – not just another batch of court test cases or another unenforced ICC ruling – would result. Their hopes in this respect were not to be realized.

On June 16 a group of leaders of the organizations cooperating on the Freedom Rides had visited Attorney General Robert Kennedy at a private conference in Washington.

“There are indications,” said the June 17 New York Times, “that the Attorney General had told the leaders that he felt the demonstrations started last month had made a point but that nothing further could be gained by continuing the demonstrations.”

The court was imposing stiffer sentences on the Riders. The tactic became, not to work out the fine, but for each Rider to stay as long as he chose, up to the time-limit for appeal – forty days – and then to post bail. CORE’s finances were strained to the breaking point.

For the politically naive among the Riders, the implications of the process now unfolding were caught by Eugene V. Rostow in the June 22 Reporter:

“For above all, the Freedom Riders bear witness to their faith in law – a faith we must not, dare not betray.”

The faith in the present system of many a young man or woman was sorely tried by the solitary cells, “wrist breaker” handcuffs and the vaginal searches at Parchman Penitentiary.

But their faith in themselves and in the movement was strengthened and their understanding of the society in which they live deepened. As Freedom Rider Robert Martinson wrote in the Jan. 6 Nation:

“The Riders were being trained by experts [prison guards]. How many thousands of young people are receiving similar educations in the South?”

“As for Kennedy’s name – among the ‘prisoners’ it was a dirty word,” said Freedom Rider Louise Inghram in Freedom Riders Speak For Themselves. She quotes a song they sang to the tune of Frere Jacques:

Brother Bob, Brother Bob.
Are You Sleeping, Are You Sleeping?
Freedom Riders waiting, Freedom Riders waiting,
Enforce the law! Enforce the law!

Performance of Leaders

There was discussion about the leadership of the movement. There was great respect for James Farmer, who spent the full thirty-nine days in jail, but enthusiasm for Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins was less widespread. Many thought they should have taken the Ride and gone to jail. Then, the argument went, the eyes of the world would have stayed on Jackson, Kennedy would be kept on the spot, and a concrete victory would result.

King is quoted in his own defense in the July 6 Jet:

“I wanted to go. I don’t believe in this business of leaders staying outside of jail. But my advisers on the SCLC board urged me not to. They said, ‘you’re still under six months’ probation for that traffic sentence in Georgia. You’ll be in jail eight months – two in Mississippi and six in Georgia. You’ll be out of circulation too long and right in the midst of our voter registration drive. People will say you have absolutely no regard for the law, that you are a publicity seeker with a martyr complex. What sort of example could you set going to jail for a traffic offense?’ “ (The unprecedented long probation on the traffic offense was itself part of a concerted harassment by Georgia courts of Rev. King for his civil rights activities.)

By the time those arrested first were getting out of jail, the Ride was petering out. Superficially the net result would be a new ICC ruling requiring the removal of segregation signs in all terminals and a set of court cases against Mississippi’s legal subterfuge. The more profound effects of the experience were revealed during a mid-August weekend in Jackson.

The court, in an attempt to further strain CORE’s finances, ordered 189 of the Riders out on appeal to appear in Jackson on the same day, Monday, August 13, for arraignment.

There was a great feeling of anticipation among them as they arrived in Jackson that weekend, where most of them were put up on the campus of Tougaloo College. In prison, they had talked around walls, but often didn’t see each other, so this was their first chance to meet a large group of fellow Freedom Riders face to face.

There was much talk, some argument, some planning. Representatives of the most militant sections of the movement were there talking up plans for future actions.

The mood of the weekend is summed up by what happened at a meeting of the defendants in the college chapel Sunday. The lawyers recommended that the defendants segregate themselves the next day in court to avoid complicating the issue. Objections were so strong a new meeting had to be called and the recommendation rescinded. The next day the courtroom was integrated.

Sunday night there was a mass meeting in the Masonic Temple in honor of the Freedom Riders. Several thousand persons, white and Negro, tried to get in the small hall, and they sat integrated. The first such gathering in Jackson, Mississippi in living memory.

In general, the Negro community of Jackson activated itself around the events of the Jail-in and a viable movement now exists there.

After the arraignment, veterans of the Jail-in went off to various places in the South, where they participated in, and often sparked the rash of militant mass actions which broke out in the South in the latter half of 1961, and which have brought the civil rights movement to the highest point in its history.

Some went to Nashville for more sit-ins. Some went to Monroe, N.C. in response to a call by Robert F. Williams. Some went to Albany, Georgia where over seven hundred demonstrating Negroes were arrested in December, and where a successful bus boycott is now in progress. Some went to McComb, Mississippi on a voters registration project, where they activated the local high-school students in a series of demonstrations – in the heart of the worst Jim Crow area of the country.

One of the original CORE Freedom Riders, B. Elton Cox, helped lead the demonstration of fifteen hundred Southern University Students in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the aftermath of which is still shaking that campus, the largest Negro university in the country.

Veterans of the Jackson Jail-in helped spark the mass sit-ins on Route 40 and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Almost everywhere the struggle has taken a turn toward mass action, veterans of the Jackson Jail-in have been there, often in leading roles. A group of them even showed up on a picket line of low-paid hospital workers in New York City this January and played a role in turning the tide toward a victory for the union.

So what was the Jackson Freedom Ride and Jail-in? For the South, it was an event out of which a new cadre of young and militant Negro leaders took the initiative. For the country as a whole, it was a school and a convention for a part of the vanguard of the new generation of American youth, which will not be a silent or a frightened one.

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