Article Attacking the Freedom Riders

by Westbrook Pegler

 Westbrook Pegler, a strong proponent of segregation, was allowed a personal interview with me in the first few days after I was arrested as a Freedom Rider. Here is his derogatory article which was published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Monday, June 12, 1961.   The hostile sentiments expressed towards the Freedom Riders was the rule in the south in this period of our history (not surprisingly…) The only people I trusted on the streets were blacks. I especially did not trust the police, nor frankly, any white person that I came across.

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Westbrook Pegler Article

Original Freedom Riders Disband

The remainder of the Freedom Riders were injured and battered, and CORE and felt that they could not continue the Freedom Ride, and elected to fly them to New Orleans where they disbanded (ironically on the 7th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education). At this point, SNCC felt more than ever that the Freedom Rides should continue. Again, Diane Nash of SNCC played a major role in salvaging the Freedom rides when she sent out call to campuses around the eastern United States for volunteers to come to join the Freedom Ride to keep the demonstration going.


Hospitalized Freedom Riders Ejected from Hospital

That night, the hospitalized Freedom Riders were ejected from the hospital because hospital personnel were afraid of the mob. Eight cars of churchmen, brimming with shotguns and rifles, headed off to rescue the riders. (This is ironic, considering that the Freedom Riders were pacifists and dedicated to non-violence). Chief Bull Connor threatened to arrest Rev. Shuttlesworth for having interracial meetings at his house. None-the-less, Shuttlesworth rescued Peck from the hospital at 2 AM.

Violence in Birmingham, Alabama

In Birmingham, an FBI informant in the Klan learned of a detailed plan in which Police Chief Bull Conner had agreed to give the Klan 15 minutes after the bus arrived to beat the riders before local police would arrive.  The plan was reported to the FBI headquarters, but no action was taken. The Trailways station was filled with Klansmen and reporters (including Howard K. Smith). When the Freedom Riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains, and then, battered and bleeding, they were arrested. White Freedom Riders were particularly singled out for frenzied beatings. Two riders were hospitalized, including white Freedom Rider Jim Peck with 51 stitches in his head. Rev. Shuttlesworth in Birmingham was notified of the beatings by a fleeing reporter.


Violence in Anniston, Alabama

In Anniston, Alabama, a white mob awaited the arrival of the first bus bearing the Freedom Riders at the Greyhound station.  As it arrived, they attacked the bus with iron pipes and baseball bats and slashed its tires.  The terrified bus driver hastily drove out of the station, but the punctured tires forced the bus to pull off the road in a rural area outside of Anniston. The white mob who pursued the bus, fire bombed it and held the doors shut preventing riders from exiting the burning bus. Finally an undercover policeman drew his gun, and forced the doors to be opened. The mob pulled the Freedom Riders off the bus and beat them with iron pipes . The bus became completely engulfed in flames, and was completely destroyed. (Here is riveting description in “The Race Beat:”by Roberts and Klibinoff.)

The second bus carrying Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston an hour later at the Trailways station. The bus driver got off and talked with Anniston police and a group of 8 white men. After the black Freedom Riders refused orders to move to the back of the bus, the white gang came flying onto the bus and beat and stomped the riders, especially targeting white “nigger lovers.” The white gang threw the bleeding and semi-conscious riders to the back of the bus, and it left for Birmingham.

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Justice Department Enforces the Law

That summer, the Justice Department succeeded in getting the states to agree not to interfere with interstate travelers, and allow unrestricted, and thus we did accomplish the integration of public waiting rooms.

And don’t we STILL have a long way to go before a person is valued for his person instead of his color, creed or religion?

1    Kasher, Steven, The Civil Rights Movement, A photographic History, 1954-68, p. 20.
2    Ibid, p. 31.
3    Wilkenson, Brenda, The Civil Rights Movement, An Illustrated History, p. 82.
4    Kasher, p. 145.
5    Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize, America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, p. 12.
6    Williams, p. 144.
7    Kasher, p. 86.
8     Williams, p. 150.
9     Wilkenson, p. 115.
10    Wexler, Sanford, An Eyewitness of the Civil Rights Movement , p. 130
NOTE: I have been called to task (correctly, I might add) for not crediting the photographers who have taken these images of the Freedom Rides. I am eager to give credit to these individuals if you happen to know who took the pictures I have posted. Send me an email with the information, thanks.

Trip from Jackson, Mississippi to Cincinnati, Ohio

Upon my release, I took the train from Jackson, Mississippi to Cincinnati, Ohio, a very tense ride especially while I was still in Mississippi. I was never more grateful to leave a state than when the train passed from Mississippi into Tennessee, but even then, I was in the South. When I arrived in Cincinnati, to my astonishment, there was a huge welcoming crowd of local civil rights people. Two hefty CORE members hoisted up me on their shoulders and carried me through the great hall of Union Terminal. Talk about culture shock!

Uncertainty About Release Date

I had found that the aluminum cup we were given as our drinking vessel would leave a gray line when rubbed on the cement wall. I constructed a large calendar and illustrated a mural on the wall using this cup. I had calculated that the 40 days (maximum time before which bail must be posted) would be over on Friday July 7th.  I expected to be bailed out on that day. I had heard that if one weren’t bailed out by 40 days, that one would have to serve out a full 6 months in prison. July 7th came and went. Saturday the 8th came and went. I was very depressed… Then, on Sunday July 9th, The guards came in and said that I should get ready to go, that I was being released. That was a joyous moment. I was led to a room where I was given my street clothes back. As I dressed, a guard who had seemed particularly virulent in his attitude to us sidled up to me and quietly said that he hoped there were no hard feelings. He said he was only doing his job, didn’t I understand, and that he didn’t personally hate us. I thought that was a very positive statement for him to say, and confirmed one of the underlying principles of non-violent resistance: that if we appeal to the humanness in each of us, returning courtesy for hateful actions, that hearts can be changed.

Twelve Days of Hunger Strike Ends

After 12 days of fasting, those of us on hunger strike halted our fast under assurances that the justice Department was going to take action to halt the arrests. It was at that point that I began to “experience” the food in Parchman: Breakfast every morning was black coffee strongly flavored with chicory, grits, biscuits and blackstrap molasses. Lunch was generally some form of beans or black-eyed peas boiled with pork gristle, served with cornbread. In the evening, it was the same as lunch except it was cold. After fasting for 12 days, I ate everything with gusto. I discovered that if you pour the molasses on the biscuits in the morning, by the afternoon, the biscuits “crisped up” inside, making what passed for a crunchy sweet. The things we appreciate when limited food is available…