JACKSON – Amazing what a difference 50 years can make. When the first Freedom Rider bus rolled into the Trailways bus station on May 24, 1961 – as a reporter I was there – the riders, most of them college-age students, were branded “outside agitators” or worse by city and state authorities.
The Jackson Daily News carried a story saying the Freedom Rider movement to challenge segregated transportation terminals in the South was conceived in communist Cuba.
Last week many of 328 riders arrested in Mississippi that year – most of whom wound up incarcerated in the state’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary – were the toast of the town here, treated as royalty. Even Gov. Haley Barbour, certainly not noted for civil rights sensitivity, at a Sunday gathering of Freedom Riders profusely apologized for their mistreatment in Mississippi 50 years ago.
We hadn’t known back in May 1961, what high-level negotiations had gone on behind the scene involving Sen. James O. Eastland, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Gov. Ross Barnett. Looking back, I realize they saved Jackson from becoming a bloody state-federal battleground as happened on the Ole Miss campus 14 months later. Determined not to have a repeat of the mob attack and firebombing that had greeted the Freedom Riders when they arrived in Montgomery, Ala., four days earlier, Kennedy secretly extracted a promise from Barnett to have armed National Guardsmen ride on the bus with other Guardsmen following in automobiles to protect the riders into Jackson.
So it came as a great surprise to me when the shiny red and white Trailways bus bearing 12 Freedom Riders pulled into the bus station on Pascagoula Street, and state Sen. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (whom I knew and liked, in the Legislature) stepped off the bus in a National Guard lieutenant colonel’s uniform. (A remarkable coincidence: 10 years later, Montgomery and John Lewis, one of the Freedom Riders on the bus, would be serving together as Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives.)
Immediately after entering the “white only” section of the bus terminal, the Freedom Riders, one at a time, were placed under arrest by Capt. J. L. Ray after refusing to obey his order to “move on.” Other blue-capped city police officers led them to a waiting paddy wagon. Nothing as said about violating Mississippi’s segregation laws.
The arrests seemed to follow a script. And to a large extent – as we would learn later – they did. Kennedy had made a deal with Barnett, brokered through Eastland, that the feds would not intervene when the riders were arrested by Jackson police and jailed. The thinking was that the riders would post bond and then go home, and the news story would quickly disappear. But that is not the way the Freedom Rider story played out.
James Farmer, co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, which sponsored the rides that left Washington, D.C., in early May, meantime arrived in Jackson later on May 24 aboard a Greyhound bus with 15 fellow riders and had also been peacefully arrested. Farmer decreed that instead of posting bond and then disappearing into the night, the riders would stay in jail until the final day of their 40-day sentences, and then file an appeal of their convictions for breach of the peace. Then, to the annoyance of Bobby Kennedy, Farmer sent out word for riders to keep coming to Jackson and fill up the jails.
Barnett, through Hinds County Judge Russel Moore, decided to relieve over-crowded city and county jails by carting the riders off to Parchman state penitentiary. Their accommodations: maximum security cells and the tender mercy of the toughest prison guards. That’ll send those trouble-makers packing, so went Barnett’s thinking.
Again, the riders turned the tables on their Mississippi “hosts.” They did it by constantly singing freedom songs that they invented. When guards snatched their inch-thick mattresses, ex-rider Henry “Hank” Thomas (now a prominent Atlanta businessman) told me, they sang “You can take my mattress, but you can’t take my soul…”
Jackson’s Mayor Allen Thompson (now deceased) weighed in confidently that once the Freedom Riders stopped coming, “Our colored people will go right back to the old way.” History has proven otherwise.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.