August 22, 2001
Five veteran Freedom Riders reflect on firebombs, mobs, prison time--and what it all means, 40 years later.
Hank Thomas knows irony when he sees it. It was ironic, he thought back in the 1960s, that the U.S. government was sending him to Vietnam to fight for the freedom of the South Vietnamese people when, as a black man, there were places in his own country where he was not free to travel, to eat, or to sit It was ironic, he thought in the 1990s, that when he revisited Vietnam and met with North Vietnamese soldiers against whom he had fought, they embraced him warmly.
Three years earlier, visiting Anniston, Ala., on the 30th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, members of the mob who had attacked him three decades earlier still refused to shake his hand. Eventually, Thomas says he realized the Vietnamese hated him only because of the color of uniform he wore 30 years ago; the mob in Anniston hated him because of the color of his skin--and his skin hadn't changed color.
Now a retired businessman in Stone Mountain, Ga., Thomas might also have found it ironic that 40 years after the first wave of Freedom Riders initially failed in their efforts to ride public interstate buses across the Deep South from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans--thwarted by mob violence, beatings, bombings along the way--that he was finally in New Orleans. He and four other Freedom Riders--Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Benjamin Elton Cox and Ed Blankenheim--stood on a stage at Tulanes Dixon Annex Recital Hall on April 7 and faced another mob.
This time, however, the crowd was applauding, paying a belated but heartfelt--even tearful--tribute to the men and women who, four decades earlier, helped expose the dark underbelly of Southern "minimal compliance" to federal mandates for desegregation. Veteran Freedom Riders were reunited for the first time in 40 years as the culminating event of an international conference on Freedom Struggles in the Atlantic World, jointly held by Tulane and Cambridge universities and sponsored by Tulanes Deep South Regional Humanities Center.
Over the course of the three-day conference, 28 scholars representing 28 American, British, Canadian and West Indies universities had presented papers on the Tulane campus and opened up civil rights discussions with conference attendees that included students, scholars, K-12 teachers from across the South, and the general public. Participants at the conference, which represents an ongoing scholarly collaboration between Tulane and Cambridge, talked about civil rights movements in New Orleans, Charleston and Mobile.
They talked about freedom struggles in Cuba, Kenya and Brazil. They looked at key events of the American civil rights movement: the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, for example, and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. They examined civil rights in terms of politics, economics, art and culture. But it was the presence of the Freedom Riders--together again, with the perspective of time behind them but the conviction of belief still upon them--that brought the conference its heart and emotion.
They thought they were going to die. Many wrote letters to parents and friends to be mailed in the event of their death; Ben Elton Cox, the only ordained minister among the riders, wrote out his will. These 12 young men and women, some white and some black, were about to board a bus in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, and ride it to New Orleans, finishing up in the Big Easy on the seventh anniversary of the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision deeming school segregation illegal.
The goal of the riders: to test the enforcement of laws that prohibited segregation aboard buses for interstate travel and in station terminals along the way. They were coached in non-violence and determined not to fight back. And they weren't sure they would make it. This wasn't the first time a group of riders had tested the interstate travel laws.
In 1947, following passage of the Morgan Decision declaring segregation on interstate carriers illegal, a group of riders embarked on a Journey of Reconciliation through the upper South to see if the law was being enforced.
They made it only as far as North Carolina, where several riders ended up laboring on chain gangs near Chapel Hill. Fourteen years later, following an extension of the Morgan Decision declaring segregation illegal not only on carriers but in terminals and stations, a group of students under the direction of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) decided to try again. Calling this trip the Freedom Ride, the group had a major difference in route from their predecessors.
As Raymond Arsenault, professor of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and moderator of the Freedom Riders event during the Tulane-Cambridge conference, said, "They were going to the Deep South this time. They were going into the heart of the beast and see if the Deep South would comply."
Other than a minor skirmish in Rock Hill, S.C., the riders made it to Atlanta on May 13, 1961, without problems and had what has become known as their "last supper." The next day, Mothers Day, they would split into two buses to take on the "Heart of Dixie."
One group would board a Greyhound through Anniston, Ala., and the other a Trailways bus through Birmingham. They would converge in Montgomery and continue on into Mississippi. Or at least those were the plans. The Greyhound bus was attacked by a well-dressed mob of white men in Anniston that broke windows and shouted epithets, then let them pull away. But all the tires had been slashed, and as the bus limped to the side of the road five miles out of Anniston, someone in the following mob firebombed the bus, shouting "Roast them! Burn them alive!"
As the riders fled the smoky confines of the bus, they were beaten, some severely. Hank Thomas staggered off the bus, gasping for air, and was asked by one of the mob members if he was okay. Before he could answer, the man pummeled him with a baseball bat. As writer Lance Morrow has noted, "Hell hath no fury like a guilty and vicious old feudalism dying."
The Trailways bus taking the Birmingham route fared little better, meeting up with Klansmen and mobs--but no law enforcement. Birmingham police chief Bull Connor later claimed the police were short-handed because of the Mothers Day holiday. Battered at best, seriously injured at worst, the Freedom Riders stalled out in Birmingham; no bus driver was willing to take them further. They ended up, those who were able, flying to New Orleans, their work unfinished.
That could have been the end of it but, as Arsenault notes, the front-page images of Alabama violence had caught the attention of too many people. "Up in Nashville, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided they just couldnt let the Freedom Rides end this way. So, to the horror of the Kennedy Administration, to the horror of white Alabama--a new wave of rides began." The Kennedy Administration had found media coverage of the violence embarrassing, Cox notes.
"President Kennedy asked Jim Farmer [head of the SNCC] to stop the rides because we were embarrassing America in front of the world." And Alabama promised nothing. "When you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it," Alabama Gov. John Patterson was quoted as saying. "You just cant guarantee the safety of a fool, and thats what these folks are, just fools."
The second ride began in Nashville, among the riders Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette. Again, the riders were prepared for the worst. "There were 20 of us from Nashville, an integrated group, and we really thought we might be killed," Lafayette recalls. "So we sent the first 10. We held back on sending everyone at once so everyone wouldn't be killed."
Diane Nash says that they felt a responsibility, however, despite the fear. "The illusion of fearlessness was definitely an illusion. I was afraid most of the time. What kept me going was, I did my best not to let other people down. It's an awesome responsibility." The bus took them to Birmingham, where they were summarily put on another bus, driven back to the Tennessee state line, and dumped on the side of the road.
They returned to Birmingham again, this time with heavy police escort that took them all the way to the city limits of Montgomery, where the escorts disappeared and everything became eerily quiet. At the Montgomery bus station, violence again erupted with no police in sight. The riders took refuge in the Rev. Ralph Abernathys church, and were later joined by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The church was surrounded until well after midnight. Finally, King called U.S. Attorney Gen. Robert Kennedy and asked for help.
"This forced the Kennedy Administration to call in the federal marshals," Arsenault says. "They were saved, so to speak, and were able to force negotiations to give the riders safe passage to Mississippi." In Mississippi, however, they were arrested and jailed for disturbing the peace. The SNCC sent out word to college students around the country and sent wave after wave of riders into Mississippi that summer. Hundreds were jailed and spent time in Parchman Penitentiary.
But by the end of the summer, the Freedom Rides were at an end--and so, for the most part, was segregation on interstate carriers. Forty years later, the riders carry scars--some physical, some emotional--that attest to their participation in a pivotal part of American history. They also carry pride. "I'm proud of the small part I played in changing my country," Thomas says. "I'm proud of the small part I played in the Second American Revolution."
For Blankenheim, who was a 19-year-old student at the University of Arizona when he became a part of the first group of Freedom Riders out of Washington, it was a magical time. "We were scared to death, but we were brothers and sisters. And I'm prouder of being a part of that than I am of anything." But they all realize that, while much was accomplished, the civil rights struggle is far from over.
For minister Cox, it goes to the core of his religious belief: "What hurts me the most about America is that of 270 million people, 141 million claim to be Christians," he says. "Why in thunderation do we have racism?" Thomas would like to see young people focus on opportunity rather than oppression. "It's important to get students to focus on the opportunities that are out there for them. Yes, it's true, there are problems. But if you focus on that too much, it will blind you to opportunity."
Organized by Tulane faculty members Sylvia Frey and Lawrence Powell of history and Rebecca Mark of English, the Tulane-Cambridge conference was held April 57 on the Tulane campus. It was the third in an annual series of conferences co-hosted by the two universities.
Suzanne Johnson is editor of Tulanian and editorial manager for the Tulane publications office. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Tulanian.
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