Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice
(Oxford University Press, 2006)
by Raymond Arsenault

A review by Cliff Williams


This is an astonishingly good book. And it is both depressing and inspirational.

Astonishingly Good

Freedom Riders is astonishingly good because of the careful and vivid depictions of the 1961 freedom rides to Southern states. Details about the rides and their antagonistic receptions in the deep South bring the events described alive.

Long after one finishes Freedom Riders one still recalls the melee in which Southern whites wielded baseball bats and steel pipes to attack the riders as they disembarked from their bus at a Birmingham bus station. One cannot forget the smoke and flames that spread throughout the very first freedom bus as a result of a fire bomb that was tossed into it through an already broken window.

The author, a professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida, did extensive research and conducted numerous interviews. He recounts telephone conversations between freedom rider leaders and the attorney general of the United States, Robert Kennedy. He describes enthusiastic singing in Southern black churches where Freedom Riders told their stories. He tells of court scenes in which Freedom Riders were convicted of “disturbing the peace” and sentenced to fines and jail terms. He even lists the participants in sixty of the rides, with their ages and occupations. By his count, there were 436 riders. Some were college students, some were ordinary citizens, and a few were ministers. Nearly half were from the South, and a little more than half were from the North.

The rides usually began in a Northern city and ended at Montgomery, Birmingham, Jackson, or New Orleans. They were done on both Greyhound and Trailways buses, plus a few by train. The impetus for the rides was a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that made segregation in interstate travel illegal (Boynton v. Virginia, 1960). The riders made sure that they bought tickets to a city in a different state from which they departed.

Intrastate segregation was not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. But the distinction between intrastate and interstate travel was of no significance to Southern states. They did not want the federal government intruding on their traditional way of life, which, they believed, ensured harmony between whites and blacks. The “they” included local and state judges, police, and government officials, plus bus drivers, white citizens, and members of the White Citizens Council.

Segregation on buses meant that whites sat in front and blacks in back. It also meant that bus stations had separate waiting rooms, restaurants, and water fountains. Prominently displayed signs, in all caps, indicated which was which: 
  • VIRGINIA STATE LAW REQUIRES ALL COLORED PASSENGERS TO RIDE IN REAR OF BUS. 
  • NO DOGS NEGROES MEXICANS. 
  • WAITING ROOM FOR COLORED ONLY. BY ORDER POLICE DEPT. 
  • DRINKING FOUNTAIN, with WHITE and an arrow underneath it pointing to the left, and COLORED and an arrow underneath it pointing to the right.
The Freedom Riders usually traveled in groups of six to ten. The whites in each group sat in the back of the bus, the blacks in the front, and one was a designated observer. At the station the white riders went to a colored-designated bathroom or restaurant, and the black riders went to a white-designated bathroom or restaurant.

It is more accurate to say that the black Freedom Riders tried to sit in the front of the buses and tried to use a white-designated bathroom or station restaurant. Sometimes they succeeded, but sometimes they did not. When black Freedom Riders sat down in the front of a bus, they were often asked by the bus driver to go to the back. When the riders refused, sometimes the police were called and the riders removed from the bus and arrested.

The author writes, “Emboldened by defiant White Citizens’ Council leaders and demagogic politicians, individual bus drivers, station agents, and police officers routinely ignored federal mandates, dismissing them as illegitimate infringements of local control and states’ rights” ( 478).

Depressing

Freedom Riders is depressing because it displays in raw particularity the resistance of Southern whites to desegregation.
  • A Greyhound bus headed to New Orleans from Washington D.C. has some of its windows smashed at the bus station in Anniston, Alabama, by angry whites. After the bus left the Anniston station, it is stopped six miles later by more angry whites. Someone throws a flaming bundle of rags through one of the broken windows while the riders are still in it. Fortunately, they all escape before the bus is consumed by fire and smoke, but some are badly injured (140-6).
  • Birmingham police officers inform local Klansmen that they will not be at the Trailways bus station for the first fifteen minutes after a bus with Freedom Riders in it arrives. During those fifteen minutes, riders are punched, kicked, dragged, and beat. No Klansmen are arrested (153-60).
  • In the Montgomery, Alabama, Greyhound station, Freedom Riders are greeted first by a “group of white men armed with lead pipes and baseball bats” and shortly later by a “surging mob” carrying “baseball bats, wooden boards, bricks, chains, tire irons, pipes, even garden tools—hoes and rakes” (212). John Seigenthaler, deputy assistant to Robert Kennedy, attorney general of the United States, approaches the scene with horror and attempts to aid a young, white woman who is a Freedom Rider and who is being punched repeatedly in the face. He is hit on the back of his head with a pipe, falls to the ground unconscious, is kicked in the ribs, dragged behind his car, and lies there, still unconscious, for twenty-five minutes until discovered by a reporter (213-4).
  • Fourteen students at Tennessee State University are expelled for being Freedom Riders (430).
  • Numerous Freedom Riders, all of whom were trained to be non-violent, are arrested for “disturbing the peace” or “disorderly conduct.” Many of them serve time in jail or prison, including at Parchman, a Mississippi state penitentiary that is notorious for its repression of inmates. In the early part of the twentieth century, Parchman participated in the practice of convict leasing for farm labor, which was little better than slavery and in some ways worse.

Haunted

All of this reminds me of a visit to my grandfather, who lived in Birmingham at the time of the freedom rides. He was a minister in a Southern Baptist church there. The year I visited was 1968. I went with him to a talk he gave to the youth in a Baptist church on a Sunday evening. I remember none of what he said, except for the declaration, seemingly stuck in the middle of other thoughts, “I believe in segregation. But I don’t believe in being cruel about it—‘Get around to the back, n–––– !’”

To this day, I am haunted by his assertion. How could one who was so gracious and kind, loved by everyone in the churches he pastored, be a segregationist? It would not matter how uncruel he thought he was being. The whole system of segregation was cruel. He was the very sort of person whom Martin Luther King, Jr., had in mind as he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963.

I am similarly haunted by the virulent passion that the white segregationists exhibited in the responses to the Freedom Riders. What was it about integration that angered them so?

Why?

One answer is stated in Freedom Riders, given by the judges, business owners, police officers, and citizens of Southern states in response to the Freedom Riders: “They are disturbing our way of life.” When one has grown up in a starkly segregated context, one is firmly imbued with the values of that context. Change is nearly impossible.

Another answer, given by the author of Freedom Riders as he reflects on the resistance the riders encountered, is that white Southerners were not able to feel empathy for the condition of blacks in their midst. This was so, he states, because they were rigidly entrenched in an entirely different system of customs and values. This answer is reminiscent of Aleksandr Solzhenityn’s famous question, “How can someone who is warm understand one who is cold?” written about the guards in Russian concentration camps.*

A further answer, unspoken by anyone in Freedom Riders, is that in the segregated culture of the South, whites enjoyed a significant degree of control over blacks. The freedom rides threatened to destroy that control. And if there is anything that one fiercely hangs onto when confronted even with severe opposition, it is control—or what comes to the same thing, power. Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist before and during the Civil War, understood this well: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”* Power over others is probably pretty nearly the strongest impulse in humans.

A last answer, stated by James Baldwin, a black writer during the Civil Rights Era, in his “Letter to My Nephew,” is that undoing segregation threatened the identity of white people who lived in it: White people in the United States, Baldwin wrote, “have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. . . . The danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”* Losing one’s identity is the result of integration, Baldwin is saying. And the identity that would be lost is the sense of superiority whites have over blacks.

For this reason, Baldwin infers, white people need black people. They need black people in order to secure their identity as superior to black people. So, Baldwin continues, “the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”*

In light of just this last answer, one might be surprised if there had been no resistance to the Freedom Riders. The immovable pillars of the white Southern identity had been shaken and were in danger of falling.

In spite of these answers, I am still haunted by my grandfather’s segregationism and the excessive resistance of white Southerners to the freedom rides. How can so many people, how can even just one person, harbor so much opposition to the idea of equal treatment for all?

In Freedom Riders, white Southerners are prominently displayed as the bad people. It is important to say that white Northerners also displayed racial injustice, albeit largely in less overt or conscious ways. White Southerners are not the only “bad people” in the drama of racial inequality in the United States.

Inspirational

Despite being depressing, Freedom Riders is also inspirational because it recounts how the riders acted on their convictions despite the possibility of bodily harm. They were instructed to make their wills, having been told that death was a possibility. The antagonistic reception at some bus stations did not stop others from making the same rides. Fortunately, none were killed, though a number were hurt, some requiring hospital care.

The book is also inspirational because the rides contributed to the ongoing movement for racial equality. Politics also contributed, and so did other social forces. But the rides played a dramatic role in bringing about social change.

Freedom Riders will give hope to those who are generally optimistic. To those who are generally pessimistic, Freedom Riders will highlight the challenges in bringing about racial justice.

Notes

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation,” in Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass (Rochester, NY: O. P. Dewey, Printer, 1857), page 22. Online at https://www.loc.gov/resource/mfd.21039/?sp=22

James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” in The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), page 9. Online at https://progressive.org/magazine/letter-nephew/



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