In 1961 Dodie Smith-Simmons wanted to be a Freedom Rider. A native of New Orleans, she had joined the local youth chapter of the NAACP at age 15. Now she was 18, a member of CORE and a veteran of marches and sit-in. But instead of going to Jackson and getting arrested, she worked behind the lines. New Orleans was an important staging city for the campaign, a way-point for Riders coming from the west coast and elsewhere. Smith-Simmons and her CORE colleagues housed and fed the Riders on their arrival, trained them in nonviolence, then put them on trains and buses into Jackson.
When the federal government announced on September 22 that it would finally enforce the law, abolishing segregation in southern bus and train stations, it appeared that Smith-Simmons had lost her chance. But Mississippi provided nothing if not opportunities for Civil Rights activists. Many cities continued to segregate their stations, so New Orleans CORE began sending Riders back into Mississippi.
On November 29, 1961, Smith-Simmons and four others road a Greyhound bus to from New Orleans to McComb, Mississippi. On arrival they were denied entrance to the station’s waiting room due to a supposed gas leak. They returned a bit later and successfully integrated it, at which point they were attacked by a gang of whites and driven from the station. Claude Sitton, the New York Times reporter who had covered the Rides all summer, described the scene as a repeat “on a smaller scale [of] the riots that greeted Freedom Riders last May in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala.”
The Riders managed to escape without any help from the McComb police, who were nowhere to be found, or the FBI observers on hand, as always, to observe and nothing more. But if they were paying attention that day, they did get to see Dodie Smith-Simmons become a Freedom Rider.
Above, Dodie Smith-Simmons photographed outside the old bus station in McComb on April 16, 2012.
If Virginia does mandate vaginal ultrasounds be performed on women who want abortions, it will join the ranks of seven other states that currently impose the procedure. Surprise, surprise, five of them are southern — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas — and the other two are southern wannabes — Arizona and Kansas.
But then of course the South does have a history of gouging the vaginas of women who break the rules. Freedom Rider Joan Mullholland (above) remembers her arrival at Parchman prison in the Mississippi delta one evening in the summer of 1961:
It was night, I think, when we got to Parchman — getting processed and a change of clothes and vaginal searches. The matrons would dip their — as I recollect, it was gloved hands, but somebody else may remember it differently — they would dip ‘em into these buckets of whatever between gouging us up. It smelled like Lysol or Pine-Sol, one of those highly disinfectant things. It was all frightening. I think it was meant to impress the seriousness of our isolation and that they could do anything they wanted to.
Joan Mulholland kept a diary of her time in the Jackson city jail. The jailed riders wore their own clothes in Jackson, and Mulholland was able to hide a pencil and several sheets of crumpled paper in the hem of her skirt. When she was transferred to Parchman, she had to wear prison-issue clothing, but on her release, when her clothes were returned to her, she found the diary safe and sound, still hidden in the hem of her garment.
Below is a scan and the transcript of the entry for June 10, 1961. Mulholland had been arrested two days before.
Washed my hair. Dinner spaghetti with two little chunks of hot dogs & cornbread. Ugh! Ruth can’t take it and has been trying to call the lawyer. Lovely little article in yesterday’s paper about me. Wrote Paul but got it back. He’s bailed out and so has Frank.
This evening we sang a lot. Most girls did folk dancing, but since I’d just washed I didn’t want to get all sweaty. After dinner most of us changed to shorties. I think all the girls in here are gems but I feel more in common with the Negro girls & wish I was locked in with them instead of these atheist Yankees.
The jailer brought by two girls to look at us, including one he brought by last night. The boys have devotions twice a day. Sigh! When I grease up Emmy comes over to have some on her lips. Got paper tonight. Wrote Cecil – smuggled.
Almost as soon as the lights went out the singing started. The boys would sing some, and we’d sing some. A man named Charles (non-rider) has a beautiful voice and sang several solos. Someone further away sang “How Great Thou Art” for Betty. Some white guy kept cursing us out. One guy answered back a little and everyone sang louder. We quit around 11. It was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve ever had.
At least three of the Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 had managed to survive or escape the Holocaust as children.
Alex Weiss (above) was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1936, and emigrated with parents and sister in 1940.
In May 1940 they arrested my father. There was one line that said, “You’re going to the camps.” Another line, if you signed over your house, your possessions, your business, they would give you an exit visa. My father signed everything over, and the next day, he gathered me and my sister and my mother together but left his sisters and my grandmother there, because we only had exit visas for the immediate family. We got on a train to go to Trieste and had made arrangements to be on the Saturnia. I don’t know the exact details, but my aunts and my Grandma all stayed, and they all went to the camps and died. Well, there were two aunts that got out, but he had six sisters, and four of them didn’t make it.
The other thing that’s really traumatic that I remember is that after we got to Trieste, we were supposed to wait there for two weeks to get on the Saturnia, a passenger ship, to go to New York.
We were in a hotel room for those two weeks, and I remember we weren’t allowed to go out, because Trieste was full of Black Shirts and Gestapo and what have you. We only spoke German, but my father, who had traveled widely in Italy as a wine-press salesman, spoke fluent Italian and could pass as Italian. So he would go out. I remember I was climbing the walls, and my sister as well, she was only 2.
Finally my father said, “Okay, I’ll take you out and buy you an ice cream or whatever, but you cannot open your mouth and speak, because if you speak German, there might be somebody who notices that and figures we’re refugees and might send us back.”
I said, “I promise I won’t way a word.”
I remember going to this big piazza. My father bought me a whirligig, and he talked Italian to the guy. There was hundreds and hundreds of pigeons in this plaza, and all of the sudden they all flew up at the same time, and I shouted to my father in German, “Look, Papa, the pigeons!” and he looked at me and slapped me.
I cried, of course, but I was more scared seeing the look on my father’s face. My father was frightened, and that’s the first time I felt that, “My God, you know, I’m on my own. Even my father is even scared.” I felt guilty that, now they’re gonna take us back. Well, they didn’t but – I remember that very distinctly.
Weiss and his family made it out of Trieste to New York, and then on to San Francisco, where they resettle.
I grew up in the Fillmore District, which was like the Harlem of San Francisco, but at the time it was fairly mixed. It was primarily black, but with lots of refugees. There was a little Jewish section with Jewish delis and Jewish poultry areas and so on, and I went to school with, you know, black buddies. After high school, I joined the Navy, two years active duty, from ‘55 to ‘57, and I had a lot of black shipmates who were friends.
When the Freedom Riders were attacked in Alabama, I was outraged. I just couldn’t believe it. And one of my motivations for joining CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality] and volunteering to go on the Freedom Rides was that I did not want to be one of those good Germans who just looked the other way.
I remember reading in the papers about the Anniston bus burning and that CORE was looking for Freedom Riders. So one day I went down to the CORE office in San Francisco and said, “I’d like to join,” and volunteered to go on the Rides.
I told my father. He was totally against it: “You’re gonna get killed. It’s not us this time. It’s the schvartzes.”
I said, “Hey, you know, this is what happened to you. I’m not gonna stand by.”
That whole idea — if you see evil and do nothing about it you are a participant in it — I really believed that.
Alex Weiss photographed in 2007.
Today nearly half of the 400-plus 1961 Freedom Riders are in Chicago taping Oprah. It airs next Wednesday, May 4, the 50th anniversary of the day the Rides began. The classic WGBH/PBS two-hour documentary airs on Monday, May 16.
If you’re a bit hazy on the details, here’s an EZ-FAQ to help you sound like you know what you’re talking about when all the hubub kicks into high gear.
Wait, the Freedom Rides were . . .
In 1961, 400+ people were arrested for integrating bus and train stations and airports in the South.
I remember Freedom Summer, is that . . .
Freedom Summer came three years later, in 1964, when hundreds of college students went to Mississippi to work with local organizers on voter registration.
Is that when . . .
Yes, Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodmen were murdered outside Philadelphia, on June 21, 1964.
Were any Riders . . .
No Riders were killed.
Is there a cheap, easy irony here?
Yes, while the Rides were still going on, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with several leaders of the Rides and the Movement and offered support of various kinds if they would focus on voter registration instead of nonviolent direction action. The administration considered voter registration a safer alternative.
But weren’t the Riders attacked . . .
Yes, Klan mobs came very close to killing Riders in three vicious attacks in Alabama. In Anniston, they firebombed a bus, but the Riders managed to escape. At the stations In Birmingham and Montgomery, the police made themselves scarce and let the mobs attack the Riders on their arrival. Several Riders were severely wounded.
Were there any famous people on the Rides?
James Farmer, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Bernard LaFayette, James Lawson, Percy Sutton, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, Rev. C. T. Vivian . . .
Uh, were there any famous . . .
Time magazine cub reporter Calvin Trillin rode on the first bus of Riders into Jackson.
Who started the Rides?
James Farmer and his colleagues at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) created the Rides.
What was CORE’s elevator pitch?
A demonstration bus ride through the Deep South — Washington, DC, to New Orleans — integrating stations along the way in an attempt to draw some attention to the fact these stations were segregating in defiance of federal law.
Law? What law?
In December 1960, the Supreme Court had ruled that stations serving cross-country buses (more formally, interstate transportation) could not segregate.
How did it get started?
On May 4, 13 riders — blacks and whites, men and women — left Washington. They made it mostly OK until they got to Alabama. Reinforcements from the Nashville Student Movement arrived to keep the Rides going into Montgomery on May 20 and then into Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24. Where for the first time they were all arrested.
This is getting too detailed, can you just bottom-line it for me?
Wait, this part is important: Once arrested in Jackson, the Riders deftly abandoned their goal of New Orleans and opted to employ “jail — no bail.” They refused to bail out and instead invited new Riders to join them and fill Jackson’s jails to overflowing. Across the country, people responded and within three weeks Jackson’s jails were full.
Mississippi then found room for the Riders in the state prison, Parchman. The Riders were locked up pretty much 24/7 in Unit 17, the maximum-security building that also housed death row and the gas chamber.
The Freedom Riders won. In September 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission mandated an end to segregation in all bus and train stations and airports.
Can I sound clever by saying the Rides basically break down into three phases?
Yes, you can. Phase one: May 4 – May 14: The original Riders from Washington, DC, to Birmingham.
Phase two: May 14 – May 24: After the attacks in Anniston and Birmingham, the Nashville Student Movement sends reinforcements to keep the Rides going, on into Montgomery, on May 20, and then into Jackson, Mississippi on May 24, where they are all arrested.
Phase three: May 24 – September 13: Jackson takes center stage, as Riders fill the jails to overflowing.
What’s my response if someone says that before I can?
A three-stage view overlooks two other very important stages. First, Rides elsewhere around the south — in Albany, Georgia; Houston, Texas; and St. Augustine, Florida, among other places. Second, Rides in Jackson and McComb late in the year, to test the state’s compliance with the new ICC regulations.
Anything else I can say to try to sound clever?
The Rides showed the movement that nonviolent direct action offered a way forward, and provide a vital template for future campaigns.
For much of the summer of 1961, Parchman became Movement University. New recruits were locked up with movement leaders. Pretty much all they could do was talk. Many of the future leaders of the Mississippi movement were schooled here.
Weren’t the Freedom Riders mostly . . .
Overall, half of all the Riders in 1961 were black, half white. The same is true of the 330 Mississippi Riders as well. Also: Three-quarters of the Mississippi Riders were men, a quarter women. Three-quarters were between the ages of 18 and 30.
And weren’t they mostly from . . .
The Mississippi Riders came from all over: 39 states and 10 other countries. Roughly a third came from the Deep South, a third from the Northeast and Midwest, and a third from the West Coast.
Hey, this is all great but I want to know more . . .
1. Read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_riders
2. Read Ray Arsenault’s excellent narrative history: Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Pivotal Moments in American History)
5. Watch Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders, airing nationally on PBS on May 16
6. Read around this blog blog
7. Read John Lewis’s autobiography: Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement
8. Read James Farmer’s autobiography: Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement
9. Read Stokely Carmichael’s autobiography: Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)