The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders

The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders

by B. J. Hollars

Hardcover(3rd ed.)

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Overview


Revisits the inspiring and heroic stories of the Freedom Riders, through their own words.
 
In May 1961, despite multiple Supreme Court rulings, segregation remained alive and well within the system of interstate travel. All across the American South, interstate buses as well as their travel facilities were divided racially. This blatant disregard for law and morality spurred the Congress of Racial Equality to send thirteen individuals—seven black, six white—on a harrowing bus trip throughout the South as a sign of protest.
 
These original riders were met with disapproval, arrests and violence along the way, but that did not stop the movement. That summer, more than four hundred Freedom Riders continued their journey—many of them concluding their ride at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, where they endured further abuses and indignities. As a result of the riders sacrifice, by November of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally put an end to interstate commerce segregation, and in the process, elevated the riders to become a source of inspiration for other civil rights campaigns such as voter registration rights and school desegregation.
 
While much has been written on the Freedom Rides, far less has been published about the individual riders. Join award-winning author B. J. Hollars as he sets out on his own journey to meet them, retracing the historic route and learning the stories of as many surviving riders as he could. The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders offers an intimate look into the lives and legacies of the riders. Throughout the book these civil rights veterans’ poignant, personal stories offer timely insights into America’s racial past and hopeful future.
 
Weaving the past with the present, Hollars aims to demystify the legendary journey, while also confronting more modern concerns related to race in America. The Road South is part memoir and part research-based journalism. It transcends the traditional textbook version of this historical journey to highlight the fascinating stories of the many riders—both black and white—who risked their lives to move the country forward.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817319809
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Edition description: 3rd ed.
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author


B. J. Hollars is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is the author of several books including Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in AmericaOpening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa; Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds; From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human, among others.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

James Zwerg

Appleton, Wisconsin"We're dedicated to this. We'll take hitting, we'll take beating. We're willing to accept death."

In the fall of 1958, eighteen-year-old James Zwerg — Jim, to his friends — set foot on Beloit College's Wisconsin campus for his first day of classes. A native of Appleton, Jim was anxious to find his future somewhere among the white-columned red-brick buildings that speckled the tree-lined quad. The tall, lean Wisconsinite had dreams of earning a sociology degree and, having come from a supportive middle-class family, seemed poised to do so — or to do anything else he wanted, for that matter. For the moment, the world was his for the taking, and everything was going as planned.

With bags in tow, Jim entered Haven Hall and scanned the narrow corridors in search of his dorm room. He had been assigned not one roommate but two — doubling his odds of making friends, he figured. Upon entering the room, he soon locked eyes with one of his roommates, a black student named Bob Carter.

Jim was momentarily taken aback. He was not upset, only surprised. Having grown up in Appleton, Jim's firsthand experiences with black people were limited. "All through high school," Jim told me in a phone interview, "I didn't know anyone with a different ethnic background."

Nevertheless, the pair became fast friends, and they could often be spotted roaming the quad together on the way to the commons or to class. The more time they spent together in public, the more Jim became acutely aware of both overt and covert instances of racial prejudice. "We'd go to the commons to have a meal, and people would get up from the table to leave," Jim recalled. "And there were these excessive tiffs during basketball or football intramural games. People made comments just loud enough for [Bob] to hear."

One afternoon Jim invited Bob to visit the fraternity he had recently pledged, only to learn when Bob stepped inside that their so-called brotherhood hardly extended to black men. His "brothers" made it clear that Bob was not welcome in the house. For Jim, this was the first of many moral crises to come, but this particular one was easily resolved. Jim returned his fraternity pin, preferring to find true brotherhood elsewhere.

Throughout his freshman year, Jim observed instances of discrimination in the city as well, including one situation in which a barber refused Bob service because he didn't cut "Negro" hair. Jim was puzzled by such overt instances of racism, but he was even more puzzled by Bob's muted response. "How do you take it?" Jim asked one day while the pair lounged in their dorm room. "Why don't you do something?"

Bob's eyes flickered toward Jim, and after a moment of contemplation he walked over to his dresser. Removing a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King's Stride toward Freedom, he encouraged his roommate to read it. Jim opened the book, and what he found inside proved life-changing. The book lays out the strategy that Dr. King employed throughout the 1955–1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott — the thirteen-month demonstration that led to a federal ruling and a Supreme Court decision that confirmed the unconstitutionality of segregated buses. Yet Dr. King's book was more than a mere blueprint; it described not only the movement's overall strategy but its nonviolent philosophical underpinnings as well.

"I could understand the boycotts," Jim told me, "but this nonviolence business, I didn't really get a good handle on it at that point." Yet Jim soon realized that Dr. King's nonviolence strategy — which King credited to Mahatma Gandhi — was deeply rooted in his own Christian faith. Nonviolence was about "turning the other cheek," Jim explained to me; it was about rendering one's persecutors powerless by refusing to fight back. The strategy, Jim decided, was either ingenious or ludicrous; he would soon find out which for himself.

* * *

In the early part of 2016, just a few months after talking with Jim, I wandered through the library book sale in my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and stumbled upon a 1958 edition of Stride toward Freedom. It was a gift from the universe, I was certain — akin to Bob Carter handing his copy to Jim. I flipped through the book's brittle pages and imagined Jim doing the same all those years before. I couldn't help but search for traces of Jim in its pages, homing in on sections that I imagined might drive a young white college student to act.

I found one such trace in a chapter titled "Where Do We Go from Here?" In it Dr. King noted that Montgomery's racial problems were but a microcosm of the country's wider problems with race. As such, the title's question had national implications. The answer to Dr. King's question, which soon become evident to the leadership team of CORE, was that demonstrators must go to the South. And in doing so, they could utilize buses in a way other than just as their means of transportation: not by boycotting them, as had been done in Montgomery, but by boarding them instead. While Dr. King rightfully credited the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a formative moment for black southerners, he also understood the boycott's effects on white America: a segment of white citizens was at last taking note of the problems of segregation. Jim Zwerg was among them.

In the fall of 1960 Jim was accepted into an exchange program between Beloit College and Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee — an opportunity that provided a front-row seat to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Yet it also provided the mild-mannered Wisconsinite the chance to participate himself, an opportunity he soon took advantage of.

Upon his arrival in Nashville in January 1961, Jim became enamored of Fisk. The university was a hotbed of ideas, a living laboratory where young black students seemed compelled to take their classroom lessons and apply them to life. It was a departure from his experiences at Beloit, not only demographically but also in terms of the students' objectives. At Fisk, Jim observed, the students seemed both intellectually and morally engaged, and he marveled at their brazen willingness to occasionally overlook the former for the latter. Fisk students recognized the importance of studying history, but they also recognized the importance of making it. Of course, there was a third option, too: study history while making it — which was precisely what many students did throughout the spring of 1960 as they took their seats at Nashville's lunch counters.

As a result of the highly successful lunch-counter sitins, Nashville soon solidified its reputation as a battleground for civil rights. Fisk University, along with institutions such as the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now known as Tennessee State University), earned a reputation for churning out socially conscious students — many of whom became leaders in the Nashville movement and beyond.

Chief among them was a twenty-two-year-old Fisk University English major named Diane Nash, whose intellect and courage soon propelled her to the forefront of Nashville's civil rights scene. The previous spring Nash had attended a conference at Shaw University in Atlanta, where she, along with many other students, helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would play a role in a number of civil rights actions, from the Freedom Rides to the 1963 March on Washington to 1964's Freedom Summer.

Nash, a native of Chicago, had begun her college career at Howard University in Washington, DC, before transferring to Fisk in the fall of 1959. Upon her arrival in the Upper South, she soon gained a new appreciation for the challenges of segregation, and she committed herself to helping to overcome those challenges. In addition to possessing great intellect and courage, Nash was a force in front of the television cameras — a savvy and well-spoken student who was keenly aware of the importance of messaging in a media-driven world. A light-skinned black woman with green eyes, she was considered photogenic as well and was even a former beauty pageant runner-up; her electricity further helped her hold an audience. For years Nash's innumerable strengths served the movement well — from her regional work integrating Nashville's lunch counters and movie theaters to her responsibilities overseeing a portion of the Freedom Rides soon to come.

For Jim Zwerg, Nash was nothing short of inspiring — a fellow northerner whose stoic, clear-eyed vision appeared unshakable. He hoped that he would develop similarly, although upon his arrival in Nashville it was evident that he still had a long way to go. Back in Beloit Jim had wondered what it might be like to be in the minority, and when he entered the Fisk student union one day in January 1961, his question was no longer hypothetical. Not only was he in the minority, but his sandy blond hair and six-foot-tall frame ensured that he'd have a hard time blending in. When a black couple spotted the white student peering bleary-eyed at the bustling student union, they invited him to their table. Jim gratefully accepted, and the trio dedicated the afternoon to casual chitchat, picking at french fries, and watching as their fellow students crowded the dance floor. "What's that?" Jim asked, curious about the dance moves flashing before them.

"The twist," the couple informed him.

"Oh, I know the twist," Jim said confidently, but when he set out to prove it on the dance floor, he soon learned that his knowledge was limited to the "Wisconsin twist" — a variation that was, as he put it, "very flatfooted" compared to the loose jive being performed by the Fisk students.

What Jim lacked in twisting skills he soon made up for with his congenial nature. He was quick to befriend the couple, and in an effort to continue the fun as the afternoon wound down, suggested they take in a movie together. The couple stared at him in disbelief. "Jim," one of his new friends said, "we can't take in a movie together. The movie theaters in Nashville are segregated."

The Wisconsinite could hardly believe it. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard," he said. "Who are they to say who I can and can't go to a movie with?"

The two black students looked at each other, then told Jim that if he was serious about integrating Nashville's theaters — really serious — he was welcome to join a newly formed effort committed to doing so. Jim was intrigued, and within days he situated himself across the street from a Nashville movie theater to witness a demonstration in progress.

"There was a group, maybe a dozen [people], just standing there in front of the movie theater," he told me. "All were nicely dressed. The guys were all in suits and ties, and the girls were all in dresses. But they just stood there. They didn't have placards, they weren't singing any freedom songs, they weren't trying to get any tickets. They just stood there."

Curious about the demonstrators' reserved demeanor, Jim crossed the street and struck up a conversation with the last person in line. "I've been watching you," he said. "What is it you're trying to accomplish?"

"You need to speak to our spokesman," the demonstrator said, nodding toward a young black man ahead of them.

"So I went to that gentleman," Jim told me, "and that was John Lewis."

The John Lewis: a man whose humble origins as the son of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, hardly prevented him from becoming one of the most storied leaders of the civil rights movement; a man destined to be a Freedom Rider, a marcher from Selma to Montgomery, a Freedom Summer volunteer, and a chairman of SNCC; a man whose service to his country continues to this day as the congressman for Georgia's fifth district.

Lewis eyed the curious white student towering above him, deemed him sincere, and invited Jim to join him and the others back at the church after the demonstration. Jim agreed, and as a result of that initial meeting — in which he first witnessed the raw, unstoppable power of young people bonded in common cause — he soon became a regular among the activists. Yet even then Jim wasn't fully committed to accepting nonviolence in his life. Despite having been inundated with various testimonies and Bible verses on the subject, Jim still couldn't wrap his head around the idea of purposely allowing oneself to be vulnerable. "I wrestled with those testimonies," Jim told me. "The Sermon on the Mount was a big one."

In fact, "an eye for an eye" made logical sense to twenty-one-year-old Jim, whereas "turn the other cheek" seemed far more useful in theory than in practice. But one night, after spending time with black students from the American Baptist Theological Seminary, Jim was struck by the power of nonviolence in both theory and practice. "It just hit me one evening that the gospels — the story of Jesus — were the most powerful story of nonviolent direct action ever written. 'My God,' I thought. 'That's what it means to be a Christian.'"

Jim was anxious to throw himself headlong into the demonstrations, but first he needed to undergo the Nashville Student Movement's nonviolence training sessions, many of which involved role-playing. As Jim soon learned, his skin color made him uniquely qualified for one role in particular: the white bigot. Jim, who had joined the movement in an effort to combat racism, soon found himself slinging the very words he would never have dreamed of saying under other circumstances.

"I used words that my Mama would have washed my mouth out for," Jim admitted. As uncomfortable as it was, he knew it was all for the cause. Nevertheless, he looked forward to the day when his participation in the movement would transcend role-playing, when he could use his privilege as a target rather than a shield.

He got his chance weeks later when he took his place in a movie theater ticket line with his fellow demonstrators. To the ticket seller in the booth, his exterior surely pegged him as the perfect patron: clean-cut, well-dressed, and, as his skin color confirmed, certainly not one of those black agitators who had so forcefully integrated lunch counters in the past year. Indeed, he resembled just another white moviegoer, his outward appearance offering no hint of the convictions the young man held in his heart — or the fact that he intended to buy tickets not only to use himself but to hand out to black demonstrators as well.

Eventually Jim made his way to the front of the line and purchased a pair of tickets without incident. Then he did so again at a nearby theater, and another, going to four nearby movie theaters until a few of the managers grew wise to the ruse and refused to sell the white man any more tickets to distribute to his rabble-rousing friends.

Jim rejoined his fellow demonstrators back at one of the theaters, handing a ticket to Bill Harbour, his partner in testing the establishment. Armed only with their nonviolence training, Jim and Bill strode toward the doors. Although the men tried hard to hide their fear, they surely felt it. After all, they were preparing to undertake a dangerous mission, violating both custom and law to combat segregation. "We got inside the doors," Jim explained. "Then we were both coldcocked and dumped out on the sidewalks.

"And that," he told me, "was my introduction to being a demonstrator."

* * *

Jim could hardly have known it at the time, but his assault at the movie theater was just a glimpse of the violence soon to befall him. Throughout much of the spring the Nashville Student Movement remained focused on integrating the theaters, and by mid-May it at last found success.

On Sunday, May 14 — Mother's Day — the group had organized a celebratory picnic, but the celebration was cut short when the students received news of the tragic fate of the interstate bus trip known as the Freedom Rides. For the Nashville students, the details remained hazy, but the generalities were clear: ten days into the journey, CORE's effort to take buses throughout the South had ended in violence. One bus was set aflame outside Anniston, Alabama, and soon after the Riders on the second bus were beaten in Birmingham's Trailways bus terminal.

The picnickers headed to their nearby office, where they immediately began strategizing a response. For the past week and a half the students had closely followed the news of the Riders, supporting their brethren from afar. Yet upon learning of the violence that had befallen them, it was now clear to Nash and the other student leaders that their good wishes were not enough.

When word reached them that Farmer was planning to halt CORE's journey as a result of the violence, the Nashville students committed themselves to continuing where the others left off. They believed they had no choice. Halting the Rides, the students feared, would only teach the segregationists that their violence was effective. Nash placed calls to Farmer and Dr. King, informing them of the Nashville students' intentions. Both men urged her to reconsider, but she remained undeterred.

(Continues…)


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Table of Contents

List of Figures xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Author's Note xv

Prologue: All Aboard 1

Part I The Road Behind

1 James Zwerg: Appleton, Wisconsin 9

2 Susan Wilbur: Nashville, Tennessee 27

3 Miriam Feingold: Brooklyn, New York 41

4 Charles Person: Atlanta, Georgia 57

Part II The Road Ahead

5 Bernard LaFayette Jr.: Tampa, Florida 75

6 Bill Harbour: Piedmont, Alabama 93

7 Catherine Burks: Birmingham, Alabama 109

8 Hezekiah Watkins: Jackson, Mississippi 125

9 Arione Irby: Gee's Bend, Alabama 141

Epilogue: The Last Stop 149

Sources 153

Bibliography 157

Index 163

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