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The Story of a Mob and the KKK vs. the Freedom Riders of 1961

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 7, 2024 3:02 am

The Story of a Mob and the KKK vs. the Freedom Riders of 1961

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 7, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Kirk Higgins, the Senior Director of Content at the Bill of Rights Institute, tells the story of one of the most harrowing bus journeys of all time, the couragous men and women who went on it, and the mob that attacked them for wanting to ride as equals to each other.

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Take it away, Kirk. May 4th, 1961, a warm spring day in our nation's capital, Washington, DC. Buses are scattered throughout downtown as school groups and tourists flood in to see our nation's monuments and memorials bearing the names of our most cherished leaders, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. But one bus had a very different destination in mind. It was carrying a group of 13 black and white civil rights activists of various ages and backgrounds, but all committed to the same cause and all committed to nonviolence. Their destination? New Orleans. They'd ride through seven different states on the way there.

Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally, Louisiana. Their mission was simple, to protest segregation, or more specifically, laws and states that made it illegal for black people to ride as equals to white people on the same bus or train. Behind it all, Executive Director of the Congress of Racial Equality, James Farmer, took his seat with the others. They tried to smile, but it wasn't easy, for all the riders knew this ride could quite possibly be the last ride of their lives. The risk of violence was high, and law enforcement couldn't, or in some cases, wouldn't guarantee their safety. John Lewis would later recall that while the seven whites and six African Americans dined together at a Chinese restaurant the night before the ride, one had remarked that they should, quote, eat well because it could be their last supper. Farmer later recalled, quote, we were told that the racists, the segregationists, would go to any extent to hold the line on segregation in interstate travel.

So when we began the ride, I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us. You can never whip these birds if you don't keep you in them separate. You've got to keep the white, the black separate. I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

The bus pulled out with the station. This wasn't the first time something like this had been tried. In 1947, 16 men, eight white and eight black, planned to travel from D.C. to 15 segregated southern cities. Their goal was to test a recent Supreme Court decision, Irene Morgan versus Commonwealth of Virginia, which ruled that Virginia's law enforcing segregation on interstate buses, greyhounds and the like, was unclear.

State buses, greyhounds and the like, was unconstitutional. Yet southern states refused to follow the ruling. The men on the first Freedom Ride only made it as far as North Carolina before some of their ranks were arrested.

Astonishing, consider that they had meticulously planned their travel to exclude the Deep South, where things were even worse. On May 20th, two of the four arrested, Bayard Rustin and Egal Roa-Dienko, found themselves in front of Judge Henry Whitfield, a hardline segregationist. Rustin, a black man, would get 30 days on a chain gang. Roa-Dienko, a white man, would get 90, simply for sitting next to one another. Explaining the difference in his sentencing, Judge Whitfield stated that Rustin had been, quote, misled by the white man. Roa-Dienko, a white man, would get 90, simply for misled by the white man. Roa-Dienko, in intentionally mispronouncing Roa-Dienko's last name as Rodensky, stated, it's about time that you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down bringing your African-Americans with you to upset the customs of the South. Whitfield, of course, didn't use the phrase African-American, preferring to use a racial epithet instead.

He further explained that he was giving the sentence to, quote, teach him a lesson. All this for doing something the Supreme Court deemed legal. But back to 1961. Things were slightly different a decade or so after the first Freedom Riders. The colored people only and whites only signs had been removed from the interstate buses themselves in the wake of the Irene Morgan versus Commonwealth of Virginia case, but they had not been removed in bus terminals and rest stops. The Freedom Riders encountered their first signs only a mere 50 miles south of Washington, above the restroom doors at a Greyhound stop in Fredericksburg. It was Danville, Virginia, near the border of North Carolina, where the riders would encounter their first real resistance. Nothing physically violent, thankfully, just a degrading refusal of service. After talking to the manager of the rest stop, they'd get their refreshments and move on.

But as the riders headed further south, the chance of violence only increased. Things would boil over in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Freedom Rider and future Congressman John Lewis was met by a mob of 20 people when he tried to enter the white waiting room at a rest stop. Only after he had been severely beat did the police officer stationed there step in.

He had watched the events unfold for quite some time before taking any action. 48 years later, one of the men who attacked him, a former Klansman who had hurled jack handles at African-Americans and attended cross burnings, personally apologized for his actions in Lewis's office on Capitol Hill. An unlikely reunion for these two men Congressman John Lewis and Elwynn Wilson. They met, if you can call it that, 48 years ago in very different times, in a blur of angry fists and proud protest.

Lewis, then a Freedom Rider for Dr. King, arrived at the Rock Hill, South Carolina bus depot May 9th, 1961, and was pummeled by Wilson, who for years has been working his way toward this moment. I'm sorry for what happened down there. Well, it's okay.

It's all right. It's almost 48 years ago. That's right.

Yeah. So remember that day well? I never thought that this would happen. It says something about the power of love, the power of grace and the power of people to be able to say I'm sorry. I feel like I got saved out there. One of his buddies, deeply religious, posed the question that would finally set his soul on a different course. He said, if you died right now, do you know where you would go? I said to hell. And then as Elwynn Wilson watched Barack Obama become president, something shifted in his heart. I didn't vote for him, but I'm glad he's there. And I've prayed for him. And what now?

I want to love people regardless of what color. And you've been listening to Kirk Higgins, the director of content at the Bill of Rights Institute, telling the story of the Freedom Rides of 1961. And the destination was New Orleans. The starting place was Washington, DC. There were some bad signs to start 50 miles south of DC, but they took the form they were manifested in the form of a denial of services. As they headed further south, though, South Carolina in particular, that's when things turned violent.

The late Congressman John Lewis was beaten badly, simply trying to use the rest stop facilities. When we come back, more of the Freedom Rides of 1961 here on Our American Stories. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. We all carry around different stressors in our lives, big ones and small ones.

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See terms and conditions 18 plus. And we return to our American stories and our story on the Freedom Rides of 1961. Telling the story is Kirk Higgins, the director of content at the Bill of Rights Institute. Let's return to the story.

Take it away, Kirk. The Freedom Riders continued onwards, and as they pulled into Atlanta on Sunday, May 14th, they decided to split up for the next leg of the trip to Birmingham, Alabama. It turned out to be a fateful decision. When the first group reached a stop in Anniston, Alabama, an angry mob of some 200 whites surrounded their Greyhound bus, some of them armed with iron bars. They broke windows, dented the sides, and punctured the tires. Somehow, the bus was able to drive off.

It only made it six miles down the road before the tires went flat. The mob had followed them. Someone broke the back window and hurled a fire bomb onto the bus. The bus was immediately engulfed in thick black smoke, and the Freedom Riders fell to the floor to breathe. Some managed to make it out of the windows. Others tried to dash for the door, only to find it blocked from the outside. The mob was out for blood.

The sound of a policeman's gunshot up into the air caused the crowd to disperse. It was some miracle that all the riders managed to make it out of the bus alive, and even more astonishing that they weren't killed once outside. This wouldn't be the last round of violence those on the Freedom Ride would encounter. The next stop was Birmingham, Alabama, the heart of the Deep South. Theophilus Eugene Conner, better known as Bull Connor, paced back and forth in his office in downtown Birmingham. Just days earlier, he had been re-elected in a landslide to his position as Commissioner of Public Safety. His sixth term in the position, he'd held it more or less since before World War II. His career in politics had started after a stint as a radio broadcaster for the Birmingham Barons Baseball Club.

Years later, Willie Mays, who played for the Birmingham Black Barons in his youth, would remember that he, quote, was a pretty good announcer, although I think he used to get too excited, end quote. His career was also built on upholding the segregation that the Freedom Riders were challenging, and the Supreme Court had been illegal. Martin Luther King Jr. called him, quote, a racist who prided himself on knowing how to handle the African-American and keep him in his place.

You've got to keep your white and black separate. He was later known for using dogs and fire hoses against people, including children. There would be no police protection when the Freedom Riders pulled into Trailways bus terminal in Birmingham.

Conner's excuse was that it was Mother's Day. In reality, he had granted a 15-minute grace period for an extrajudicial beating upon the riders by members of KKK. As the riders exited the bus to sit at the all-white counter at the rest stop, mob beat them with fists, iron pipes, baseball bats, spike chains, and broken coke bottles. James Peck, one of the few riders who had participated in the first Freedom Ride in 1947, took the courageous decision to combat them. He stated that, quote, they would have to kill him before hurting the other riders, end quote.

Peck ended up with life-threatening wounds and required over 50 stitches, all for courageously defying medication. He would later tell a reporter that he endured the violence to, quote, show that nonviolence can prevail over violence. Again, the bus was firebombed. Despite the violence, the Freedom Riders fully intended to push onward with their journey.

Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, had even arranged escort for them going forward into Montgomery, Alabama. But it wasn't the riders resolved, but that of the Greyhound bus companies that would falter. The company refused to allow more of its buses to be destroyed or to put the lives of its drivers in danger. Frustrated, the riders made their way to the Birmingham Airport to fly to their destination of New Orleans.

When they got on the plane, all the passengers would have to disembark due to a bomb threat. It looked as if the Freedom Rides were over. But a black student named Diane Nash refused to back down. She feared that the civil rights movement would face a large setback. Freedom Rides did not continue.

Nash had already made her mark on the civil rights movement, leading and participating in sit-ins that contributed to Nashville's lunch counters being desegregated. Despite the project being suspended by CORE, she managed to organize another group to continue the trip. They wouldn't get far. The new Freedom Riders were arrested, transported more than 100 miles away to Tennessee, and dumped by the side of the road. But again, they were not deterred. The courageous young people simply drove back to Birmingham and attempted to board a bus, but the terrified driver refused to look them up. By this point, the Kennedy administration had gotten even more serious and negotiated a settlement that Alabama and Greyhound officials would accompany the new Freedom Riders to Montgomery, and state police cars would protect the bus from any further mob violence. That should have provided a measure of safety for the Freedom Riders, but it didn't. The new bus would depart Birmingham on May 20th quickly. They'd be traveling 90 miles per hour out of the city to avoid snipers and the mob violence that had marred the protests throughout the Deep South. But as soon as the bus left city limits, Alabama Highway Patrol would leave Birmingham to their own devices, and in Montgomery, another mob awaited them. A young white man, Jim Zwerg, valiantly stepped off first and was dragged down and beat severely by the mob. Two female riders were being pummeled, one by a woman swinging a purse at her head, while the other was punched in the face by a man.

Shouts of, kill them, hang out. Had it not been for Floyd Mann, someone. Mann was the director of public safety in Alabama when the Freedom Riders rode the state, and according to those who knew him, he was destined from birth to be a legendary lawman. He was a veteran, having served as a tail gunner on 27 combat missions over Europe in a B-17, including the first daytime raid over Berlin. He had served with distinction, having received the Distinguished Flying Cross and numerous other awards come war's end. By the time he was 30, he had become chief of police in the sizable Alabama town of Opelika, where he dismantled a gambling ring.

And while he worked under Governor Paterson, who vehemently opposed the riders, he was a man who believed in the rule of law through and through. When Mann received information from a confidential source that the police in Montgomery planned to be on holiday when the riders arrived, he jumped into a patrol car and sped to the scene. According to an account published in the Tuscaloosa News, quote, he wheeled into the parking lot, pulled his revolver out of his gun belt, and placed it against the temple of the biggest, meanest, slick-backed undershirt-wearing baseball bat holder who was waiting at the door of the bus for the Freedom Riders. He said, quote, I'll give you folks five minutes to all clear out of here, or I'll start shooting with this fellow and we'll take names later for families.

That night, Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Montgomery to speak. Protected by a ring of federal marshals, King addressed a mass rally of 1,500 people at First Baptist Church. He told the assembly with his soaring rhetoric, Alabama will have to face the fact that we are determined to be free. We are not afraid and we shall overcome. So in the days ahead, let us not sink into the quicksands of violence. Rather, let us stand on the high ground of love and not injury.

Let us continue to be strong, spiritual mills that will wear out many a physical hammer. Two days later, 27 Freedom Riders finally boarded buses safely and headed toward New Orleans. At the Mississippi border, however, they were all arrested and taken to jail.

Several additional attempts were made, but all suffered the same fate. Today, the story of the Freedom Riders lives on as a remarkable demonstration of bravery and resilience. Their indomitable will won over the hearts and minds of Americans who had heard about their fight for equality. A few short years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

The rule of law would prevail and African Americans and white Americans could travel as equals across the nation. And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to Kirk Higgins. He's the Senior Director of Content at the Bill of Rights Institute. And you can learn more about their great American history curriculum at mybri.org.

That's mybri.org. And what a story you heard about courage and selflessness and pure unadulterated racism. The story of the Freedom Rides of 1961 here on Our American Stories. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA.

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