Commentary: A busload of kids that changed America

Fifty years later.

This morning, if all goes according to plan, a group of college students will board a bus here, bound for New Orleans. The young people in the group represent diverse heritages — a Mexican-American guy born in Yucatan, a white girl from Santa Monica, a black girl studying journalism in Tallahassee. The fact of them traveling together will be unremarkable.

Fifty years ago.

A group of college students boarded two buses here, bound for New Orleans. They were joined by members of the African-American press, and officials of the Congress of Racial Equality, including its national director, James Farmer, who had organized the journey. Six of the riders were white, 12, black. The fact of their traveling together would prove incendiary.

Fifty years later.

There will be 40 students on this commemorative ride, chosen from more than a thousand applicants. They will spend a little over a week rolling across an America vastly different from the America of 1961. In the new America, mom ‘n’ pop have gone out of business, driven into retirement by Subway and Wal-Mart, telephones are portable, computers are ubiquitous and the son of an African from Kenya is president of the United States.

The students are traveling in part to publicize Freedom Riders, a documentary that will air on PBS’ American Experience program beginning May 16. They will go where a bus was burned, people were beaten and the guilty imprisoned the innocent. They will share the journey with many of the original Freedom Riders, men and women now well into their 70s and 80s, and absorb lessons in the nonviolent tactics and philosophies that helped make the old America into the new.

You wonder what that will be like. It is always difficult for young people to imagine old people young, to look upon aged faces and experienced eyes and glimpse there any kinship of spirit or reflection of themselves. It is perhaps more difficult, having come of age in the new America, to envision the old, to gaze upon a landscape of Subways and Wal-Marts and see just beneath it the ghost of the Eat-A-Bite diner or Hardwick’s Hardware, and the metal sign creaking gently in the Dixie breeze, an arrow pointing to the back of the building, beneath the single damning word, Colored.

Fifty years ago.

They felt good as the bus left Washington. John Lewis, the seminary student who would go on to become a congressman, says in the film, “I felt good, I felt happy, I felt liberated.” The first days were relatively uneventful.


It’s important to note that, unlike the seamstress Rosa Parks six years before, the Freedom Riders had the law on their side. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1946 that segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional But the South, characteristically, refused to be governed by the law of the land. It simply ignored the ruling, clinging to its “cherished traditions.”

So in riding side by side on interstate buses, sending white people into colored waiting rooms and colored people into white ones, the Riders did not demand new laws. Rather, they demanded enforcement of laws that already existed. They sought to dramatize the South’s stubborn refusal to abandon racial segregation.

Diane Nash, then a student at Fisk University in Nashville who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago, says she had lived under de facto segregation all her life. But she found the South’s open segregation — the signs and laws and omnipresent violence regulating every trivial aspect of life — “humiliating.”

It was an era where you had to get your lunch at the back door of the restaurant and eat it sitting on the curb. An era where the Coke machine had two slots — one for white coins, another for colored. An era where it was a criminal offense for a white man to play checkers against a black one “And every time I conformed to a segregation law or procedure,” says Nash, “I felt like I was agreeing that somehow I was too inferior to use the front door or to use public accommodations like everybody else did, like an ordinary human being.”

The idea that she or any other African American might be an ordinary human being was, of course, precisely what the South denied. It was the crux upon which its wobbly edifice of white supremacy was constructed and any threat to that was, for whites in the South, a fundamental threat to their very selves.

So the violence that soon erupted was entirely predictable.

May 14th was Mother’s Day. The two buses left Atlanta that day, bound for Birmingham. The first was attacked by a mob of Klansmen in the Alabama town of Anniston. The driver took off speeding, trying to escape, only to discover that his tires had been slashed. He pulled over and ran, and the white men, who had been trailing in cars, sacked the disabled bus.

Whooping and screaming in their bloodlust, they firebombed the Greyhound, then tried to hold the door closed so the passengers could not escape. When the passengers did burst out of the bus, the Klansmen beat them even as they staggered and fell to the ground, coughing and wheezing, lungs choked with smoke.

That same day, the second bus was set upon in Birmingham by Klansmen who had been promised by local police 15 minutes to have their way with the Freedom Riders. Charles Person, an 18-year-old freshman, had been designated to test the facilities there, alongside a white kid named James Peck.

“They knocked James down,” he says. “One of the gentlemen hit me in the head with an iron pipe, which split my head and I started bleeding.” A photographer’s flash went off then, startling the mob, which turned its attention on the media, allowing Person to slip away.

Beaten to pieces, the CORE Freedom Riders voted to abandon the buses. John Seigenthaler, an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was dispatched to Birmingham, where he managed to commandeer an airplane and fly the riders out to New Orleans. He says he went to bed that night “thinking how well I had done by the administration.”


Early the following morning, he was awakened by a call from his boss. The first words out of the attorney general’s mouth: “Who the hell is Diane Nash.?”

She was, of course, the student in Nashville, already deeply involved in the nonviolent protests there, and she had been following the Freedom Riders story with great interest. “I heard about it on the news,” she says, “and thought that if the Freedom Rides stopped at that point, when there had been this massive violence inflicted, the message would be sent that you could stop a nonviolent project by inflicting massive violence. And I thought if that message got sent, we would not be able to have a movement about anything without getting a lot of people killed.”

So Nash was organizing a second wave of Freedom Riders to pick up where the first had left off. Seigenthaler got her on the phone. “I said, ‘This is a war zone. You’re going to get some of them killed if you come down here.’ At first, I was speaking in very modulated, reasonable tones, but obviously becoming frustrated at my inability to convince her, I raised my voice a few decibels more and by the end, I was shouting at her, ‘You’re going to get somebody killed!’ And that’s when she delivered the line to which there was no answer saying, ‘Sir, we signed our wills last night. We know somebody’s going to die.’ ”

“It was frustrating,” says Nash. “We expected them to do their jobs. They kept saying, ‘You don’t understand. Somebody is going to get killed. Somebody is doing to get injured. It was really violent there.’ I kept saying, ‘We do understand.’ No matter what I said, they kept telling me we didn’t understand.”

You would have to have been, she says, “incredibly stupid not to realize you could get seriously injured or killed.”

It was, in fact, the Kennedy Administration that did not understand. The Riders did not act out of the courage that comes from youthful bravado or a young person’s misplaced belief in her own invincibility. No, theirs was the courage — even at their tender ages —of people who are just fed up.

It was a courage that took that second wave into Montgomery under a promise of protection negotiated by Seigenthaler with the administration of Gov. John Patterson. The administration broke that promise.

“There was no police protection when we arrived in Montgomery,” says James Zwerg, then a 21-year-old white kid. “In fact, a few of us saw squad cars pulling out of the bus terminal area as we were pulling in. There were a few media people around. But as we got close to the terminal, we realized there was no vehicular traffic and no pedestrian traffic that we could see. As we got off, it was very, very quiet. Almost eerily quiet. John [Lewis] stepped forward to speak. Just about that time, this fella with a cigar in his mouth, heavy-set fella, approached one of the media people who had a boom mike, and he grabbed that, threw it to the ground, stomped on it and then went for a photographer. He grabbed his camera and in so doing knocked the guy to the ground, threw the camera down and started kicking the photographer.

“That seemed to be the cue,” says Zwerg, “and all of a sudden from around the bus ways, up the driveways, came this mass of humanity screaming, ‘Get ’em! Kill em! Get the niggers! Kill the niggers!’ Several of them went at the media first. Which is a typical Klan tactic. They don’t want any pictures of the action. They don’t mind the pictures of the aftermath so it’ll scare ya, but they don’t want any pictures of the action, because they don’t want to be identified.”

“We knew this was it. We were going to get beaten. I heard somebody yell, ‘Get the nigger lover!’ So I bowed my head and prayed and basically was yanked over a railing and thrown to the ground, got up on all fours, wanting to get back with the group and I got kicked in my spine. I’m guessing that that’s probably when my vertebrae were broken. I flew forward, fell over on my back and a boot came down on my face and that’s basically the last thing I remember.”


“There were kids darting into the street, being chased,” says Seigenthaler, who was in a car. “Others dropped down over a little wall and ducked into the basement of the federal building, expecting and finding refuge there. For me, the screams, I mean, it was just a roar. Some of it was pain and some of it was just animalistic anger, men and women and children screaming at the top of their voices, ‘Get ’em, get ’em! Kill ’em, kill ’em!’

Seigenthaler came across two young women running for their lives. “and it just seemed a simple thing to bounce up on the curb, blow the horn and get them out of there.” He made his way through the crowd, implored the young women to get into the car. One opened the back door, but another braced herself on the door jamb and refused to get in. “Mister,” she pleaded, “for God’s sake don’t get hurt, please. I’m trained to take this. I can take this. I’m nonviolent. Don’t you get hurt, let me.”

“You get your ass in the car!” yelled Seigenthaler.

“At that moment, they had surrounded the car and they wheeled me around to say, ‘Who are you, what are you doing?’ ” Which is when he uttered what he calls “the magic words.”

“Get back,” he barked. “I’m from the federal government!” The next thing Seigenthaler knew, it was a half hour later and he was awakening under the car, where he had been kicked after being felled by a length of pipe to the skull.

It all ended in Jackson, Miss. Gov. Ross Barnett had struck a tacit bargain with Robert Kennedy. In exchange for guaranteeing the Freedom Riders’ safety, he would be allowed to arrest them. The fact that they were within their legal rights apparently did not enter into the discussion.

But as it turned out, it did not end there. As the Freedom Riders languished in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman penitentiary, singing freedom songs and sleeping on stone floors and steel bed frames, young people and people who were not so young began boarding buses and converging on the South from all over the country. They came from Los Angeles and Houston, from Boston and Tampa, from Brooklyn and Spokane. Black and white, they rode, most of them converging on Jackson, where the Freedom Riders had been betrayed. And as the phenomenon grew, more and more of the Riders were white.

“They were moved,” says the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a black Freedom Rider, “because they knew they were being taught one thing in church and seeing the other by their very church members right in the street.”


James Zwerg rejects the notion that because he is white, he did not have, as they say, a dog in this fight. “I felt I had a dog in this fight just as much as anybody else. My very first day [at Fisk], in my ignorance, I suggested to some of my [black] classmates that we go and take in a movie. And was told we couldn’t do that. It was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. I thought it was ridiculous. The whole issue was, for me, not a black or white issue. It was a human issue. And color is irrelevant. If one human being is being treated unjustly, hey, that affects all of us and we need to step up and do something about it. That was my motivation. I didn’t feel I was particularly doing this as a white man to help the black man. I was doing this because I wanted a better country.”

In September of that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission affirmed that segregation in interstate transit was against the law. And the signs came down.

Fifty years later.

You say you want a revolution?

Everybody says that. Everybody — particularly young people — talks about how something ought to be done to address this cause or that cause, this ism or that ism, to fix this injustice or confront that inequity. The difference between the Freedom Riders and “everybody” is that they did not just talk. They went out and did something about it.

You say you want a revolution?

The lesson of Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square, Rosa Parks on a city bus and Freedom Riders on an interstate bus is that revolution is what happens when one person gets fed up enough to do something and that feeling spreads like a contagion. Revolution is what happens when we realize what James Zwerg did: We all have a dog in this fight.

The beating in Montgomery left him with chronic back problems. His teeth don’t fall out as might be considered normal with age. They crack and break, succumbing to fractures inflicted half a century ago.

He has no regrets. “When I’m with my brothers and sisters when we start singing freedom songs, it seems maybe the back doesn’t hurt so much. You forget about it and the bond is there, just as real, just as strong as it ever was.”

A little over a week from now, the Freedom Riders will finally arrive in New Orleans. They are fifty years overdue.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.