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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Completing the Freedom Ride

The problem with the safe end of the perilous Freedom Ride through Alabama was that violence had won as it had for so long in the South.

In Nashville, a group of student civil rights activists decided to do something about it. They had just completed the desegregation of the city's downtown movie theaters. Among them was John Lewis, who had departed the Freedom Ride with the intention of returning in 4 days - the 4 days that brought it to an end. He, Diane Nash and other activists vowed to go to Birmingham to complete the Freedom Ride.

Nash had been born and raised in Chicago, had attended Howard University and Fisk University, largely free from the Jim Crow world of the South. Since being forced to use a "colored" rest room at the Tennessee State Fair, she had worked with other students and activists on sit-ins and other tactics to secure desegregation. In April 1960, Nash had been a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Now, having just turned 23, Nash was determined to complete the Freedom Ride. She recognized that Lewis, an original Freedom Rider, was a natural leader for the initiative.

Nash called Farmer, still conflicted over the end of the Freedom Ride and his absence following his father's death from the terror of its last days, to let him know of the Nashville students' plan. "You realize it may be suicide," he told her. She replied, "We fully realize that, but we can't let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead." The Freedom Ride, Farmer told her, was a CORE project; he indicated he would fly to Alabama to join Lewis, Nash, and the others.

While associates in Nashville tried to discourage the determined students, the Justice Department heard about the plan. Seigenthaler, still in New Orleans, received a call from Washington urging him to try to stop the Nashville students. Seigenthaler spoke directly with Nash:

After describing the explosive atmosphere in Birmingham, he asked her to consider a temporary postponement of the Ride. She refused, insisting that delaying the hour of freedom was out of the question. Exasperated, Seigenthaler predicted: "You're going to get your people killed." Once again, she was unmoved. If the first wave of Nashville Freedom Riders were to die, she calmly informed him, "then others will follow them." [Freedom Riders, p. 183]

Despite Seigenthaler's continued efforts with his contacts within the Nashville movement, Nash, Lewis, and the other student activists were determined. Nash called Reverend Shuttlesworth to let him know they were coming. "Young lady," he asked her, "do you know that the Freedom Riders were almost killed here?" She responded as she had to Seigenthaler, "That's exactly why the ride must not be stopped. If they stop us with violence, the movement is dead. We're coming." Reluctantly, Reverend Shuttlesworth agreed to help. [Freedom Riders, p. 184]

The Nashville Freedom Riders consisted of eight African-Americans, including Lewis and two women. and a 21-year old white man and woman. They considered Nash too valuable to the mission to let her participate. Several prepared wills or letters to loved ones; Nash would send the letters if any of the students were killed.

Even as the Justice Department continued its efforts to discourage her, Nash informed Reverend Shuttlesworth when the Nashville Freedom Riders were about to depart. As planned, he sent a telegram to alert Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, "Bull" Connor, that new Freedom Riders were on their way. Connor had overseen the Mother's Day assault but the telegram was intended to give him a second chance to protect the constitutional rights of African-Americans.

The Nashville students bought tickets on a Greyhound bus leaving for Birmingham at 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday, May 17, the day the original Freedom Riders had expected to reach New Orleans in time for a celebration on the 7th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education. They had been instructed to obey Jim Crow laws on the ride to Birmingham to avoid any trouble, and for the most part they obeyed. One of the whites and one of the African-Americans sat defiantly in the front section of the bus, but no one objected, so the ride along U.S. 31 proved uneventful. One of the white students, Salynn McCollum, had missed the departure, and had raced to catch the bus in Pulaski, where she bought a through ticket to Birmingham, Montgomery, Jackson, and New Orleans.

As the bus crossed into Birmingham, the police came aboard. They immediately arrested the white and African-American men seated in the white section of the bus for violating State law. They also checked the tickets held by every passenger to identify those bound from Nashville to New Orleans on the route of the Freedom Ride. In this way, they identified all the Freedom Riders except McCollum, who had purchased her ticket in Pulaski.

When the Greyhound arrived at the terminal at 12:15 p.m., the two students who had been arrested were taken off the bus, which was sealed for further inspection of tickets. McCollum was among the passengers allowed to leave; she called Nash who called the Justice Department to request help.

As a crowd gathered at the station, the police decided that for the Freedom Riders' safety, they would be kept in protective custody on the bus. The Riders tried to explain their constitutional right to get on the 3 p.m. bus for Montgomery, but a billy-club wielding officer blocked the aisle. With the press looking on, the police allowed their luggage to be shifted to the Montgomery bus, but the driver said he would refuse to leave if the Freedom Riders were onboard. His concern was moot in the wake of another bomb threat that led Greyhound to cancel the trip.

Near 4 p.m., the police let the Freedom Riders off the bus and escorted them through the angry crowd into the station's white waiting room. They joined Reverend Shuttlesworth in trying to desegregate the white restaurant, but it was locked. They then managed to desegregate the rest rooms. They sang freedom songs in the white waiting room while awaiting the opportunity to leave for Montgomery.

In Alabama, the political dynamic had shifted dramatically in just the few days since the Mother's Day assault. As Arsenault put it, "Simultaneously restraining the crowd and intimidating the Freedom Riders was turning out to be a difficult proposition, especially with the press looking on." [Freedom Riders, p. 189] The police did not want another riot, but as Governor Patterson told a press conference, he could not "guarantee the safety of fools."

The Freedom Riders, including McCollum, hoped to board the 5 p.m. bus for Montgomery, but Bull Connor had them placed in "protective custody." He arrested Reverend Shuttlesworth for interfering. The "agitators" were taken to the Southside jail. Although the reverend was released on bail, the rest stayed in jail. The men, in keeping with Gandhian principles, refused to eat. They could not sleep, so they spent the night singing freedom songs. McCollum, as a white woman, was kept separate in the jail, while the two African-American women were placed in a cell with other African-American prisoners.

In Washington, officials were trying to find a way to defuse the situation. Military intervention was ruled out as likely to remind southerners of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. They concluded that civilian authorities such as U.S. Marshals and Border Patrol officers could be used because they would be less likely to make the situation worse. Officials hoped that the threat of intervention would prompt State officials to ensure safety, but when President Kennedy called Governor Patterson to urge him to handle the situation safely, the President was told that the Governor had gone fishing and was not available.

On Thursday, Connor blamed Reverend Shuttlesworth for the problem. Displaying the telegram he had received the day before, Connor claimed that Shuttlesworth's actions in notifying the press were the equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded auditorium. Connor then attended Shuttlesworth's trial. Reverend Shuttlesworth was convicted, but released on bail. After being released, he told the press that the Freedom Ride would continue.

That night, Harry K. Smith's documentary on racial attitudes in Birmingham aired on CBS. The hour-long program gave white leaders their say in defending segregationist policies. A leading attorney explained the city's troubles:

I have no doubt that the Negro basically knows that the best friend he's ever had in the world is the Southern white man. He'd do the most for him-always has and will continue to do it, but when they, from Northern agitators, are spurred on to believe that they are equal to the white man in every respect and should be just taken from savagery, and put on the same plane with the white man in every respect, that's not true. He shouldn't be.

The program ended with Smith's account of the Mother's Day assault while standing in front of a photograph of Connor. [Freedom Riders, p. 196-197]

Connor took action that night. He hustled the remaining Freedom Riders into a caravan that took them to Ardmore near the State line. (The two students who had been arrested were kept in jail, while McCollum had been released into her father's custody. He told reporters he was taking her to New York because, "I sent her to Nashville to get an education, not to get mixed up in this integration mess." [Freedom Riders, p, 198-199]) "There is the Tennessee line," Connor told the bewildered Freedom Riders. "Cross it and save this state and yourself a lot of trouble."

Finding a telephone, the Freedom Riders consulted Nash, who let them decide which direction they would travel. She informed them, too, that a second batch of Freedom Riders would soon be leaving for Alabama. They decided to return to Birmingham. She dispatched a car on U.S. 31 for them.

Back in Birmingham, the Nashville Freedom Riders met at Reverend Shuttlesworth's home with the second wave of Riders. Together, the Riders now totaled 19 student volunteers. As before, Shuttlesworth alerted law enforcement officials of the plan to depart for Montgomery that afternoon.

By this time, Federal, State, and local officials were looking for a way to bring the situation to an end without another riot, all frustrated that the Nashville Freedom Riders would not see what the officials viewed as reason. Instead, the Riders and Shutttlesworth headed for the Greyhound station where they made their way into the white waiting room despite a growing and angry crowd that surrounded them outside. Their bus, nearly ready to depart, had room for them, but the station manager canceled the run, claiming he did not have a driver available.

The Riders camped in the station. The police kept most of the protesters out of the station, but allowed several Klansmen in to harass the Riders in petty ways while the Klan's Imperial Wizard, Robert Sheldon, looked and the angry mob outside continued to grow.

President Kennedy had finally managed to get Governor Patterson on the phone, but the Governor was unyielding. He demanded that the President send someone to Montgomery to discuss the situation. Seigenthaler arrived in Montgomery on Friday for a tense meeting with the Governor and his cabinet. Despite the Governor's furious denunciations, he agreed to a plan for resolving the situation. Police in Birmingham and Montgomery would protect the Riders while they were in those cities. The State police would protect them in between, with the State's director of safety, Floyd Mann, riding along with them.

With the deal in place, Seigenthaler was convinced that Federal intervention would not be needed. What he did not know is that Governor Patterson had changed his mind. Instead of cooperating with the plan, he had secured an injunction from Judge Walter B. Jones barring the Riders from traveling in Alabama. Although Judge Jones pointed out that the injunction presented to him referred to James Farmer and the CORE Riders, not the group from Nashville, he was assured the Governor wanted the injunction. [Freedom Riders, p. 205-206]

By Saturday morning, everyone was ready to go. Attorney General Kennedy had tried to intervene with Reverend Shuttlesworth to convince the Nashville Freedom Riders to fly to New Orleans, but the reverend indicated he would be on the bus with them. At the station, the Nashville students appeared for the first bus to Montgomery, but the driver refused to board them. "I don't have but one life to give," he told them. "And I don't intend to give it to CORE or the NAACP." [Freedom Riders, p. 207] Only after a warning from the president of Greyhound to the station manager and the appearance of Bull Connor was the driver willing to allow the Nashville Freedom Riders on his bus. The police arrested Reverend Shuttlesworth when he attempted to board, but the others boarded without incident.

A caravan of police cruisers and motorcycles, plus reporters in their own cars, escorted the bus to the Birmingham city line. The Nashville Freedom Riders, who were not aware of the plans for their safety, feared what might happen, but several State highway patrol cars appeared to replace the city force as a State patrol plane tracked the bus as it moved toward Montgomery on U.S. 31. Despite the plan to make all scheduled stops, the bus continued without break toward the capital.

As the bus approached the city line, Mann spoke with Montgomery's public safety commissioner, the segregationist L. B. Sullivan, who assured the State official that city police were waiting at the Greyhound station. Trusting Sullivan's word was one of Mann's biggest mistakes on this day. Only one officer on a motorcycle greeted the bus when it crossed the city line but the bus arrived at the station safely at 10:23 a.m. No police were evident.

Seigenthaler was not there, either. He did not know that the bus had not made the scheduled stops and was ahead of schedule. He was driving around the station trying to find a parking space.

As the Nashville Freedom Riders stepped onto the loading platform, the station was quiet. They saw taxicabs, a group of reporters, and around 12 white men near the terminal door. What they did not know is that safety commissioner Sullivan had made the same deal with the Klan that they had received in Birmingham - 15 or so minutes alone with the Riders before the police showed up. Over 200 white men, women, and children were in the area waiting for their 15 minutes to begin.

As reporters began to question the Freedom Riders, the attacks began. The reporters were pushed aside. Television cameras and cameras were broken as the mob reached the Freedom Riders, who tried to practice their Gandhian nonviolent stance. The mob attacked them with fists, bats, bricks, chains, tire irons, and fingernails. One of the white men, Jim Zwerg, was the first target, and he was brutally beaten, but each of the Freedom Riders came in for a beating.

In the frenzy, many of the Freedom Riders, including seven women, were pushed off the loading station and ran for safety. The women begged an African-American taxicab driver to take them to Reverend Abernathy's First Baptist Church, but he was unwilling to carry more than four passengers or violate Jim Crow restrictions by taking any white women. He finally agreed to take the five African-Americans, but the two white women, Susan Wilbur and Susan Hermann, were left on the curb.

They approached another African-American cab driver, who objected even as they climbed into the back seat. Before they could argue their desperate case, a white man dragged the driver out of his cab. Others dragged the two women out of the back seat and began beating them.

Seigenthaler, still looking for a parking space, turned the corner and saw the riot taking place. He also saw a teenage white boy repeatedly punching Wilbur. He pulled his car onto the curb. He pulled Wilbur to her feet and urged her to get in his car even as she told him, "Mister, this is not your fight! Get away from here! You're gonna get killed!" Hermann made it into his car, but Seigenthaler was surrounded by the mob:

Suddenly, two rough-looking men dressed in overalls blocked his path to the car door, demanding to know who "the hell" he was. Seigenthaler replied that he was a federal agent and that they had better not challenge his authority. Before he could say any more, a third man struck him in the back of the head with a pipe. Unconscious, he fell to the pavement, where he was kicked in the ribs by other members of the mob. Pushed under the rear bumper of the car, his battered and motionless body remained there until discovered by a reporter twenty-five minutes later. [Freedom Riders, p, 213-214]

Wilbur and Hermann managed to escape without serious injury.

Mann arrived on the loading dock a few minutes into the riot. He had been suspicious of Sullivan's assurances, but had no authority within the city limits. As a result, Mann had stationed highway patrolman a few blocks away, but amidst the chaos inside the station, he had to act on his own. Firing warning shots, he came to the rescue of the Freedom Riders being beaten on the loading platform. He managed to back off some of the attackers.

Sullivan's police arrived 10 minutes into the riot, but initially took no action to halt the beatings. Hearing that Mann was on the loading platform, Sullivan rushed to the scene. As Sullivan tried to assert his authority over Mann, Judge Jones and State Attorney General MacDonald Gallion arrived to take charge. Their primary concern was not to stop the riot or arrest Klansmen, but to read the Judge's injunction to the nearly unconscious Freedom Riders.

Two Freedom Riders and a reporter carried Zwerg, who appeared to be dying, to a taxicab. The white driver refused to drive Zwerg to the hospital. A deputy sheriff arrived - to read the injunction to Zwerg and the two other Freedom Riders. An African-American taxi driver agreed to take them to a doctor, but the police would not allow Zwerg to go. He would have to wait until a white ambulance arrived. Since Sullivan, as he later explained, had arranged for all the white ambulances to be in the repair shop on this date, the ambulance would never arrive. Mann had to intervene, directing one of his patrolmen to drive Zwerg to a hospital. (Zwerg would be hospitalized, but survived his injuries.)

The riot would continue into the late afternoon, long after the Nashville Freedom Riders had found ways out of the area. Too late, Attorney General Kennedy directed John Doar, on the scene from the Department's Office of Civil Rights, to get an injunction blocking the Klan and the NSRP from interfering with interstate transportation. The Justice Department also activated the plan to send U.S. marshals and other nonmilitary law enforcement officials to enforce the civil rights of the Nashville Freedom Riders.

Even while taking these actions, the Attorney General and other Administration officials were aware of the political aspects of the struggle. In the close popular vote in the 1960 election, Kennedy's election had turned on small differences. Although the South was largely Democratic, it had been fighting the national party for years over civil rights. While the Kennedy brothers were outraged by what had happened in Montgomery, they kept their statements evenhanded. The President called on State and local officials "to exercise their lawful authority to prevent any further outbreaks of violence." At the same time, he hoped that citizens of Alabama or visitors to the State "would refrain from any action which would in any way tend to provoke further outbreaks."

In an angry telephone exchange, Governor Patterson and Attorney General Kennedy exchanged accusations. The Governor was opposed to Federal intervention, claiming that Alabama did not need outside help. In the telephone call and a public statement, the Governor made clear he had no sympathy for lawbreakers, agitators, and troublemakers:

While we will do our utmost to keep the public highways clear and to guard against all disorder, we cannot escort bus loads or carloads of rabble rousers about our state from city to city for the avowed purpose of disobeying our laws, flouting our customs and traditions, and creating racial incidents. Such unlawful acts serve only to further enrage our populace. I have no use for these agitators or their kind. [Freedom Riders, p. 223]

Like the Kennedys, Governor Patterson had to tend to his own political base as an anti-Washington, States rights leader who would protect Alabama's white population from outside agitators.

Zwerg and another African-American, William Barbee, were hospitalized. Two of the women, Hermann and Wilbur, had been captured by the police and sent by train back to Nashville. The remaining Nashville Freedom Riders found their way to First Baptist Church where they were given refuge.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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