By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
May 24, 1961, was a typical spring day in Northeast Mississippi – a high temperature of 83 degrees and barely a quarter inch of rain.
Many of the region’s residents had begun to think about the coming Memorial Day weekend.
Some 190 miles to the southwest, in the state capital, the atmospherics fairly boiled as well, but it was politics, not Mother Nature at work.
The Freedom Riders had arrived.
By the end of the Summer of ’61, 328 of them had been arrested in Jackson.
Two-thirds of them were college students, three-fourths were men and more than half were black.
What began as a modest effort to secure enforcement of racially integrated transportation systems became, as historian John Dittmer quoted civil rights organizer James Farmer, “a different and far grander thing than we had intended.”
For Southerners – black and white – its almost naive audacity and the brutal response were shocking. It also was a game-changer.
This week, surviving Freedom Riders converge again on Jackson and other historic Mississippi sites to remember each other and those days half a century ago.
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Not quite two months before the Freedom Rides, America marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and many white Mississippians took to the observance with flourish and costumery.
Race was part of the state’s everyday fabric.
Billy Barton of Pontotoc, then 20, almost ended his campaign for the editorship of Ole Miss’ student newspaper, The Mississippian, after he said he’d been called a “left-winger” by conservative state officials and the Citizens Council.
According to United Press International wire service reports, a report mailed to campus by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission claimed Barton had taken part in a “sit-in” demonstration and was “planted” on campus to promote leftist causes.
He strongly denied the accusations and took a lie detector test, which he passed.
His opponent, James “Jimmy” Robertson of Canton, termed Barton “lucky” to be the target of the accusations, apparently because of the Sovereignty Commission’s unpopularity on campus.
Ironically, the far more politically progressive Robertson narrowly won.
Thirty miles north on state Highway 7 in Holly Springs, Leslie McLemore of Walls was wrapping up his freshman year at Rust College, where many students were involved with what was termed “social action.”
“So many of us at Rust had been influenced by the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960,” recalled McLemore, now a revered political and education leader in Jackson.
Rust students were active in boycotts at the local movie theater, where they were denied seats outside the balcony, and at the lone drugstore, where lunch-counter seats were removed to avoid a sit-in.
“There wasn’t a lot to protest, and we were turned away from every white church we tried to integrate,” McLemore said.
As the Freedom Riders headed South, McLemore said, Rust students were inspired by them but already were well established with voter registration programs in Marshall, Tate and DeSoto counties.
He said student groups from Howard University undertook similar efforts in Columbus and West Point during the same time frame.
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Even though civil rights actions were not widespread in Northeast Mississippi, its residents were aware of efforts to change the way things were, socially and politically.
In 1961, the nightly television news brought faraway scenes into the region’s living rooms.
Folks also got their news from the Tupelo Daily Journal and other community newspapers.
Until mid-April, civil rights news was found mostly on the Journal’s inside pages.
But in the April 22 weekend edition, the Page 1 headline read “Four Negroes Are Fined for Bus Mix Try – Jackson Court Session Free From Mass Demonstration.”
Reported from Jackson, the story told about four black college students convicted of breach of the peace because they refused to move from the front section of a city bus.
The account also noted that two weeks before, “100 Negroes were chased from a sidewalk” near the Hinds County Courthouse, where nine students were convicted for staging the city’s first racial demonstration – a sit-in at the segregated Main Library.
Most of the season’s prominent news centered on municipal elections throughout the region.
In the May 9 edition, readers learned that 17 “integrationists” were on their way by bus from Washington, D.C., through the Carolinas and Alabama for Mississippi and New Orleans in an effort to crack the South’s transportation color barriers.
Their leader, James Farmer, said they expected to be arrested somewhere along the way and would go to jail instead of paying bonds or fines.
Less than a week later in Anniston, Ala., the Freedom Riders were met by howling crowds of whites armed with clubs and knives. Somebody set the bus on fire, but no one was seriously hurt. The FBI vowed to investigate. In fear for their lives, the Freedom Riders took a plane from Birmingham to New Orleans to map a new strategy.
A May 17 Daily Journal editorial reacted, saying Mississippians “can feel fortunate” that the group of “integrationist trouble makers calling themselves the ‘freedom riders’ went elsewhere.”
It praised white and black Mississippians for keeping cooler heads and urged its continuation.
When a second Freedom Rider bus came through Birmingham, violence and racial tensions flared again.
At Montgomery, called the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” a circuit judge banned the ride participants from the state. Two days later, when the Freedom Riders returned, riots broke out there and martial law was declared.
In Louisiana, Gov. Jimmie Davis rolled up the welcome mat. In Mississippi, Highway Patrolmen went on alert.
Gov. Ross Barnett in Jackson said he hoped officers would escort any Freedom Rider group out of the state immediately.
The next day, Mississippi became Ground Zero for the civil rights effort. A bus loaded with Freedom Riders and armed escorts sped to Jackson, where Riders were jailed.
Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland said the bus rides were “part of the Communist movement in the United States” deliberately aimed to embarrass President Kennedy on the eve of high-level European conferences.
True to their plan, the Riders kept coming. More were arrested. When they filled the jails, many were moved to Parchman, one of the country’s most infamous prisons.
Amid all this uproar, James Meredith sued to crack the color code at Ole Miss.
When the Riders finally walked out of prison, many fanned out across Mississippi to organize the disenfranchised.
By September, the Kennedy administration ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to declare all interstate travel facilities integrated.
The civil rights movement would change, Kennedy would be assassinated and it was new President Lyndon B. Johnson who succeeded in pushing to passage the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, creating a new legal system to outlaw major forms of segregation.
Still, as historian Dittmer wrote in “Local People,” the Riders had made their mark, and whenever word got around about their arrival at a new community, people would say, “Here come the Freedom Riders!”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield @journalinc.com.