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Freedom Rides Again 

Dylan Watson on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders -- and where they are now

click to enlarge Freedom Riders escape from a burning Greyhound bus following a stop in Anniston, Ala., where white protestors stormed the bus and tossed a bomb through a window. - PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI PUBLIC BROADCASTING/ CORBIS

Hank Thomas walked up the steps of the Greyhound bus on a sunny May 4, 1961. As he surveyed its drab, blue-gray interior, the lanky 19-year-old African-American student from Howard University never imagined he soon would come close to meeting his end on its floor.

He was part of the Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which made racial segregation illegal in interstate bus stations, restaurants, bathrooms and on buses. CORE planned to make sure the court ruling was enforced by riding buses through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, ending the tour with a rally in New Orleans.

The Freedom Riders group included seven blacks and six whites. Black Riders would sit in the front of the bus, white Riders in the back, and an interracial pair would sit together. A couple of the Riders would sit in a traditional segregated manner, so they could bail out any group members who got arrested. They planned to take two buses, a Greyhound and a Trailways.

Group members had completed a four-day nonviolence training in Washington, D.C., where they learned how to passively protect themselves and deal with potential physical altercations. But Thomas says he wasn't prepared for the violence they encountered.

The Freedom Riders' first stop was Richmond, Va. Some white onlookers at the bus station jeered at the Riders, but nothing else happened. The group stopped in six cities before arriving in Charlotte, N.C., where black riders walked into the white waiting room and milled around the station without incident. It was an uneventful stop — until Charles Person decided to get his shoes shined.

"You know, you're sitting on a bus, you're getting on and off the bus, and your shoes get scuffed up a lot," Person says. "As I was exiting the restroom, I saw the shoeshine man there. I asked him, you know, 'Can I get a shoeshine'? He said, well, he couldn't shine my shoes, and if I persisted I would be arrested."

Getting a shoeshine wasn't one of CORE's planned tests, so Person dropped the matter, but Joe Perkins, another Freedom Rider, demanded a shoeshine. Charlotte police officers arrested him.

Things turned violent when the bus stopped in Winnsboro, S.C., and Freedom Riders John Lewis, who was black, and Albert Bigelow, who was white, walked into the white waiting room.

"They were accosted by several white toughs," Person recalls. "They were punched and they were roughed up pretty good. Before it got too bad, the local authorities came in and stopped it."

A short time later, Thomas sat down at a whites-only lunch counter at the bus station and was arrested. When he arrived at the police station, Thomas says officers led him handcuffed from their car straight to a jail cell without booking him.

"As I remember, back at the time, the fact that they didn't fingerprint me, I thought that was weird," he says. Police also didn't take a mug shot or ask Thomas for any personal information. There is no record Thomas ever was detained at the Winnsboro Police Department.

That night, Thomas says, police opened his cell and announced they were going to take him for a ride.

"Where am I going?" Thomas asked.

He says one of the officers replied, "We're going to take you to the bus station so you can leave." The officers put Thomas in a patrol car and headed toward the bus station. When Thomas saw the station in the distance, he knew something was wrong.

"I could see it — all the lights in the station were out," Thomas recalls. "A large crowd of white men were there around the bus station. It looked as though they'd been having a good time, been drinking, and I could see a few sticks and everything they had in their hands." Half a block from the bus station, the officers stopped the car and told him to get out, Thomas says.

"Well, it looks like the station is closed. When will the next bus come?" he remembers asking. "I can't get out here. It looks pretty dangerous."

When he refused to leave the safety of the police car, Thomas says the officer in the passenger's seat turned around, a glint from his pistol visible, and said, "Nigger, get out of this car."

"If I didn't get out of the car, I figured he was going to shoot me, so I did," Thomas says. "As soon as I got out of the car, the police took off.

"Of course the crowd started running toward me, and I was a pretty athletic fellow at that particular time. You know, I knew I could probably outrun them, so I started to run."

click to enlarge Freedom Riders John Lewis (left), now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and Jim Zwerg are splattered with blood after being attacked and beaten in Montgomery, Ala., in May 1961. (Zwerg is checking his teeth for damage.) - PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI PUBLIC BROADCASTING/ CORBIS
  • Photo Courtesy Mississippi Public Broadcasting/ Corbis
  • Freedom Riders John Lewis (left), now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and Jim Zwerg are splattered with blood after being attacked and beaten in Montgomery, Ala., in May 1961. (Zwerg is checking his teeth for damage.)

He sprinted away from the mob, running down one street then another. After a few minutes, an African-American man in a car pulled up beside Thomas and said, "Son, get in and get down on the floor." Thomas accepted the invitation.

"I was expecting to hear gunshots through the rear window at any minute," Thomas says. The man drove him to Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., the next stop for the Freedom Riders' bus. That bus already had left when Thomas arrived in Columbia, so he rode a different bus from Columbia to Sumter, S.C., to catch up with his group.

Three stops later, in Atlanta, the Freedom Riders met Martin Luther King Jr. and his father at their church, Ebenezer Baptist, where the Kings and their staff warned the Riders that Alabama and Mississippi would be different than the other states they had visited.

"We were told that (Anniston, Ala.,) was a hotbed of Klan activity, and so it was not going to be a pleasant stop," Thomas says. "We were aware of that."

The Greyhound left an hour ahead of the Trailways bus. After several hours, an Anniston city limits sign came into view. The streets downtown were empty, but as the Greyhound turned down a road leading to the bus station, the Riders could see a mob of men, many of them Klansmen, surrounding the terminal.

"As the bus pulled into the station, they all surrounded the bus, yelling and screaming," Thomas says. "I remember the bus driver getting off the bus and saying, 'Look fellas, all I did was drive y'all here.'" Before he left, the driver locked the door from the inside. Thomas says a throng of white men began beating on the bus and trying to get inside. After a while, a different driver unlocked the driver's-side door and attempted to move the bus. "As he tried to pull out, there were men in front of the bus," Thomas says. "Several of them sat down in front of the bus, and as [the vehicle] lurched towards them, I guess that's when they moved to let the bus come past them."

The Freedom Riders soon had to contend with another problem. "Three or four pickup trucks were in front of the bus and would not let it pass, and a long caravan of cars were behind the bus," Thomas says.

The bus was sandwiched between the two groups, and soon it slowed down. Thomas says he later learned the tires of the bus had been slashed.

"The bus driver had to pull the bus over to the shoulder of the road," Thomas says. "Strangely convenient, because at the point that the bus pulled over, a crowd of people had gathered. They had just come from church."

The crowd surrounded the bus and began beating it with sticks, rocks and bats.

"One guy with, (what) looked like a heavy rock, threw it up against the window, and I was sitting next to the window, and the window cracked, but it didn't shatter," Thomas says. Then someone threw a Thermite bomb through a broken window, setting the bus on fire.

"I remember thinking, 'I'm going to die," Thomas says. "And if I get off this bus, the crowd outside's going to beat me to death. And if I stay here, and I breathe this stuff, maybe it'll put me to sleep, and that's how I'll die.'"

Thomas decided he wasn't going to die lying on the floor of the bus gasping for air. "When the smoke gets in your lungs, involuntary reactions take over," he says. "You fight for air."

Thomas got up and slammed his shoulder against the door to get it open, but several men had wedged themselves against the outside of the door to prevent it from opening. That could have been the end, but the bus' fuel tank exploded, causing the crowd outside to run away. The Freedom Riders were able to escape the bus, Thomas says, but soon were attacked by several men, including one who hit Thomas with a baseball bat.

Thomas says he spotted a state trooper who was doing nothing to stop the attacks and ran to him for protection: "I got behind him and, in the process of doing that, I put my hands on him and, you know, pushed him in front of me." Thomas says he was terrified to see the trooper pull out his gun. But instead of pointing the gun at Thomas, the officer fired into the air and said to the crowd, "OK, OK. You've had your fun." The crowd calmed down.

The incident wasn't over. When an ambulace showed up, its drivers refused to take African-American victims to a hospital. Conversely, the white Riders at the scene did not want to leave their black counterparts and refused to board the whites-only ambulance.

click to enlarge From May until November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their safety to travel unsegregated on buses and trains through the Deep South. - PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI PUBLIC BROADCASTING/ CORBIS

The state trooper finally ordered ambulance drivers to take all the Riders to a hospital. When they arrived, they found the hospital had separate emergency rooms for whites and African-Americans. To make matters worse, a mob had gathered. The white emergency room refused to treat the blacks, and the white Riders refused to be treated if their black peers were not. The stalemate was broken after an official working for U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had a coversation with Alabama Gov. John Patterson — and all the Freedom Riders were given medical treatment.

Due to smoke inhalation and injuries from beatings, Thomas says, these Riders had to abandon the ride.

"None of us were in any physical shape to continue, so CORE decided to suspend the Freedom Rides — not because they were afraid of what was going to happen to us, we just physically were not able to go on," Thomas says. He flew back to his home in New York, and the rest of the Riders on the bombed bus went their separate ways.

The Trailways bus Took a different route than the Greyhound and was an hour behind schedule in reaching Anniston. When it did arrive, the bus station was empty.

"Some local people were standing around, milling around, and they were discussing that the other bus had been burned to the ground," Person remembers.

People waiting to get on the same bus as the Riders told the civil rights advocates they weren't going anywhere until the African-Americans went to the back of the bus. Person and fellow black riders Herman Harris, Isaac Reynolds and Ivor Moore refused.

"About eight young white guys got on the bus," Person says. "They began to throw punches and so forth, and they were beating us pretty badly, and then two white Riders came from the back — James Peck, journalist and author of Freedom Ride, and Dr. Walter Bergman."

The group shifted its fury to the white Freedom Riders, Person says. "James was just knocked back, head over heels, and Bergman was stomped," he says. "They finally just stacked us all in the back of the bus. They physically threw us in the back of the bus."

The ride to Birmingham was tense, the quiet broken only by an occasional taunt from the front, Person says. It was mid-afternoon on Mother's Day, May 14, when the bus arrived at the station. Person and Peck were the first Riders to step off the bus. When they entered the terminal, they walked into what amounted to a Klan meeting, Person says.

"The walls were lined with men, most wearing work clothes, khakis and stuff like that," he says. "And then, as we got near the center of the waiting room, they all started coming towards us."

The mob descended on the two Riders, hitting them with pipes, sticks and fists. Peck was forced down on the floor. Person says the next time he saw Peck, his face was bloody. Person also was beaten, an act caught on film by Thomas Langston, a photographer for the Birmingham Post Herald. When the attackers saw Langston's camera flash, they turned on him.

"That's how I was able to escape," Person says. "I didn't run or anything. I just walked away." Person, who was bleeding, went outside and flagged down a municipal bus, which took him to a telephone booth. From there he called the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth who sent someone to help. Person could not find medical care, however, because the three black physicians in the Birmingham area refused to treat him out of fear.

That evening, all the Riders who made it to Birmingham met at Shuttlesworth's church. The group discussed their next stop, Montgomery, Ala., and learned no drivers were willing to take the group because of the previous day's violence. The Alabama governor also refused to provide police escorts for the buses.

The Freedom Riders decided to fly from Birmingham to Montgomery, but after they boarded the plane, the pilot announced he had received a bomb threat and ordered all passengers off the plane. The Riders then decided to fly directly to New Orleans, and — after a bomb threat to the second plane — the group finally made it out of Alabama.

The Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by Diane Nash, didn't want the Freedom Ride to end on such a dismal note. SNCC recruited new Riders from Tennessee State University and Fisk University to pick up where the first Riders left off.

Hank Thomas was in New York when he heard new Riders were continuing the movement. He decided to join them, as did John Lewis, another original Freedom Rider.

Under pressure from the Kennedy administration, Gov. Patterson provided a convoy of armed National Guardsmen to escort the bus from Birmingham to Montgomery on May 24, 1961. At the Mississippi state line, the guardsmen handed off escort duties to the Mississippi National Guard and the state police for the remainder of the ride to Jackson.

"I don't remember a large crowd of people at [Jackson], (but) as soon we entered the bus station, we were arrested," Thomas says. "And they had the paddy wagons and everything all lined up, so Mississippi was somewhat determined that they weren't going to repeat what happened in Alabama."

At his arraignment, Thomas says Jackson Municipal Judge James Spencer asked how he pleaded to the charge of "breach of peace." Before Thomas could answer, the judge said, "Don't waste my time. You're guilty."

"That was my taste of Mississippi justice," Thomas says.

Things got worse during booking at the police station when Thomas answered a white desk sergeant's question with "No" instead of "No, sir," as blacks were expected to do. "That's when they descended on me," Thomas says, recalling several officers punching him. Thomas spent a week in the Hinds County jail before being transported to the State Penitentiary at Parchman, Miss. During his 35 days at Parchman, Thomas was placed in solitary confinement twice.

The Freedom Ride inspired many blacks in the rural South to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement at the grassroots level.

"[The Freedom Ride] renewed my determination," Thomas says. "They made me more determined than ever to fight for equal rights in this country."

This article originally appeared in the Jackson Free Press.

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