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Learn more about the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

Learn more about Brown vs. Board of Education

Sit-ins before the Freedom Rides

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Traveling Down the Road to Freedom
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 News of the Freedom Riders made headlines around the world
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It was New Year's Day, 1961. Art Bacon had just returned to Alabama after spending Christmas with his family in Florida. The train dropped him off at the depot in Anniston - just 30 miles north of Talladega, where he attended college. He had some time to kill before the school's shuttle picked him up, so he looked around for a place to sit.

Road

The Goddess / Introducing the goddess of the Warrior: Chyna!

There were two waiting rooms in the train station. One was filled with white people; the other with blacks. Since the former was significantly nicer than the latter, he took his seat there - even though his skin color didn't blend in.

Art was well-versed in the law. He knew the Supreme Court had declared segregated seating of interstate passengers unconstitutional in 1946. But he was also aware that Jim Crow was more than just a set of laws in the Deep South. It was a way of life.

And he decided to push its boundaries.

Art sat quietly in the "whites only" waiting room until his shuttle arrived. He promptly boarded. Before it left the station, however, a group of white men carrying baseball bats surrounded him.

Stephanie waits for a Birmingham bus
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"Where is that nigger who was sitting in our waiting room?" the men demanded, as they pulled the driver out and kicked him.

When Art identified himself, the men turned on him. The beating that ensued lasted three or four minutes. By the time help arrived, Art had two black eyes and deep gashes on his head and temple. He was also missing three teeth.

"Everybody seemed to know who those men were, but they were never prosecuted. No one was ever punished," said Art, who is now an artist and scholar-in-residence at his alma mater.

Listening to Art's tragic story took my breath away. "How did the beating affect you?" I gasped.

He didn't skip a beat. "It made me more determined than ever to finish my education."

Determination. Along with faith, it fueled the fire of the Civil Rights Movement. And no protest better illustrates this than the Freedom Rides.

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Just five months after Art's brutal beating, an organization called the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) decided that it too wanted to test the boundaries of interstate travel. On May 4, 1961, seven blacks and six whites boarded a bus in Washington, D.C. and headed south. Their goal was to reach New Orleans by the seventh anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education - the Supreme Court case that desegregated the nation's schools. Along the way, they planned to switch seats and use each other's facilities to see if America's interstate bus system truly was integrated.

"This was not civil disobedience, really, because we were merely doing what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do in 1946," CORE director James Farmer once said.

Freedom Riders were greeted by violence in Montgomery, Alabama
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Interestingly enough, the Freedom Riders had no problems at all - until they hit Anniston, Alabama. There they were surrounded by a stone-throwing mob of 200 or more. One bus managed to make it out of the city, but when the driver pulled over to change the slashed tires, the bus was fire-bombed. A second bus was attacked and its passengers brutally beaten. One Rider was paralyzed for life. Another - a retired professor - received permanent brain damage. The other Riders were thrown in jail.

The incident made headlines around the globe. When pressed, the governor of Alabama - a racist named John Patterson - simply said, "When you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it."

But the Freedom Riders were determined to continue their journey to New Orleans. Unfortunately, they couldn't find a bus company (or a driver) willing to take the risk. A group of students flew in from Nashville, Tennessee, to help. Almost immediately they were rounded up by police, arrested and placed in protective custody. At two o'clock the following morning, police drove them back to the Tennessee border and dumped them off. But even that didn't taper their determination. The students caught a ride back to Alabama the first chance they got.

The KKK waited for the Freedom Riders in Anniston
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By this point, the Freedom Riders had forced President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (the attorney general) to take a stand. The Kennedy administration had been reluctant to support the Civil Rights Movement because they didn't want to stomp on the toes of their Southern white supporters. But now the entire world had heard of the Freedom Riders' exploits, and it was getting embarrassing. Robert Kennedy convinced Governor Patterson to protect the students as they continued on to Montgomery.

With assurances of a "private plane flying over the bus [and a] state patrol car every 15 to 20 miles along the highway," the Freedom Riders headed to the Alabama state capitol on May 20,1961. For much of the way, they were escorted as promised. But as they rolled into Montgomery, police coverage thinned and then vanished. The bus station was empty - save for a couple of nervous reporters and several dozen angry white people armed with bottles, bats and lead pipes.

Stephanie and Jennifer pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.
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The Freedom Riders' plan had been to get off the bus, use each other's bathrooms and water fountains, and leave the station in private cars. Now, it was simply to make it out alive. A white student named Jim Zwerg volunteered to go first. He knew that the only thing that made racist mobs madder than "righteous niggers" were their white supporters. Maybe the other Riders would have time to escape while the crowd dealt with him. The instant Jim bravely stepped off the bus, fists and bats started flying. He heard his own back crack and was beaten until he lost consciousness.

Then a white woman gave the rallying cry - "Get those niggers!" - and the mob lunged at the rest of the Freedom Riders. John Lewis, a seminary student who would later become a Georgia congressman, told his fellow protesters to "Stand together. Don't run. Just stand together," until he too was knocked unconscious. Once the crowd had finished with the students, they turned on the reporters.

Help did not arrive for more than 20 minutes. Police chief Eugene "Bull" Conner gave the fact that it was Mother's Day as an excuse, but his affiliations with the Ku Klux Klan are a far more likely reason for the delay.

By nightfall, the whole world had heard of the Montgomery beatings. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. flew in to hold a mass meeting in support of the Freedom Riders, but, late that evening, a mob surrounded the church in which he was staying. Dr. King was no stranger to mob threats, but by 3 a.m., he feared for his life. He called Robert Kennedy, who talked Patterson into declaring a state of martial law.

Nowadays, waiting rooms are fully integrated
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The Freedom Riders, meanwhile, stuck to their spiritual guns. When Jim Zwerg appeared on television from his hospital bed, he declared, "We will continue our journey, one way or another. We are prepared to die."

When Kennedy tried to convince the Freedom Riders of having a "cooling off period" before staging their next ride, Farmer said, "We'd been cooling off for 350 years and if we cooled off any more, we'd be in a deep freeze."

Seeing that the students wouldn't budge, Kennedy approached the governor and senator of Mississippi. He agreed not to send in federal troops as long as they promised there would be no mob violence. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, they were ushered into police cars and hauled off to jail for 60 days. Over the course of the summer, they were joined by 300 more protesters.

Although the Freedom Riders never made it further than the Mississippi penitentiary, their protest movement was an undeniable success. In November, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations that ended segregation at interstate bus stations. Equally important, they forced the Kennedy administration to take a stand on civil rights. They also showed America what civil rights workers were willing to do for their beliefs.

But were these victories worth the beatings? Worth the psychological damage? Worth continuing nightmares of fists and lead pipes?

I posed this question to Art. If he could go back and do it all over again, would he?

"Sure. It was my right. I was exercising my right," he said, with as much conviction and determination as ever.

 Today, Stephanie and Jennifer can take a Greyhound all across America if they want

Forty years have passed since the morning he was attacked in the Anniston train station, but Art is as much of an activist today as ever. After graduating from Talladega College, he went on to get a master's and a Ph.D. at Howard University. He was the first black to ever do a post-doctorate at the University of Miami, and then he started a life of teaching.

"I participated in the Civil Rights Movement by accomplishing whatever I could accomplish, and then helping others accomplish whatever they could," he said.

And in this way, the Movement continues.

Stephanie

Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org

 

Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Organizing the revolution and the future
Jennifer - No, it's not a warzone. It's Selma, Alabama Stephanie - Get on the bus, it's time for equality
Neda - The dream that inspired a nation
Jennifer - Crushing the lie of "separate but equal"