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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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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Delegation from Minnesota Inspects Conditions

Later that day, they started shuffling Freedom Riders around. It turned out that they moved all of the persons from Minnesota to the near end of the cell block, cells 2, 3 and 4. I was in 5. The reason for the change in tone now became apparent.  A delegation sent by the governor of Minnesota had arrived to investigate conditions in the prison. They were brought in, and two guards prevented them from going past cell 4. From what I heard, I felt that the Minnesotans were minimizing the seriousness of the mistreatment we had received, for instance failing to mention the DDT spraying incident. I called over to one member of the delegation, suggesting that he tour the rest of the cell block and talk with the rest of the Freedom Riders. The guard said that was not allowed, and they had to limit their conversation with Minnesotans. I called to the delegation that I was sure that some of the other Freedom Riders would have information they should hear. The delegate said that he would have to report that the prison officials were uncooperative if they did not allow the delegation to interview all of the Freedom Riders about the conditions and the treatment of the Freedom Riders.

The Minnesota delegation was finally permitted to interview all of the Freedom Riders.  Some improvements in treatment resulted. Besides getting the screens back on the windows and the bedding as promised, we began to get some mail. However, it was severely censored.  I got one letter which it started Dear David, then the entire body of the letter was cut out leaving a large hole, with the closing good-bye remaining.

Mattresses are Removed

Our singing went on for hours and hours a day. Several times the guards (affectionately known as “screws”) ordered us to shut up, which caused us to sing louder. Finally, the Warden came in and said we had to stop singing, that it was bothering the cooks. This was hilarious to us, since the cooks were black trustees who clearly were getting a kick out of our spirit and defiance. He announced that if we did not stop singing, that he would take away our tooth brushes. We sang louder. Out went toothbrushes. We kept singing. He ordered that our bibles be taken, we sang louder. Bibles gone.  If we didn’t stop singing, he would have our mattresses and bedding taken out.  We sang with even more gusto. They came to take the mattresses, and some prisoners who tried to hold on to their mattresses had “wrist breakers” applied to them. These are “handling” devices with a metal strap with a leverage handle that tightens the strap around the wrist. The combination of tightness and leverage makes it impossible to resist its action, and has resulted in many a wrist to be broken in prison.

Traveling Through Alabama and Mississippi

After boarding the bus for Jackson, the bus pulled out into the massive police presence which was cordoning off the bus station. Leaving Montgomery, we traveled through rural Alabama with a State Highway patrol escort in front and behind. At each station we came to during the entire six hour trip to Jackson Mississippi, the police prevented us from disembarking and only persons with tickets were allowed off. Luckily, we had a rest room on the bus. When we crossed the state line from Alabama into Mississippi, the Mississippi State Police took up the guard patrol. Apparently, the news had spread through Mississippi as we began to see crowds of hostile whites at the stations we passed. As we approached the Jackson Trailways Bus Station, there was a large hostile crowd of whites cordoned away from the station itself, and a large show of police surrounded the bus as it stopped. Disembarking from the bus, we passed through a double column of police to get to the waiting rooms, the black Freedom Riders entered the “Whites Only” waiting room, and the two of us who were white (Dave Myers and myself) entered the “Colored” waiting room. Not surprisingly, the “Colored” waiting room was small, dingy, with wooden benches, very primitive compared with the spacious, well appointed white waiting room with cushioned seats.   So much for “separate but equal…”28_slide0025_image055 29_slide0036_image057 30_slide0014_image059

Meeting White Volunteers at Train Station

Dave Myers and I remained in Dr. Abernathy’s home for the next several days. Since we were the only white Freedom Riders at this early stage, we were sent to meet new (white) riders coming into the train station. There was increasing concern about blacks picking up whites. Waiting for new volunteers to arrive at the train station was tense, especially every time a policeman came by, but we were able to meet the new Riders and escort them to safe houses uneventfully.

Planning Meetings with Martin Luther King

Dr. King held another planning meeting at which we developed a new strategy.  We saw that authorities in Jackson, Mississippi were intent on arresting all Freedom Riders who integrated the bus stations.  Our new plan called for refusing bail, and filling the jails with Freedom Riders. Following our arrest, we would have 40 days in which to enter plea. We would stay in jail those 40 days and then bail out.