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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Waiting for the ICC

On Monday, May 29, the Attorney General filed a petition asking the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which regulated bus operators and other motor carriers, to adopt "stringent regulations" prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel, citing the Freedom Riders as evidence of the need. The Motor Carrier Act of 1935 had given the ICC jurisdiction over interstate buses. Arsenault explained the ICC's action on desegregation:

Six years earlier the ICC had issued an order mandating the desegregation of interstate train travel, including terminal restaurants, waiting rooms, and restrooms. The November 1955 order had also directed interstate bus companies to discontinue the practice of segregating passengers, but said nothing about segregated bus terminals. Even more confusing was the commission's subsequent decision to forego any real effort to enforce the order. When the ICC won a judgment against Southern Stages, Inc. in April 1961, it was the first instance of even token enforcement of bus desegregation. And even in the Southern Stages case, which involved the segregation of a black interstate passenger in Georgia in the summer of 1960, the hundred-dollar fine levied against the company and a driver represented little more than a slap on the wrist.

The Attorney General's proposal may have reflected desperation to put the controversy in the past as well as his frustration that leaders such as Dr. King had rejected the call for a cooling off period.

Having decided to pursue the change, Kennedy ordered his staff to figure out a way to initiate ICC action. The petition was a unique method of pursuing the ICC change. Amid its legal and legislative citations, the petition stated:

Just as our Constitution is color blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens, so too is the Interstate Commerce Act. The time has come for this commission, in administering that act, to declare unequivocally by regulation that a Negro passenger is free to travel the length and breadth of this country in the same manner as any other passenger. [Freedom Riders, p. 292-294]

The following day, young protesters picketed the White House to protest the Administration's reaction to the Riders. One sign read:

Attention Robert Kennedy
There's been a 95-Year Cooling-Off Period

That same day, a group of CORE Freedom Riders left New Orleans on an integrated Illinois Central Railroad bound for Jackson. The group included a Howard University student named Stokely Carmichael. As they moved through the station onto the train, they were beaten by an angry white mob, but they made their way to Jackson. All eight were quickly arrested for disorderly conduct and sentenced by Judge Spencer to a $200 fine and 60 days in the county jail.

They joined several groups of Riders in the county jail, including the group that had initially been sent to the Hinds County Penal Farm. That group had been returned to the county jail after reports emerged that the guards had beaten one of the prisoners. Despite the crowded, miserable conditions and the attitude of the guards, the prisoners kept up their spirits singing freedom songs, much to the annoyance of the guards.

On Friday, June 2, Judge Johnson issued his ruling; it surprised both sides. He issued a preliminary injunction against the Klan and similar groups, and ordered the police to protect all interstate travelers, regardless of race. He also granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting all groups from "sponsoring, financing, assisting or encouraging any individual or group of individuals in traveling interstate commerce through or in Alabama for the purpose of testing the state or local laws as those laws relate to racial segregation." He indicated he would reconsider the ban in a hearing later that month:

If there are any such incidents as this again, I am going to put some Klansmen, some city officials and some Negro preachers in the Federal penitentiary.

With the media focused on President Kennedy's trip to Europe to meet with allies and hold the summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, the Freedom Riders and the movement's leaders took time to reassess their position in view of Judge Johnson's order. During a June 5 press conference in New York City, Dr. King called for "a second Emancipation Proclamation." He explained:

The time has now come for the President of the United States to issue a firm Executive Order declaring all forms of racial segregation illegal . . . . There is a mighty stirring in this land. The sit-ins at lunch counters and Freedom Riders on buses are making it palpably clear that segregation must end and that it must end soon. [Freedom Riders, p. 304-305]

By the end of the week, the Freedom Rides had resumed, generally under the auspices of the FRCC, but avoiding Alabama in view of Judge Johnson's preliminary injunction. All ended in Jackson where participants were arrested and brought before Judge Spencer, whose patience was stretched to a limit. He threatened to increase the penalties to include 6 months in jail. His threats did not stop the flow of Freedom Riders to Jackson and its jail. From diverse backgrounds and States, group after group made its way to the city.

Even as the rides continued, the NAACP filed a desegregation petition in Federal District Court in Jackson. On behalf of three African-American residents of Jackson, the petition sought to prevent State and local police from enforcing transit segregation in violation of the Constitution. Without citing the Freedom Riders, the petition also sought an end to the breach-of-peace arrests used to "arrest, harass, and intimidate" travelers seeking to use interstate and intrastate facilities without discrimination. The court planned to hear the petition in July. [Freedom Riders, p. 312-313]

Officials supporting Jim Crow segregation were further troubled on June 12 when Judge Johnson lifted his temporary restraining order against the Freedom Riders. His new ruling reopened Alabama to the riders.

Jackson was not the only destination of the Freedom Riders. On June 12, CORE announced two rides along the East Coast to Florida. The first, consisting of 18 clergymen, was known as the Interfaith Freedom Ride. The second group of 14 included teachers, students, doctors, and union representatives.

The Riders received service without problems at stations well into Florida. "Much of the state," according to Arsenault, "particularly northern Florida, was rigidly segregated by law and custom." However, Attorney General Kennedy had spoken with Governor Farris Bryant to encourage him to avoid the confrontations that had created so many problems in Alabama and Mississippi. The Interfaith Freedom Ride in the Florida Panhandle had difficulty in Lake City where waitresses refused to serve a racially mixed group of clergyman, but received service at the Tallahassee Trailways terminal. At the Greyhound terminal, the manager ensured that African-Americans served African-Americans, but the entire group was able to eat in the same room.

The Interfaith Freedom Riders intended to fly home from the Tallahassee airport, so in the morning they planned to test the airport's white restaurant. When they arrived in the morning, local authorities closed the restaurant. Eight of the Riders flew home, but the other 10 remained at the airport until it closed at midnight, even as angry whites came to the airport to express their views. After a night at a local Baptist church, the Riders returned with local activists the next day, only to be arrested at midday for refusing an order to leave the airport within 15 seconds.

While the "Tallahassee Ten" experienced the jail's miserable conditions, the second group of Freedom Riders arrived at the Ocala Greyhound station. When the Riders were blocked by two white men from entering the white cafeteria, police officers ordered the Riders to get back on their bus. Several riders were arrested for refusing to comply while the others desegregated the white restrooms, then headed to Tampa and St. Petersburg. They were accommodated without difficulty.

Judge John Rudd found the Tallahassee Ten guilty and sentenced them to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. He admonished the clergymen for their agitation:

Stop and think when you go back home and check the records of crime, prostitution and racial strife there compared to Tallahassee. Then clean up your own parishes, and you'll find you have more than you can take care of.

The group appealed the conviction as far as the Supreme Court, which refused to interfere with the Florida courts. One of the defendants paid his fine to avoid going to jail, but the others reported to jail in August 1964. After their release, they managed "to eat triumphantly at the same airport restaurant that had refused to serve them in 1961." [Freedom Riders, p. 317-325]

On June 15, 45 Freedom Riders in the Jackson jail were placed into trucks without being told where they were going:

As the convoy lurched northward, however, at least some of the Riders began to suspect that they were on Highway 49, the road to the Delta and the dreaded Parchman farm. It was a road that thousands of unfortunate Mississippians had taken since the prison's construction in 1904, and very few had survived the experience without suffering lasting physical and emotional scars. [Freedom Riders, p. 325]

Because some of the Riders refused to cooperate, their processing into the prison farm was more intimidating than it might have been. That evening, Governor Barnett arrived at the prison with the head of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. The Governor cautioned the guards that "it will be hard for you men to take what they may say to you," and announced that the Riders would not be put to work. They would be kept locked up in isolation.

The prospect of similar treatment did not discourage other groups of Freedom Riders.

Attorney General Kennedy had decided on a new strategy. Having failed to convince the FRCC to accept a cooling off period, he decided to convince civil rights leaders to shift their focus to voting rights agitation, which Justice Department officials thought would be less confrontational. Many of those leaders attended a meeting with Kennedy at the Justice Department on June 16:

After making the administration's preferences clear, Kennedy all but promised to provide movement leaders with tax exemptions, foundation grants, and legal and physical protection if they agreed to shift their attention to voting issues. To several of the students, including the voting rights enthusiast [Charles] Sherrod, Kennedy's offer sounded too much like a bribe, and the meeting nearly broke up when Sherrod jumped to his feet to scold the attorney general. "You are a public official, sir," Sherrod reminded Kennedy. "It's not your responsibility before God or under the law to tell us how to honor our constitutional rights. It's your job to protect us when we do."

Kennedy was encouraged that the leaders had not outright rejected his suggestion, but he soon found that they would not adopt it. On June 17, Reverend King told a news conference at the Los Angeles airport:

We are going to win the transportation fight through passive resistance. Then we will tackle the problem of Negro voting in Dixie. We will make a nonviolent assault on all phases of all segregation. But our big move will be to intensify voter registrations through stand-ins at places of registration and polling, and anything else we can do to emphasize the degree to which the negro is denied his right of franchise. [Freedom Riders, p. 329]

That was not the sort of voting rights pursuit the Attorney General had in mind. He was picturing a nonconfrontational pursuit that would not generate negative press coverage in the country and internationally.

As reflected in Harry K. Smith's documentary, southern whites took comfort in their view that African-Americans accepted their life in the segregated South, and that the problem was being caused by agitators from other parts of the country. On June 23, four students from Jackson's historically black Tougaloo College bought tickets at the Trailways station for the bus to New Orleans. When a police officer ordered them to leave the white waiting room, they refused and were arrested. By early July, "scores of black Mississippians followed the lead of the "'Tougaloo Four.'" [Freedom Riders, p. 333]

Southern whites also took comfort from their belief that the Riders were inspired by connections with communism. The State Sovereignty Commission, formed in 1956 to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, looked into CORE and the other groups involved in the Freedom Rides for evidence that they were part of a communist plot. When the commission learned that two of the students in jail had attended a "Fair Play for Cuba" tour in February, southern whites considered the case proved conclusively. "We have known for some time the communist party is behind the freedom rider movement," the public relations chief of the Mississippi Highway Patrol said, "Now we're getting some proof." [Freedom Riders, p. 347]

Freedom Rides continued through June and July, with many ending after arrests in Jackson, but CORE was facing a financial burden:

In effect, Mississippi's decision to arrest the Freedom Riders had initiated a war of attrition, a contest between the state's ability to accommodate wave after wave of Riders and the movement's capacity to sustain them, financially and otherwise . . . . To this point [early July] much of the financial cost had been postponed by the Riders' decision to forgo bail, but this favorable situation was about to end, thanks to a provision of Mississippi's disorderly conduct statute that required the jailed Riders to post bond within forty days of conviction. Riders who missed this deadline lost their right of appeal and any alternative to serving out their entire sentence. [Freedom Riders, p. 364]

Bond was set at $500 for each prisoner, but after their release, CORE had to arrange to get them home, then back to Jackson for their trial. Moreover, State officials had decided on a legal strategy that would put maximum financial burden on CORE. Mass arrests were normally handled as class actions with prosecutors selecting one or two protesters whose judicial outcome would apply to all members of the class. Mississippi planned to try each Rider individually. As a result, CORE would not only have to pay for the defense, but for transporting each Freedom Rider to Jackson by the date of his or her trial.

The New York Times carried a story in late June headlined "Negro Leaders Seek Halt in Freedom Ride Testing." The article cited "sources among the movement's top leaders" as expressing the view that the Justice Department's petition to the ICC would result in an end to segregated travel. Reduced finances and the failure of southern African-Americans to participate caused the leaders, according to the article, to pull back from this form of protest. However, at a June 26 meeting of FRCC leaders, Nash and other leaders made clear their determination to continue the Freedom Rides. Whatever Dr. King may have thought of the future of the Freedom Rides at the start of the meeting, by the end he understood the passion and determination of the other leaders. His spokesman told reporters after the meeting that the FRCC would continue the Freedom Rides as long as "segregation is still a living factor." [Freedom Riders, p. 340-341]

In early July, as the FRCC increased the number of local students challenging Jackson's segregated facilities at bus and rail stations, Mayor Allen Thompson called on the city's white residents to encourage African-Americans to cooperate in bringing the local protests to an end. He told whites:

Let's start right now emphasizing what I've said about getting over to the colored people their responsibility in this matter. There is no threat, no economic reprisal involved, but just show them how lucky they are to be living and working here in this fine city. Then have them talk to their fathers and mothers and their neighbors about controlling their children who may be causing trouble. Our colored people are not to be afraid, but they must get out and emphasize to everyone they want things to be left as they are. [Freedom Riders, p. 370]

In Jackson, Dr. King told 1,500 supporters that "segregation is dead" and the only question was "how expensive the segregationists will make the funeral." He encouraged residents to continue their nonviolent protests. "Let the Negroes fill the jail houses of Mississippi." The protests increased almost immediately after the speech. Within 4 days, police arrested 49 protesters, including 23 from Mississippi. When some of the students were found to be under the age of 18, police arrested three organizers of the Jackson Non-Violent Movement, including Diane Nash.

Jackson was not the only target city. A mixed race Freedom Ride from St. Louis, Missouri, to New Orleans had few problems at rest stops until it reached Little Rock on July 10. With the help of police, the four Riders made their way through an angry white crowd into the terminal, where they found that separate facilities had been arranged for interstate and intrastate passengers in technical compliance with the Supreme Court's Boynton ruling, with the intrastate section segregated. The Riders walked into the white intrastate waiting room where they were immediately arrested for breach of peace despite orders from officials for the police to avoid a confrontation.

The youngest, an 18-year old girl, was released, but the other three were convicted on July 12. Judge Quinn Glover imposed the maximum sentence of 6 months in jail and a $500 fine, but offered to suspend the sentence if the defendants would leave Arkansas and go home. The defendants accepted the deal and left jail, but were intent on continuing on their way to New Orleans. They were soon back in jail, but Judge Glover, under pressure to end the confrontation, conceded that he could not control their destination. They were released and boarded a bus to continue their Freedom Ride. [Freedom Riders, p. 376-377]

Because Freedom Riders were encountering different outcomes throughout the South, Governor Barnett became convinced that inconsistency was weakening the case for segregation. He invited the South's Governors to a conference in Jackson on July 19. The conference was a disappointment because only four Governors participated (Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Mississippi), undermining the appearance of solidarity that Governor Barnett had hoped to demonstrate.

That same day, President Kennedy addressed the issue during a press conference:

In his most forceful statement to date, Kennedy insisted that "there is no question of the legal rights of the freedom travelers, freedom riders, that move in interstate commerce" . . . . While he stopped short of endorsing the Freedom Riders' reason for traveling, he maintained that all Americans, regardless of "the purpose for which they travel[,] . . . should enjoy the full constitutional protections given to them by the law and by the Constitution." Alluding to the Justice Department petition awaiting consideration by the ICC, he added that he was "hopeful" that the administration position would eventually "become the generally accepted view" and that "any legal doubts about the rights of people to move in interstate commerce" would soon disappear. [Freedom Riders, p. 378-379]

Financially strapped and with court proceedings pending, CORE and FRCC called a moratorium on Freedom Rides in August, but only after orchestrating an increase in late July. By the time the moratorium began, Jackson police had arrested nearly 300 people since the start of the Freedom Rides.

For the national press, the Freedom Rides had become routine. Stories no longer made the front page outside the South. The Berlin Crisis dominated the news after East Germany began erecting the Berlin Wall on August 13 to prohibit free migration between the U.S. and Soviet zones.

Approximately 200 defendants were due back in Jackson for arraignment the following day, Monday, August 14. Failure to appear would result in forfeit of their $500 bond, a price CORE could not afford if too many Riders missed their trial date. CORE managed to get over 190 defendants back to Jackson by the appointed date, with only 9 Riders failing to appear. Appearing in Hinds County Courthouse, they came forward in pairs, stated their plea of not guilty, and were assigned a court date. Hank Thomas, the veteran Freedom Rider, and Julia Aaron, a 22-year old African-American student at Southern University in New Orleans, were selected to be the first defendants, with their trial set for August 22.

On August 15, the ICC held a hearing on the Justice Department's petition. In anticipation of the hearing, Reverend King had urged the ICC to issue a "blanket order" to desegregate bus, rail, and air terminals:

"The Freedom Riders have already served a great purpose," he told reporters, highlighting "the indignities and injustices that the Negro people still confront as they attempt to do the simple thing of traveling as interstate passengers." He acknowledged, though, that a clear and broad ICC mandate held the power to go even further. If strict compliance were enforced for interstate travelers, all segregated travel would "almost inevitably end," even among intrastate travelers. "This will be the point where Freedom Rides will end," he predicted. [Freedom Riders, p. 392]

The Administration had been working behind the scenes in preparation for the hearing. In addition to submitting briefs supporting a detailed directive, the Justice Department met with transit industry executives who opposed a comprehensive plan. They were willing to withdraw opposition only to an order on interstate travel, leaving segregated intrastate transit systems in place. Cabinet Secretaries wrote to the ICC from their perspective. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, for example, explained the demoralizing effect of segregation on African-American personnel traveling in the South. Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained the embarrassment to democracy when diplomats from a largely nonwhite world traveled to Washington:

Rusk's point received timely reinforcement from a series of diplomatic incidents related to the recent proliferation of black African envoys to the United States . . . . Most obviously, the racial segregation that dominated the greater Washington area became an embarrassing reality for the new Kennedy administration. The segregated housing patterns of the District of Columbia, suburban Maryland, and northern Virginia proved to be a major irritant for visiting African families. The primary flash point, though, was the segregated facilities along the Route 40 corridor between Washington and the New Jersey border. When traveling back and forth between Washington embassies and the United Nations headquarters in New York, black Africans discovered that virtually all of the restaurants and other public accommodations were for whites only. [Freedom Riders, p. 394-395]

The State Department had set up a Special Service Protocol Section in March 1961 to address the complaints, but the incident on June 26 involving Ambassador Malick of Chad, mentioned earlier, prompted President Kennedy to authorize discussions with Maryland officials and restaurant owners. This issue was unresolved at the time of the ICC hearings.

The trial of Hank Thomas opened on August 22 before an all-white jury. The prosecution's witnesses testified that the arrest of the Freedom Riders had prevented violence and rioting. Lead defense attorney William Kunstler chose not to present a defense, instead asking Judge Moore to place the Supreme Court's Boynton ruling in the trial record. Judge Moore rejected the motion on the grounds that the ruling was irrelevant to the charges at hand. The jury took 45 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Judge Moore imposed a 4-month jail sentence on Thomas and a $200 fine. Thomas was released on bond pending appeal.

Thomas' trial took all day. Julia Aaron's trial took only 6 hours, but with the same result. The all-white jury returned a guilty verdict after 15 minutes of deliberation. She decided not to post bail and returned to jail. If many defendants chose bail instead of jail, CORE could face bankruptcy - a goal CORE thought might be part of Mississippi's strategy of bringing each defendant to trial.

Prior to the first trials, Kunstler had filed an appeal in Federal District Court before Judge Harold Cox. President Kennedy had appointed Cox, an avowed segregationist, to the bench over the strenuous objections of civil rights activists. Now, with the first two trials completed, Judge Cox issued his ruling that the arrests were not about segregation, but about "a pure and simple peace law enacted by the Legislature in good faith to assure peace and tranquility among its people." He said that "counterfeit citizens" from other States who came to Mississippi with the sole purpose of causing trouble would not find a haven in the Federal District Court, which had no interest, after all, in breach of peace trials. [Freedom Riders, p. 422]

With the school year getting underway, some defendants began to pay their fines rather than go to trial and jail. Paying fines, in CORE's view, was an admission of guilt, but the organization could only hope that other Freedom Riders would remain true to nonviolent principles and accept the verdict of unjust courts. Moreover, 14 Tennessee State students who had participated in Freedom Rides had been expelled after Governor Buford Ellington directed State education commissioner Joe Morgan to investigate their activities.

Another 78 Freedom Riders were arraigned in Jackson on September 11, all pleading not guilty, and given court dates in the spring of 1962. On September 12, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Johnson's ruling in Alabama that William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Reverend Shuttlesworth, Reverend Abernathy, and six others must stand trial.

These and other reverses gave hope to those attempting to block integration. On the evening of September 12, the White Citizens Council held a rally in Montgomery:

As more than 800 WCC members looked on, the special guest speaker, Governor Ross Barnett, reported that the "ruthless actions" of the Freedom Riders, the NAACP, and meddlers such as Chief Justice Earl Warren had backfired. Outside agitators were on the run, Barnett declared, and even in the North the integration cause was losing ground. Back in Jackson, according to the Governor, the Freedom Riders were finally learning the full meaning of Mississippi justice. [Freedom Riders, p. 432]

The Jackson Daily News reported on September 18 that CORE had offered to halt Freedom Rides into Jackson if officials would halt prosecutions and let 250 appeals be adjudicated by the circuit and State supreme court justices. Mayor Thomas, according to the article, "did not intend to yield one inch in prosecuting those who violate our local laws." He added, "We feel we have completely broken the Freedom Rider movement here."

Updated: 10/17/2013
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