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.

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Violence in Montgomery, Alabama

On May 21, 1961, the surviving contingent of Riders took a bus from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama, protected by a contingent of the Alabama State Highway Patrol.  However, when they reached the Montgomery city limits, the Highway Patrol abandoned them.  At the bus station, a large white mob was waiting with baseball bats and iron pipes. The local police allowed them to viciously beat the Freedom Riders uninterrupted. Again, white Freedom Riders, branded “Nigger-Lovers,” were singled out for particularly brutal beatings.  There is a famous picture of Jim Zwerg with blood running all down his suit. Justice Department official Seigenthaler was beaten and left unconscious lying in the street. Ambulances, manned by white attendants refused to take the wounded to the hospital. Brave local blacks finally rescued them. A number of the Freedom Riders were hospitalized.

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Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Gets Involved in the Freedom Rides

With most of the Freedom Riders injured, and the danger of the violence escalating to the point of someone being killed,  it was suggested that the Freedom Rides should be discontinued.  Nashville student Diane Nash, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) felt that if violence were allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years.  She pushed to find replacements to resume the ride, and on May 17th, a new set of riders, students from Nashville, took a bus to Birmingham. There, they were arrested by Police Chief Bull Connor and jailed. These students kept their spirits up in jail by singing Freedom Songs. Out of frustration, Police Chief Bull Connor drove them back up to the Tennessee line and dropped them off stating “I just couldn’t stand their singing.”

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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Introduction to Segregation in the South, 1961

Racial segregation was the rule throughout all of the southern and in areas of the northern United States  until the 1960s.  Public facilities were claimed to be “separate but equal” by proponents of segregation.   Those who violated these social mores were subject to abuse ranging from beatings to bombings to lynchings.  (The lynching shown occurred in Marion, Indiana in 1930)1.  In 1961, the Civil Rights Movement to end racial segregation was still in its infancy, with only a few victories realized (notably integration of Woolworth’s lunch counters and, shown at the left, integration of the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama2 ). The federal government had passed an Interstate Commerce Commission law stating that it was illegal to segregate public interstate facilities. However, this federal law was officially ignored throughout the South with separate white and “colored” facilities enforced at bus and train stations 3 . As a rule throughout the South, police not only turned a blind eye to violence against movement people, but were often active participants in the beatings.  Pleas to President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to enforce the federal law were ignored, and the U.S. Justice Department turned a blind eye to these violations, despite pleas to them to enforce the laws prohibiting segregation of interstate facilities.

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50th Reunion of the Freedom Riders, Chicago 2011

These pictures were taken by David Fankhauser at the 50th Reunion of Freedom Riders in Chicago, 27 April to 30 April 2011.

First set from the 25th floor of the Omni Hotel.  Thanks Oprah.

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Breakfast at the Omni, April 28, 2011

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On the bus (didn’t we have fun singing!) and disembarking at Harpo Studios (then they took my camera away!)

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My student guests from Simeon High School in South Chicago, with their teacher Steven Guarnieri (my future son-in-law) and Jesse Jackson

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Photos from the April 29th sessions

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Photos from the April 30th sessions

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