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Lay Bare the Heart
An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement
By James Farmer
TCU PressCopyright © 1985 James Farmer
All rights reserved.
WHEELS OF TERROR
Captain Ray's index finger shot through the air. "Follow that police officer," he said with professional aplomb, "and get into the patrol wagon."
That was a gesture and those were words destined to be repeated by Jackson's police chief hundreds of times in the next three months as Freedom Riders from twenty states saturated Mississippi jails.
Captain Ray's stabbing finger came to symbolize his role in the drama being played out—that of the little Dutch boy of legend vainly trying to plug a breach in the dike of segregation in order to hold back the floodwaters of resistance—to save his city, his state, his way of life.
Scarcely four hours earlier on that day in May 1961, the Greyhound bus had left a riot-torn Montgomery, Alabama, where mobs of white men had rampaged and held Freedom Riders prisoners through the night in the First Baptist Church. Martin Luther King had flown in from Atlanta to join us for a rally at the church and he, too, was caught in the siege. Robert Kennedy had flown in U.S. marshals. Martial law had been declared and the Alabama National Guard called to duty.
The next day, curfew had been enforced and sporadic gunfire could be heard, shattering the quiet. Now, jeeps patrolled the streets. The atmosphere was warlike. As thirty or forty nonviolent black youths readied themselves for their ride into bigotry's main den, to beard the beast lurking there, individual apprehensions were eclipsed by collective determination.
The eclipse was only partial, though; fear shone through. If any man says that he had no fear in the action of the sixties, he is a liar. Or without imagination.
If there are those who think that the leaders were exceptions to that and were strangers to fear, let me quickly disabuse them of such a notion. Frankly, I was scared spitless and desperately wanted to avoid taking that ride to Jackson. Alabama had chewed up the original thirteen interracial CORE Freedom Riders; they had been brutalized, hospitalized, and in one case disabled—by flame, club, and pummeling fists. Across the Alabama line from Georgia, blacks had been brutally pistol-whipped and clubbed with blackjacks and fists and then thrown, bloodied, into the back of the bus. Whites had been clobbered even worse for trying to intervene—one suffered a stroke as a result and was paralyzed forever.
A bus had been burned to the ground in Anniston, Alabama, and the Freedom Riders, escaping with their lives, were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. In the Birmingham bus depot, Jim Peck, a white man, had been left for dead in a pool of his own blood. His head required fifty-three stitches. How many stitches could repair the heart that bled for the nation?
And, fortuitously, I had missed that carnage on the ride from Atlanta to Montgomery due to the death of my father. But how would I escape Mississippi? If Alabama had been purgatory, Mississippi would be hell.
Black students from Nashville, members of SNCC, their numbers augmented by youthful black CORE members from New Orleans, had dashed in to catch in midair the baton dropped by the initial thirteen. They had not asked if I would ride with them: they assumed that I would.
I had different thoughts, though. I had decided not to ride. Definitely, at any cost, not to go. Catalogued in my mind were all the necessary excuses. When the inevitable question came, I was ready with answers.
But that decision had not come without inner pain. After all, when I took over the helm of CORE, four months earlier, I had said that I would be no armchair general, tied to the tent. I would not send troops, but would go with them. But that was bravado born of remoteness from reality. Who would expect me to risk being cut down so early in the promise of a leadership career? Everyone would understand when they thought about it. There would be many other battles, much time to show courage. And how could I let myself be wiped out now, before anyone outside the inner circle of the movement even knew I was there? Not now, maybe later. And my father had just died. I should not follow him so soon. Two deaths in two weeks would be too much for my mother. The family needed me now.
Yet, a grain of ambivalence stuck in my craw. Maybe a "still, small voice" would speak. A part of me hoped so. But if it spoke, I was certain that I would close my ears. Though, just in case, I had packed my suitcase and tossed it into the trunk of a staff car. And along with it my inner turmoil.
When the kids boarded the buses, I watched as a father seeing his children leave the home, as they must, and race into an uncertain future. Typically, the father was sad because he could not go with them; they had to go alone.
On the first bus, the Trailways, they were not alone. With them was a young black Methodist minister, the Reverend James Lawson. A man of much imagination, Jim Lawson must have had the same apprehensions that I had. But he had decided to go anyway. Courage, after all, is not being unafraid, but doing what needs to be done in spite of fear. He fairly leaped onto the bus, with a grim gladness. The students on board smiled and gave me a "thumbs up" gesture and shouted, "See you later, Jim." I returned the gesture and the smile, hoping that they would see me later, much later.
The second bus, the Greyhound, was boarded by some SNCC people, but mostly by CORE people. The CORE contingent had come at my urging, transmitted by my staff in New York, to keep the "revolution" going. They fully expected the protection my presence would provide. They filed in and took seats. I stood outside and waved farewell. The windows were open and I extended my hand through to shake hands with a pretty seventeen-year-old CORE girl from New Orleans. She took the hand with some puzzlement. "My prayers are with you, Doris," I said. "Have a safe trip, and when it's over, we'll get together and decide what we have to do next to finish the job."
Doris Castle's eyes, strafed with fear, became huge balls of terror. "You're coming with us, aren't you, Jim?" she whispered. I went through my prearranged litany of excuses: I'd been away from the office for four weeks; my desk was piled high with papers. People would be angry with CORE if they got no timely response to their letters, would not contribute money. Someone had to raise money to fuel these buses, to keep the revolution going. As national director, I had a solemn responsibility to mind the store. All of us want to be where the action is, but no such luck. Some of us are stuck with the dull jobs, the supportive ones. I could not be there in person, but she knew I'd be there in spirit.
Eyes wide, she shook her head slowly, brushing away all my words. Brain did not believe what ears were hearing. She spoke softly, in a stage whisper. But the words hit like a trip-hammer, driving me, it seemed, partway into the pavement. "Jim. Please."
"Get my luggage," I shouted to a CORE staffer standing nearby. "Put it on the damn bus. I'm going."
Doris didn't smile, she just looked. And she suddenly looked tired. Kids grow up fast under fire, and sometimes grow old. Like in war.
In addition to the kids, six reporters were aboard. This was the story of the day. The headlines. TV. No reporter worth his salt would miss it, whatever the risk. On their faces was the expectancy of great by-lines, immortal photos.
Six Alabama National Guardsmen were on the bus, too. With rifles and fixed bayonets. Their hearts, no doubt, were on the other side. Which way would they point their guns? I wondered.
Helicopters chopped overhead, scanning the woods and roads. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had moved at last. He had ignored the Freedom Ride until the bus was burned at Anniston and blood was splattered over Alabama and headlines screamed the tale all over the world. I had rejected his call for a halt and a cooling-off period.
But he had moved. State police sirens howled up and down the highway, warning Klansmen that they were outgunned. The feds were watching.
As wheels pounded concrete, a lavender haze fogged my brain. I longed for rest. Some of the kids were writing something. Diaries? No. We don't write; we talk. I looked, and it was names and addresses of next of kin. The young men stuffed those grim messages in their pockets; the women, in their bras.
I dozed. When the senses can endure no more, mercifully, they cut off.
Later, I was told that we had not stopped at Selma as planned for there had been a mob waiting—with chains, clubs, and guns. We would have to stop at Jackson, for that was our destination. What would be waiting there?
Mississippi's governor, Ross Barnett, had been on the airwaves and television for several days, urging the rural folk, the "red-necks," to stay home and let the law take its course. Whoever violated their sacred segregation laws would be duly punished. But by the law. I felt, of course, that Governor Barnett was not concerned for our lives, but for his state's image while he romanced northern industry. If we got ourselves killed, let it be not on his turf, but across the state line.
But who or what could control the haters? The governor? The president? The spirit of Gandhi? Or the barrel of a gun!
The wheels rolled and I tossed in the reclining seat. The state line, and that fabled sign: "WELCOME TO THE MAGNOLIA STATE."
The bus pulled off the road onto the shoulder and stopped. We had no forewarning of this, so anxiety reigned. The Guardsmen showed no concern. The reporters and photographers stiffened to an alert, their pads and pencils and cameras at the ready. The Freedom Riders all looked at me, searching for a cue. I tried to remain emotionless.
The driver of the bus left and was replaced by another. The Alabama National Guardsmen left and were replaced by a Mississippi contingent. The director of public safety of the state of Alabama, Floyd Mann, boarded the bus and whispered a message into the ear of one of the reporters. He then left the bus and the privileged reporter passed his new knowledge on to the other five. Those five then left the bus.
The door was closed and the wheels rolled again. I asked the remaining reporter what the message had been.
"I was informed," he replied, "that this bus will be ambushed and destroyed inside the Mississippi border." The Freedom Riders' eyes were on me, questioning. I relayed the ominous report.
I forced a smile, as though everything were under control. They smiled back.
We rolled on. One young man, Hank Thomas, burst into song to break the tension:
I'm a-takin' a ride
On the Greyhound bus line
I'm a-ridin' the front seat
To Jackson, this time.
Everyone joined lustily in the chorus:
Halleluja, I'm a travelin'
Halleluja, ain't it fine?
Halleluja, I'm a travelin'
Down freedom's main line.
The next stanza:
In Nineteen Fifty-four,
The Supreme Court has said,
Looka here, Mr. Jim Crow
It's time you were dead.
And we felt better: song stiffens the spine. Sleep was gone. This was Mississippi.
We reached a heavily wooded area. On both sides of the road, great forest. One could almost see the water moccasins and hear the rattlesnakes. Huge oak trees rose in majesty from the swamplands, laden with moss. The foliage was dense.
I imagined runaway slaves a century ago, sloshing through water and hiding behind trees as they fled pursuing hounds. Visions of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Visions, too, of black bodies swinging, with bulging eyes and swollen tongues.
National Guardsmen flanked the highway, rifles pointed toward the forests. Audible to us in the bus was an order shouted by an officer over a bullhorn: "Look behind every tree!"
This clearly was where the ambush was expected. It did not come.
When the bus pulled into Jackson, there was an eerie stillness. The streets were nearly deserted. Maybe Ross Barnett had succeeded. Or maybe everyone was at the bus terminal. Waiting for us.
We pulled into the terminal. And there it was. The huge crowd of white men, standing there. Solemn, unexpressive faces. Just standing.
"This is it," I thought. "But it's what we came for; we can't sit here and hide."
I made my way down the steps of the bus. A Nashville student, Lucretia Collins, followed me out the door and linked arms. Her soft nearness was reassuring, and her faint fragrance comforted me.
The crowd curiously did not attack, but divided, forming a passageway to the "white" waiting room. They knew where we were going. Head high, I looked to neither side, trying to conceal my apprehension.
(That crowd, I later learned, was made up of federal agents, plainclothes policemen, and media people. Ross Barnett's appeal had worked.)
Lucretia and I, arm in arm, crossed the "white" waiting room, sipped from the "white" water fountain, and walked to the "white" restaurant entrance.
And there was Captain Ray, blocking the doorway. He asked my name and nodded slightly when I told him. Three times he ordered us to "move on," and three times I refused, on grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case. He asked me if we understood his order and I replied, "Perfectly."
It was all very civilized; the nation was watching through newsreel cameras. Bigotry had many faces, and unlike Alabama, where Klan hooliganism had been allowed to run amok, Mississippi was putting its best face forward.
When the captain ordered the arrest and commanded us to the patrol wagon, a grimace swept Lucretia's features and quickly vanished. "What are the charges?" I asked.
He looked at the ceiling momentarily, then replied, "Disturbing the peace, disobeying an officer, and inciting to riot."
My companion and I turned, followed the waiting policeman, and climbed into the patrol wagon. The wagon filled quickly with youthful Freedom Riders directed there by Captain Ray's thrusting forefinger. The doors were slammed shut and latched, and the wagon leaped forward toward jail. The quiet of the city was violated by the siren of the squad car escorting us. Somehow, the sirens of Jackson seemed fiercer and angrier than any I'd ever heard.
Suddenly, the air was rent with another sound exploding through the barred windows of the paddy wagon. "We Shall Overcome" came first, and we sang at the top of our lungs, as though shouting to straining ears in cotton fields and shacks on plantations in the far reaches of the state. It was Lucretia who had said, "Let's sing," and then, "Louder, louder."
The greatest fervor was reserved for the stanza "We are not afraid. We are not afraid. We are not afraid, today. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome, someday."
I wished, I must confess, that singing it could make it so. It almost did. We sang loudly to silence our own fears. And to rouse our courage. There is no armor more impenetrable than song.
The wagon drew to a halt. Its doors were unlatched and we filed out. Camera eyes blinked. Two dozen policemen with rifles stood at alert. We were silently motioned through the door of the Jackson City Jail. In single file, we entered through the cordon of protectors.
As the door closed behind us, it shut out the smell of magnolia blossoms.
It also locked out civility.CHAPTER 2
WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
The Fourth Estate, our chief protection, was not there in the Jackson City Jail. The pads brought out when we entered were not note pads of reporters, but ink pads for fingerprinting. The only camera, for mug shots; the only interviews, interrogations—bristling and hostile.
The police processing us made no attempt to hide their hatred and frustration at being forced to exercise even a modicum of restraint. Their habit, beyond doubt, was to beat and even kill blacks with impunity, and they baited us, digging for an excuse to indulge the habit. No real provocation was needed. Our presence, challenging what was beyond challenge, was provocation enough. But Washington was watching now, and they had their orders. They had better not take liberties with the hated Kennedys.
They needed no excuse, though, to hurl epithets. We were called niggers and black bastards and threatened with billy clubs. A particularly red-faced cop fingered his holstered revolver when one youth breathed up into his face, "I'm not a nigger. I'm a Negro." I froze, and relaxed only when one of the policeman's peers tapped him on the shoulder, shaking his head. I cautioned our group to patience and forbearance, for we had a long ordeal ahead of us.
A young minister in clerical collar smiled when called "boy" by his interrogator and quietly said, "My church generally ordains men, not boys." The officer leaped to his feet, billy club aloft: "I'll knock yo' fuckin' black nappy head through that goddamn wall if you don't shut yo' goddamn mouth, nigger." I held my breath. The minister, the Reverend C. T. Vivian, smiled even more broadly, looking the officer coolly in the eye. The policeman sat down, deprived of the opening he sought.
That we were making this challenge in Mississippi was beyond the comprehension of our interrogators. They tried to extract from each one of us a confession that we were communists, drug addicts, homosexuals, we didn't know what we were doing, or we were being paid by some organization to do it. "Niggers don't do things like this," they kept saying.
Excerpted from Lay Bare the Heart by James Farmer. Copyright © 1985 James Farmer. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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