Get on the Bus! A Look Back at the Historic Freedom Rides
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James Peck: Freedom Riders in Alabama

The Freedom Rides marked the spread of nonviolent direct action. The Supreme Court's decision Boynton v. Virginia (1961), which expanded the ban against segregation in interstate travel, provided the immediate impetus for the rides. President John F. Kennedy's reluctance to initiate civil rights reform added to the Congress of Racial Equality's decision to undertake the endeavor. By traveling on two separate buses and using various facilities in the South in an integrated manner, the riders sought to test the implementation of the Boynton decision. If Southern authorities resisted, and CORE expected they would, the rides would generate publicity, which, in turn, could compel the federal government to intervene. In addition, CORE leaders sensed that the rides would revitalize its reputation.

One of the 13 Freedom Riders who departed from Washington, D. C., was James Peck, a veteran of CORE's 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. Peck's autobiographical account of the rides vividly describes the resistance that the riders met when they reached Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. Though nearly killed by a white mob, Peck vowed to press on. As he noted, if whites could deter him through violence, then the Southern way of life would remain in place.

The group which assembled May 1 at Fellowship House in Washington for training totaled thirteen. It was a very different type of group from the one which had gathered in Washington fourteen years previously for the same type of project. It included a number of what has become known as "the new Negro"—southern students who took part in the sit-in movement and for whom arrest or the threat thereof had become commonplace. Most of the group were young people in their twenties. Very few of them were pacifists. . . .

Danville, Virginia was the first place where testers were refused service. At the colored counter, Ed Blankenheim, a white, sat for ten minutes until his bus was ready for departure. Genevieve Hughes, a white, and I, aboard a later bus, were at first refused service but we—and Walter Bergman—finally got refreshments after a brief discussion with the manager.

Greensboro, though reputed for its liberalism, was the first city where the color signs started to become the rule. The first greeting to arriving bus passengers were oversized signs all around the building with arrows pointing to the colored waiting room. On the other hand, the colored lunch room which was no bigger than a good-sized closet and equally gloomy, had been closed permanently a week before our arrival. . . .

Charlotte was the scene of the trip's first arrest—and the birth of a new "in," the shoe in. Charles Person climbed onto a shoeshine chair and, after being refused service, remained seated until a cop with handcuffs arrived. . . .

Violence against the freedom riders erupted for the first time in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where the press had headlined our arrival and where hoodlums had recently attacked lunch-counter pickets. In fact, several of the hoodlums waiting at the Greyhound station were recognized as the same individuals who had assaulted the local student pickets.

As the Greyhound contingent of riders arrived, some twenty of these ruffians were waiting. When John Lewis, who is Negro, approached the entrance of the white waiting room, he was assaulted by two of them. Three started slugging Albert Bigelow, a white, who was next in line. . . .

In Atlanta, we were welcomed at the Greyhound terminal by a large group of students, many of whom had participated in the local lunch-counter picketing and sit-in's. The terminal restaurant was closed but we used the waiting room and rest rooms. The Trailway's terminal restaurant was open, and two of our teams tested it on departure without incident. . . .

The most nightmarish day of our freedom ride was Sunday, May 14, Mother's Day. I identify the date with Mother's Day because when Police Chief Connor was asked why there was not a single policeman at the Birmingham Trailway's terminal to avert mob violence, he explained that since it was Mother's Day, most of the police were off-duty visiting their mothers. That there was going to be a mob to meet us had been well known around Birmingham for several days. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth told me so when I phoned to give him the scheduled arrival times of our two buses.

However, we did not know in advance that a similar mob was waiting in Anniston, a rest stop on the way. Our first contingent, aboard Greyhound, learned of this when their bus stopped just outside of Anniston. . . .

When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set upon the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking the windows, and slashing tires. Finally police arrived, and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued it in cars. One car got ahead of the bus and prevented it from gathering speed. About six miles out, one of the tires went flat, and the bus was forced to pull over to a gas station.

Within minutes the pursuing mob was again hitting the bus with iron bars. Their rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. Suddenly the vehicle became filled with thick smoke. The passengers, including the freedom riders, ducked toward the floor in order to breathe. A few climbed out of a window. Some tried to get out of the door, but it was being held shut from the outside.

As Henry Thomas tells it, he shortly succeeded in pushing the door open. As he stepped out, he walked toward a man who looked friendly. Suddenly the man wielded a club from behind his back and struck him over the head.

All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. The extent of the destruction was shown in the grim newspaper photos. . . .Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. . . .

When the Trailways bus carrying our contingent arrived in Anniston an hour later, the other passengers learned of what had happened to the Greyhound bus and discontinued their trips. While waiting for the bus to proceed, we heard the sirens of ambulances taking the injured to the hospital, but we did not know what had happened.

We learned of it only when eight hoodlums climbed aboard and stood by the driver as he made a brief announcement. He concluded by stating that he would refuse to drive unless the Negroes in our group moved to the formerly segregated rear seats. They remained quietly in their front seat. The hoodlums cursed and started to move them bodily to the rear, kicking and hitting them. . . .

Walter Bergman, who is a retired professor, and I were seated toward the rear. We moved forward and tried to persuade the hoodlums to desist. We, too, were pushed, punched, and kicked. I found myself face downward on the floor of the bus. Someone was on top of me. I was bleeding. Bergman's jaw was cut and swollen. None of us realized that he also had received a crushing blow on the head which would bring him close to death. . . .

Finally, all of our group—whites and Negroes—and one Negro passenger who had not gotten off, had been forced to the back of the bus. The hoodlums . . .sat in the very front. . . .At that point the driver agreed to proceed to Birmingham. . . .

Upon arrival in Birmingham, I could see a mob line up on the sidewalk only a few feet from the loading platform. Most of them were young—in their twenties. Some were carrying ill-concealed iron bars. . . .All had hate showing on their faces. . . .

Now we stood on the Birmingham unloading platform with the segregationist mob only a few feet away. I did not want to put Person in a position of being forced to proceed if he thought the situation too dangerous. When I looked at him, he responded by saying simply, "Let's go."

As we entered the white waiting room . . .we were grabbed bodily and pushed toward the alleyway leading to the loading platform. As soon as we got into the alleyway and out of sight of onlookers in the waiting room, six of them started swinging at me with fists and pipes. Five others attacked Person a few feet ahead. Within seconds, I was unconscious on the ground. . . .

When I regained consciousness, the alleyway was empty. Blood was flowing down my face. I tried to stop the flow with a handkerchief but it soon became soaked. A white soldier came out of the waiting room to see whether I needed help. I declined, because I suddenly saw Bergman coming from the loading platform. He helped me to get a cab. . . .

The first thing Reverend Shuttlesworth said to me as I got out of the cab was, "You need to go to a hospital. . . ."I did not realize how seriously I had been hurt. My head required fifty-three stitches. . . .

Finally, after eight hours in the hospital, I was discharged, my face and head half hidden by bandages. . . .I said that for the most severely beaten rider to quit could be interpreted as meaning that violence had triumphed over nonviolence. . . .My point was accepted, and we started our meeting to plan the next lap. . . .

 

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