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Monday, June 19, 2017

Neil Kellerman's "Freedom Ride" to Mississippi

The Houseman family vacationed at the Kellerman resort hotel from August 10 through September 2, 1963. During their vacation, on August 28 the March on Washington took place, where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Baby Houseman and Neil Kellerman are introduced on August 10 and dance together that evening in the hotel's ballroom. Baby tells Neil that at Mount Holyoke College she will study the economics of underdeveloped countries and then go into the Peace Corps. Neil responds:
After the final show, I'm going to Mississippi with a couple of busboys -- freedom ride
The scene where Neil tells Baby his yarn about his "freedom ride"
The "final show" took place on September 2. So, Neil indicated that during September he would go on his "freedom ride" with a couple of busboys who were Negroes (the proper word in that period).

However, the final "Freedom Ride" had taken place on December 2, 1961 -- one year and nine months before Neil's remark. Possible explanations include the following.

* Neil was lying to impress Baby and was assuming that her knowledge of the Freedom Ride movement was fuzzy.

* Neil did intend to travel to Mississippi to help register Negro voters there and defined his planned trip loosely as a "freedom ride".

* Neil intended to drive to Mississippi, with a couple of his Negro busboys sharing the ride, but his own purpose for the trip had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement.

Your guess is as good as mine.


Two Jewish men -- Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- were murdered while traveling in a car with a Negro James Chaney in Mississippi in June 1964. The murder happened about nine months after Neil's "freedom ride" remark.


If Baby was about 18 years old during her Kellerman vacation, then she was about 16 when the Freedom Rides happened. The events were dramatic and notorious. The Wikipedia article about the Freedom Riders includes the following passages:
Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 and subsequent years in order to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. The Southern states had ignored the rulings and the federal government did nothing to enforce them. ....
Freedom Riders departing in a bus
The first Freedom Ride began on May 4, 1961. Led by CORE Director James Farmer, 13 riders (seven black, six white, including Genevieve Hughes, William E. Harbour, and Ed Blankenheim left Washington, DC, on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana, where a civil rights rally was planned. Most of the Riders were from CORE, and two were from SNCC. Many were in their 40s and 50s. Some were as young as 18.

The Freedom Riders' tactics for their journey were to have at least one interracial pair sitting in adjoining seats, and at least one black rider sitting up front, where seats under segregation had been reserved for white customers by local custom throughout the South. The rest of the team would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would abide by the South's segregation rules in order to avoid arrest and to contact CORE and arrange bail for those who were arrested.
The website Jewish Women's Archive includes an article by Judith Rosenbaum titled Why do we act? Lessons from the Freedom Rides, which includes the following passages:
More than half of the white Freedom Riders were Jewish, and Judith Frieze, a recent graduate of Smith College, was among those white northerners and many Jews who joined the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961. Arrested in Jackson, she spent six weeks in a maximum security prison. In a series of articles she published in the Boston Globe after her release, she recalled what motivated her to join the Freedom Rides: "All of a sudden I was tired of talking. I had reached the point when I wanted to do something about this. I felt like the only way that I could make my principles meaningful was by involving myself... It seemed necessary to close that gap between what I was saying and what I was doing."

Idealism was not her only motivation. She also admits she drawn to participate in the Freedom Rides by a "longing for adventure." Frieze was not eager to return home to live with her parents, as unmarried women were expected to do at the time, and the Civil Rights Movement gave her another option: to go south and do something that felt meaningful and exciting.
The Wikipedia article continues:
The Birmingham, Alabama, Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, together with Police Sergeant Tom Cook (an avid Ku Klux Klan supporter), organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local Klan chapters. The pair made plans to bring the Ride to an end in Alabama. They assured Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informer and member of Eastview Klavern #13 (the most violent Klan group in Alabama), that the mob would have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any arrests being made. The plan was to allow an initial assault in Anniston with a final assault taking place in Birmingham.

On May 14, Mother's Day, in Anniston, a mob of Klansmen, some still in church attire, attacked the first of the two buses (the Greyhound). The driver tried to leave the station, but was blocked until KKK members slashed its tires. The mob forced the crippled bus to stop several miles outside of town and then firebombed it. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders to death. Sources disagree, but either an exploding fuel tank or an undercover state investigator brandishing a revolver caused the mob to retreat, and the riders escaped the bus. The mob beat the riders after they got out. Only warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched.
The "Freedom Rider" bus burning in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961
That night, the hospitalized Freedom Riders, most of whom had been refused care, were removed from the hospital at 2 AM, because the staff feared the mob outside the hospital. The local civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars of black citizens to rescue the injured Freedom Riders in defiance of the white supremacists. The black people were under the leadership of Colonel Stone Johnson and were openly armed as they arrived at the hospital, protecting the Freedom Riders from the mob.

When the Trailways bus reached Anniston and pulled in at the terminal an hour after the Greyhound bus was burned, it was boarded by eight Klansmen. They beat the Freedom Riders and left them semi-conscious in the back of the bus. ...

When reports of the bus burning and beatings reached US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he urged restraint on the part of Freedom Riders and sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Alabama to try to calm the situation.

Despite the violence suffered and the threat of more to come, the Freedom Riders intended to continue their journey. Kennedy had arranged an escort for the Riders in order to get them to Montgomery, Alabama, safely. However, radio reports told of a mob awaiting the riders at the bus terminal, as well as on the route to Montgomery. The Greyhound clerks told the Riders that their drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. Recognizing that their efforts had already called national attention to the civil rights cause and wanting to get to the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham. When they first boarded the plane, all passengers had to exit because of a bomb threat. ....

CORE, SNCC, and the SCLC rejected any "cooling off period". They formed a Freedom Riders Coordinating Committee to keep the Rides rolling through June, July, August, and September, 1961. During those months, more than 60 different Freedom Rides criss-crossed the South, most of them converging on Jackson, where every Rider was arrested, more than 300 in total. An unknown number were arrested in other Southern towns. It is estimated that almost 450 people participated in one or more Freedom Rides. About 75% were male, and the same percentage were under the age of 30, with about equal participation from black and white citizens.

During the summer of 1961, Freedom Riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. This was especially effective when they targeted large companies, such as hotel chains. Fearing boycotts in the North, the hotels began to desegregate their businesses.

In mid-June, a group of Freedom Riders had scheduled to end their ride in Tallahassee, Florida, with plans to fly home from the Tallahassee airport. They were provided a police escort to the airport from the city's bus facilities. At the airport, they decided to eat at a restaurant that was marked "For Whites Only". The owners decided to close rather than serve the mixed group of Freedom Riders. Although the restaurant was privately owned, it was leased from the county government. Canceling their plane reservations, the Riders decided to wait until the restaurant re-opened so they could be served. They waited until 11:00 pm that night and returned the following day. During this time, hostile crowds gathered, threatening violence. On June 16, 1961, the Freedom Riders were arrested in Tallahassee for unlawful assembly. ...

The Freedom Riders in Monroe were brutally attacked by white supremacists with the approval of local police. On August 27, James Forman - SNCC's Executive Secretary - was struck unconscious with the butt of a rifle and taken to jail with numerous other demonstrators. Police and civilian white supremacists roamed the town shooting at black people, who returned the gunfire. Robert F. Williams fortified the black neighborhood against attack and in the process briefly detained a white couple who had gotten lost there.

The police accused Williams of kidnapping and called in the state militia and FBI to arrest him, in spite of the couple being quickly released. Certain he would be lynched, Williams fled and eventually found refuge in Cuba. Movement lawyers, eager to disengage from the situation, successfully urged the Freedom Riders not to practice the normal "jail-no bail" strategy in Monroe. Local officials, also apparently eager to de-escalate, found demonstrators guilty but immediately suspended their sentences. ...

The Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued ... orders just before the end of the month [September 1961]. The new policies went into effect on November 1, 1961. After the new ICC rule took effect, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains; "white" and "colored" signs were removed from the terminals; racially segregated drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms serving interstate customers were consolidated; and the lunch counters began serving all customers, regardless of race.

The widespread violence provoked by the Freedom Rides sent shock waves through American society. People worried that the Rides were evoking widespread social disorder and racial divergence, an opinion supported and strengthened in many communities by the press. The press in white communities condemned the direct action approach that CORE was taking, while some of the national press negatively portrayed the Riders as provoking unrest. ....
Although segregation on buses was prohibited after November 1, Freedom Rides continued through December 2, 1961, in order to test the new rules.

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