|Slavery in the United States||American West||Civil Rights Movement|
In the 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was involved in the struggle to end segregation on buses and trains. In 1952 segregation on inter-state railways was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was followed in 1954 by a similar judgment concerning inter-state buses. However, states in the Deep South continued their own policy of transport segregation. This usually involved whites sitting in the front and blacks sitting nearest to the front had to give up their seats to any whites that were standing.
African American people who disobeyed the state's transport segregation policies were arrested and fined. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor's assistant from Montgomery, Alabama, who was tired after a hard day's work, refused to give up her seat to a white man. After her arrest, Martin Luther King, a pastor at the local Baptist Church, helped organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued.
For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration.
Transport segregation continued in some parts of the United States, so in 1961, a civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South.
James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Governor James Patterson commented that: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers." Patterson, who had been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan added that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body."
The Freedom Riders were split between two buses. They travelled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. When they reachedAnniston on 14th May the Freedom Riders were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. One of the buses was fire-bombed and the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death.
James Peck later explained what happened: "When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital."
James Peck after being beaten at Anniston.
The surviving bus travelled to Birmingham, Alabama. A meeting of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee decided to send reinforcements. This included John Lewis, James Zwerg, and eleven others including two white women. The volunteers realized their mission was extremely dangerous. Zwerg later recalled: "My faith was never so strong as during that time. I knew I was doing what I should be doing." Zwerg wrote a letter to his parents that stated that he would probably be dead by the time they received it.
During the Freedom Riders campaign the Attorney General,Robert Kennedy was phoning Jim Eastland “seven or eight or twelve times each day, about what was going to happen when they got to Mississippi and what needed to be done. That was finally decided was that there wouldn’t be any violence: as they came over the border, they’d lock them all up.” When they were arrested Kennedy issued a statement as Attorney General criticizing the activities of the Freedom Riders. Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler to negotiate with Governor James Patterson of Alabama.. Harris Wofford, the president's Special Assistant for Civil Rights, later pointed out: "Seigenthaler arrived in time to escort the first group of wounded and shaken riders from the bus terminal to the airport, and flew with them to safety in New Orleans."
The Freedom Riders now traveled onto Montgomery. Zwerg later recalled: "As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up."
The passangers were attacked by a large mob. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by men with baseball bats and lead piping. Taylor Branch, the author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) wrote: "One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage." James Zwerg later argued: "There was noting particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died."
According to Ann Bausum: "Zwerg was denied prompt medical attention at the end of the riot on the pretext that no white ambulances were available for transport. He remained unconscious in a Montgomery hospital for two-and-a-half days after the beating and stayed hospitalized for a total of five days. Only later did doctors diagnose that his injuries included a broken back."
Some of the Freedom Riders, including seven women, ran for safety. The women approached an African-American taxicab driver and asked him to take them to the First Baptist Church. However, he was unwilling to violate Jim Crow restrictions by taking any white women. He agreed to take the five African-Americans, but the two white women, Susan Wilbur and Susan Hermann, were left on the curb. They were then attacked by the white mob.
John Seigenthaler, who was driving past, stopped and got the two women in his car. According to Raymond Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders (2006): "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."
Harris Wofford, the president's Special Assistant for Civil Rights, pointed out: "Seigenthaler went to the defense of a girl being beaten and was clubbed to the ground; he was kicked while he lay there unconscious for nearly half an hour. Again FBI agents present did nothing, except take notes." Robert F. Kennedy later reported: "I talked to John Seigenthaler in the hospital and said that I thought it was very helpful for the Negro vote, and that I appreciated what he had done."
James Zwerg, who was badly beaten-up claimed from his hospital bed: "Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us on the Freedom Ride will continue. No matter what happens we are dedicated to this. We will take the beatings. We are willing to accept death. We are going to keep coming until we can ride anywhere in the South."
The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months over a thousand people took part in freedom rides. With the local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job.
Robert Kennedy was a close friend of Governor John Patterson of Alabama. Kennedy explained in his interview with Anthony Lewis: “I had this long relationship with John Patterson (the governor of Alabama). He was our great pal in the South. So he was doubly exercised at me – who was his friend and pal – to have involved him with suddenly surrounding this church with marshals and having marshals descend with no authority, he felt, on his cities… He couldn’t understand why the Kennedys were doing this to him.”
During the summer of 1961 freedom riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together, in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. This was especially effective when it concerned large companies who, fearing boycotts in the North, began to desegregate their businesses.
Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The ICC was reluctant but in September 1961 it issued the necessary orders and it went into effect on 1st November. However, James Lawson, one of the Freedom Riders, argued: "We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change."
As with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the conflict at Little Rock, the Freedom Riders gave world publicity to the racial discrimination suffered by African Americans, and in doing so, helped to bring about change.
(1) I. F. Stone, I. F. Stone's Weekly (4th June, 1962)
Norman Thomas, spoke if them as "secular saints" - this handful of young Negroes in their teens and early twenties. They and a few white sympathizers as youthful and devoted as themselves have begun a social revolution in the South with their sit-ins and their Freedom Rides. Never has a tinier minority done more for the liberation of a whole people than these few youngsters of C.O.R.E. (Congress for Racial Equality) and S.N.C.C. (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee).
(2) James Peck, a member of the Freedom Rides, wrote about his experiences in Alabama on 14th May, 1961, in his book, Freedom Rider (1962)
When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital.
(3) Frederick Leonard was an African American travelling on a Freedom Rides bus that was stopped by a white mob in Montgomery, Alabama.
Jim Zwerg was a white fellow from Madison, Wisconsin. He had a lot of nerve. I think that is what saved me because Jim Zwerg walked off the bus in front of us. The crowd was possessed. They couldn't believe that there was a white man who would help us. They grabbed him and pulled him into the mob. Their attention was on him. It was as if they didn't see us.
(4) James Zwerg was badly injured and left in the road for over an hour. White ambulances refused to take him to hospital. Afterwards he was interviewed in hospital by reporters.
Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us on the Freedom Ride will continue. No matter what happens we are dedicated to this. We will take the beatings. We are willing to accept death. We are going to keep coming until we can ride anywhere in the South.
(5) James Farmer was the director of the Congress of Racial Equality and was the main organizer of the Freedom Rides. In Plaquemine, Louisiana, Farmer was surrounded by a white mob who claimed they intended to lynch him.
I was certain I was going to die. What kind of death would it be? Would they mutilate me first? What does it feel like to die? Then I grew panicky about the insurance. Had I paid the last installment? My wife and little girls - how would it be for them? Well, damn it, if I had to die, at least let the organization wring some use out of my death. I hoped the newspapers were out there. Plenty of them. With plenty of cameras.
(6) William Mahoney, a student at Howard University, was a freedom rider and was eventually arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and was imprisoned in Parchman Penitentiary. He wrote about his experiences for Liberation Magazine.
At our first stop in Virginia I was confronted with what the Southern white has called "separate but equal." A modern rest station with gleaming counters and picture windows was labelled "White," and a small wooden shack beside it was tagged "Colored." The colored waiting room was filthy, in need of repair, and overcrowded. When we entered the white waiting room Frank Hunt was promptly but courteously, in the Southern manner, asked to leave. Because I am a fair-skinned Negro I was waited upon. I walked back to the bus through the cool night trembling and perspiring.
The Montgomery bus station was surrounded by Army jeeps, trucks, and the National Guard in battle gear. We found the people from the Christian Leadership Council who had been sent to meet us and drove away cautiously, realizing that the least traffic violation would be an excuse for our arrest.
Once across the (Mississippi) state line we passed a couple of police cars, which began to follow us. At our first stop the station was cordoned off a block in every direction. A police officer jumped on the bus and forbade anyone to move. One woman, who was a regular passenger, frantically tried to convince the police that she was not involved with us. After checking her ticket the police let her get off.
As we rolled toward Jackson, every blocked-off street, every back road taken, every change in speed caused our hearts to leap. Our arrival and speedy arrest in the white bus station in Jackson, when we refused to obey a policeman's order to move on, was a relief.
(7) Norman Thomas, Committee of Inquiry Report (May, 1962)
They (Freedom Riders) have fought entrenched discrimination and wrong without themselves indulging in violence and done this in one of the most violent periods of human history.
(8) James Farmer, interviewed by C. David Heymann for his book, A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy (1998)
The Kennedys meant well, but they did not feel it. They didn't know any blacks growing up - there were no blacks in their communities or going to their schools. But their inclinations were good. I had the impression in those years that Bobby was doing what had to be done for political reasons. He was very conscious of the fact that they had won a narrow election and he was afraid that if they antagonized the South, the Dixiecrats would cost them the next election. And he was found to be very, very cautious and very careful not to do that. But we changed the equation down there, so it became dangerous for him not to do anything.
(9) James Lawson, The Southern Patriot (November, 1961)
We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change.
There will be no revolution until we see Negro faces in all positions that help to mold public opinion, help to shape policy for America.
One federal judge in Mississippi will do more to bring revolution than sending 600 marshals to Alabama. We must never allow the President to substitute marshals for putting people into positions where they can affect public policy....
Remember that the way to get this revolution off the ground is to forge the moral, spiritual and political pressure which the President, the nation and the world cannot ignore.
(10) Interview with James Zwerg in The People's Century (1995)
Q: You got involved in the Freedom Rides...
Zwerg: Well, we got word on the CORE Freedom Ride, and we knew that John Lewis, a member of our organization, was going to be involved in it. We got word of the burning in Aniston... we had a meeting long into the night as soon as we heard about it. The feeling was that if we let those perpetrators of violence believe that people would stop if they were violent enough, then we would take serious steps backwards. Right away the feeling was that we needed to ride. We called Dr. King, we called James Farmer. There was an awareness that our phones were being tapped, so the feeling was that they knew what we were about to do. Our plan was different from CORE's. Whereas they chartered their buses, we were just going to get tickets and get on the bus. We felt that was even more important -- to buy a ticket just like any other traveler. We weren't getting a special bus, we were just going to get on the bus.
It was decided that we would send twelve people. I was one of 18 that volunteered to go. I've been asked why I volunteered to go... I would have to say, at that moment, it wasn't even a question. It was the right thing for me to do. I never second-guessed it.
Q: How did you prepare?
Zwerg: After we had talked it out and I was one of those chosen to go, I went back to my room and spent a lot of time reading the bible and praying. Because of what had happened in Birmingham and in Aniston, because our phones were tapped... none of us honestly expected to live through this. I called my mother and I explained to her what I was going to be doing. My mother's comment was that this would kill my father - and he had a heart condition - and she basically hung up on me. That was very hard because these were the two people who taught me to love and when I was trying to live love, they didn't understand. Now that I'm a parent and a grandparent I can understand where they were coming from a bit more. I wrote them a letter to be mailed if I died. We had a little time to pack a suitcase and then we met to go down to the bus.
Q: What was the journey like?
Zwerg: We just got the tickets and got on the bus. I was going to sit in the front of the bus with Paul Brooks. Paul sat by the window; I sat by the aisle. The rest of the blacks and one white girl, Celine McMullen, were going to sit in the back.
It was an uneventful ride until we got to the Birmingham city limits. We were pulled over by the police... They came on the bus and said, "This is a Freedom Rider bus, who's on here from Nashville? And the bus driver pointed to Paul and myself. They came up and really started badgering Paul, you know, "Get up... why aren't you in the back of the bus?" And he said he was very comfortable where he was. So they placed him under arrest. And they asked me to move so they could get to him... and I said, "I'm very comfortable where I am too."
We were both placed under arrest, taken off the bus, seated in the squad car for I don' t know how long. Finally they took us to Birmingham Jail and fingerprinted us. They put me in solitary for a little while. Then they put me in with a fellow who was a felon. I mean, I'm in my suit and tie and I've got my pocket bible with me. I think he thought I was some clergyman making calls. Ultimately they threw me in a drunk tank, with about twenty guys in various states of inebriation, and announced in no uncertain terms that I was a nigger-lover for the Freedom Riders. Here he is, boys, have at him! I didn't know what was going to happen and I kind of said, "How do you guys feel about this? Do you know what they're talking about?" And they started asking me some questions.
One of the things we agreed on is that if you were jailed, number one, you go on a hunger strike, because in our minds we were jailed illegally. You don't cop a plea, you don't pay the bail and jump. You stay. But here I was. One single white guy. And I didn't know what had happened to Paul. I didn't know what had happened to the rest of the people on the bus. I began to see the state that some of drunks were in, and I tried to get some towels and clean up the guys who were sick. I just got talking to some of them and none of them ever laid a hand on me. Basically, we talked about what I believed and what they believed.
I discovered that since the South was predominately Baptist, Catholics were kind of looked down on at the time. Surprisingly, 19 of the 20 guys in the drunk tank were Catholics! So we kind of had something more in common than they realized.
Q: Were you able to contact the other riders?
Zwerg: Frequently, music was the way we communicated in jail. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On has beautifully lyrics...
Paul and Sylus bound in jail
got nobody to go our bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
I sang it for my cellmates and they liked it. So I got probably ten of these guys singing with me. They had taken all the rest of the people on the bus into protective custody, and I had heard them singing. Now they could hear this group singing, and know I was okay.
We still had to go to mess even though you didn't eat. One day a fellow came in who was quite sick and I smuggled a sandwich back to the cell for him. I didn't know that act was punishable by three months in jail. But by giving him a sandwich -- suddenly I was a good guy and nobody was going to lay a hand on me. So the two and a half days that we were in jail were fine. We got to know each other. We talked. When I was in court I was really pleased that a number of these guys came over to me and said, "Jim, we really don't agree with you, but we wish you all the best."
Q: What were your thoughts as you rode on the bus?
Zwerg: As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up.
Q: You were attacked when you arrived at the bus station?
Zwerg: The idea had been that cars from the community would meet us. We'd disperse into these cars, get out into the community, and avoid the possibility of violence. And the next morning we were to come back to the station and I would use the colored services and they would go to some of the white services -- the restroom, the water fountain, etc. And then you'd get on the bus and go to the next city. It was meant to be as non-violent as possible, to avoid confrontation as much as possible.
Well, before we got off the bus, we looked out and saw the crowd. You could see things in their hands -- hammers, chains, pipes... there was some conversation about it. As we got off the bus, there was some anxiety. We started looking for the cars. But the mob had surrounded the bus station so there was no way cars could get in and we realized at that moment that we were going to get it.
There was a fellow, a reporter, with an old boom mike and he was panning the crowd. And that's when this heavy-set fellow in a white T-shirt... he had a cigar as I remember... came out and grabbed the mike and jumped on it... just smashed it... basically telling the press, "Back off! You are not going to take any pictures of this. You better stay out or you're going to get it next." You could hear crowd yelling and of course a lot of them were, "Get the nigger-lover!" I was the only white guy there.
I bowed my head and asked God to give me the strength and love that I would need, that I put my life in his hands, and to forgive them. And I had the most wonderful religious experience. I felt a presence as close to me as breath itself, if you will, that gave me peace knowing that whatever came, it was okay. Before I opened my eyes, I was grabbed. I was pulled over a railing and thrown to the ground. I remember trying to get up on all fours because you try to get back to your group.
One of the things that I alluded to earlier was the strength we got from one another. To this day I'm sure I'm not the most nonviolent person in the world, but the strength of those people with me gave me strength beyond my own capabilities. Just as when we would see someone else being beaten, our hearts went to them and our strength went to them.
Q: Were you hurt?
Zwerg: Traditionally a white man got picked out for the violence first. That gave the rest of the folks a chance to get away. I was told that several tried to get into the bus terminal. I was knocked to the ground. I remember being kicked in the spine and hearing my back crack, and the pain. I fell on my back and a foot came down on my face. The next thing I remember is waking up in the back of a vehicle and John Lewis handing me a rag to wipe my face. I passed out again and when I woke up I was in another moving vehicle with some very southern-sounding whites. I figured I'm off to get lynched. I had no idea who they were. Again, I went unconscious and I woke up in the hospital. I was informed that I had been unconscious for a day and a half. One of the nurses told me that another little crowd were going to try and lynch me. They had come within a half block of the hospital. She said that she knocked me out in case they did make it, so that I would not be aware of what was happening. I mean, those pictures that appeared in the magazines, the interview... I don't remember them at all. I do remember a class of students -- I think they were high school age, coming to visit me one time.
Q: What was your family's reaction to all this?
Zwerg: My dad did have a mild coronary and my mother came close to having a nervous breakdown. One of the things that I have discovered since, after having had a chance to really talk with several of the others, is that almost all of us had some form of real emotional problems with family or personally, in one way or another. Some people had a really hard time - after having had such a tremendous support group and atmosphere of love - having to readapt.
Others have encountered some medical problems, things like that. For years and years, I was never able to discuss it with my dad. He just... you could just see the blood pressure go up. I think my mother ultimately understood. I went through some psychotherapy when I was in seminary, just because of the anger that developed. Again, these people who loved me and taught me to love didn't love what I was doing when I put my life on the line. I had to wrestle with that and work it through.
(11) Time Magazine (2nd June, 1961)
On a bus traveling through the Deep South, a youthful Negro said calmly: "We can take anything the white man can dish out, but we want our rights. We know what they are - and we want them now." In the midst of a sleepless night in his Justice Department office in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, 36, hung up his telephone and said wearily: "It's like playing Russian roulette." And in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama and the birthplace of the Confederacy, Governor John Patterson, 39, wearing a pure white carnation in his lapel, complained bitterly: "I'm getting tired of being called up in the middle of the night and being ordered to do this and ordered to do that."
The young Negro, the young Attorney General and the young Southern Governor were central figures last week in a national drama. It was a drama of conflict and violence. It saw U.S. marshals and martial law in Alabama. It saw cops with police dogs on patrol in Mississippi. It was the drama of the Freedom Riders, and it represented a new and massive assault against segregation in the U.S. South.
The assault was launched late last month when a band of six whites and seven Negroes set out to ride by bus from Washington to New Orleans. The integrated trip was sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality, a Manhattan-based organization. Its purpose was to prove, by provoking trouble, that Southern interstate travel is still segregated in fact, although integrated by law. The original Freedom Riders passed with little incident through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Then they came to Alabama - where they found the trouble they wanted.
For that, they could in part thank Governor John Patterson. A militant segregationist who solicited Ku Klux Klan support in his election campaign, Patterson once said that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body." In his inaugural address Patterson declared: "I will oppose with every ounce of energy I possess and will use every power at my command to prevent any mixing of white and Negro races in the classrooms of this state." Said he as the Freedom Riders approached: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers."
Thus confident that state authority would not stand in their way, Alabama mobs attacked the Freedom Riders in Anniston and Birmingham. Battered and bruised, the original Freedom Riders decided to discontinue their bus trip and fly from Birmingham to New Orleans.
But what they had started was far from ended. Until then, little active support had been given the Freedom Riders by the Negro students who last year fought and won the sit-in battles against segregated Southern lunch counters. When the first Freedom Riders gave up, these students took over. They vowed that they would travel all the way to New Orleans by bus - or, literally, die trying. They were tactical disciples of Martin Luther King Jr., the Negro minister whose Gandhian methods of nonviolence won municipal bus integration in Montgomery in 1956. Willing to suffer beatings and endure jail, the students last week jumped onto regularly scheduled buses and headed south.
In Montgomery, the new Freedom Riders were mauled by another mob. Again Governor Patterson failed to act - and at that point Attorney General Bobby Kennedy reluctantly sent in 400 U.S. marshals, a force that was later increased to 666. The marshals (mostly deputized Treasury agents) were led by Deputy Attorney General Byron ("Whizzer") White, who met with Patterson in a long and angry conference. White carefully explained that the U.S. was not sponsoring the Freedom Riders' movement, but that the Government was determined to protect the riders' legal rights (see box). John Patterson was having no part of such explanations. Alabama, he cried, could maintain its own law and order, and the marshals were therefore unnecessary. He even threatened to arrest the marshals if they violated any local law.
Even as White and Patterson talked, Montgomery's radio stations broadcast the news that Negroes would hold a mass meeting that night at the First Baptist Church. All day long, carloads of grim-faced whites converged on Montgomery.
That night the church was packed with 1,200 Negroes. In the basement a group of young men and women clustered together and clasped hands like a football team about to take the field. They were the Freedom Riders. Everybody say "Freedom'" ordered one of the leaders. "Freedom," said the group. "Say it again," said the leader. "Freedom!" shouted the group. "Are we together?" asked the leader. "Yes. we are together," came the reply. With that, the young Negroes filed upstairs and reappeared behind the pulpit. "Ladies and gentlemen," cried the Rev. Ralph Abernathy as the crowd screamed to its feet, "the Freedom Riders."
"Give Them a Grenade." Slowly, in twos and threes, the mob started to form outside the church. Men with shirts unbuttoned to the waist sauntered down North Ripley Street, soon were almost at the steep front steps of the church. "We want to integrate too," yelled a voice. Cried another: "We'll get those niggers." A barrage of bottles burst at the feet of some curious Negroes who peered out the church door. The worst racial battle in Montgomery's history was about to begin.
Despite the long and obvious buildup toward trouble, only a handful of Montgomery cops were present - and they looked the other way. Into the breach moved a squad of U.S. marshals - the men Patterson had said were not needed. Contrary to Justice Department statements, the hastily deputized marshals had no riot training. They moved uncertainly to their task until a mild-looking alcohol tax unit supervisor from Florida named William D. Behen took command. "If we're going to do it, let's do it!" he yelled. "What say, shall we give them a grenade?" Whereupon Behen lobbed a tear-gas grenade into the crowd.