“Baptism on Wheels” – reading about the Freedom Rides

Parting the WatersReading long books slowly is not conducive for frequent posting on a book review blog. When I first started reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters last year, I let myself be constantly distracted by other, shorter books. But now I don’t really have the desire to read anything else. Last night, I was racing through a chapter called “Baptism on Wheels” about the first Freedom Ride in May 1961. For those who may not know, Freedom Riders were African-American and white student activists who rode the interstate buses through Southern states to challenge the illegally segregated buses and terminals. (The Supreme Court had ruled that segregated buses and facilities were unconstitutional but the federal government did not enforce the ruling.)

I knew that the Freedom Riders had been confronted with violence, but reading the whole account of it, bolstered by eyewitness details, was incredibly intense. While reading, I kept audibly reacting to the events, especially as the government and law enforcement allowed angry mobs to savagely attack the students. One of the first attacks resulted in the bus fleeing the terminal, pursued by the mob in their vehicles. When the bus driver had to pull over because of the slashed tires, the driver ran off, and the mob broke inside and set the bus on fire. Fortunately, none of the students died but they were beaten and eventually taken to Anniston Hospital in Alabama. They weren’t to find relief there, either.

Among the alarms to reach [Birmingham preacher/activist] Shuttlesworth’s house in the next hour was a call of distress from Anniston Hospital, where Freedom Riders from the burned Greyhound bus were besieged. A large contingent of the white mob had pursued them there, and hospital personnel, intimidated by the mob, ordered the Freedom Riders to leave, saying their presence endangered other patients. Trapped between the mob’s anger and the hospital’s nerves, without means of transportation, the Freedom Riders huddled in one hospital corner after another, being told repeatedly to go somewhere else. [p. 423]

Greyhound bus

The chapter culminates in a different group of Freedom Riders arriving in Montgomery. Although the Montgomery police well knew that this group would be attacked by a white mob on arrival, there were no cops in sight when the nineteen young activists (seven women, twelve men) disembarked the Greyhound bus. As Freedom Rider John Lewis began to speak to the reporters gathered there, a large white mob attacked the students and the pressmen. Amid the violent chaos, the riders managed to place five of the women in a taxi.

[The taxi driver] told the Freedom Riders that he was going to abandon the taxi. While some of his passengers tried desperately to calm him, others looked back in horror at the loading platform. They, along with several Alabama reporters standing closer, saw a dozen men surround Jim Zwerg, the white Wisconsin exchange student at Fisk in Nashville. One of the men grabbed Zwerg’s suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground . . . As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming with blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage. A small girl asked what the men were doing, and her father replied, “Well, they’re really carrying on.” [446]


Zwerg, after the attack.

Meanwhile, John Seigenthaler, a Justice Department official working under U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was in Montgomery, trying to negotiate the protection of the Freedom Riders by segregationist governor Patterson. Knowing the time of the Riders’ arrival, he drove toward the scene and saw Freedom Rider Susan Wilbur being attacked by a crowd of white women.

[Seigenthaler] drove up on the curb and jumped out . . . by the time Seigenthaler reached [Wilbur], the crowd of screaming, angry whites jammed in so tightly upon them that he could not push his way to the car’s back door. He grabbed Wilbur by the shoulders, managed to pull the right front door open, and, shouting “Come on, get in the car,” began to slide across to the driver’s seat. He saw in a flash that another white student – Sue Harmann, whom he had not seen before – had dived into the back.

Wilbur balked. Still absorbing blows, she shouted, “Mister, this is not your fight! Get away from here! You’re gonna get killed!”

Seigenthaler jumped back outside, where people were climbing over his car. “Get in the damn car!” he shrieked at Wilbur.

Wilbur, not sure who Siegenthaler was, kept insisting during the struggle that she was nonviolent and did not want to get anybody hurt. As she did, two men stepped between Siegenthaler and the car door, one of them shouting “Who the hell are you?” With Siegenthaler frantically telling them to get back, that he was a federal agent, the other men brought a pipe down on the side of Siegenthaler’s head. Then the crowd, crushing in to seize Sue Harmann, kicked his unconscious body halfway under the car. [448]

The chapter ends with the eventually rescued riders vowing to continue the ride, including severely beaten riders William Barbee and Jim Zwerg, who made this vow from their hospital beds. Barbee: “As soon as we’re recovered from this, we’ll start again.” Zwerg: “We will continue our journey one way or another,” said Zwerg. “We are prepared to die.”

William Barbee in his hospital bed

William Barbee in his hospital bed

I found a PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders and I think I will watch it after I finish reading about the Freedom Riders in Branch’s book: http://video.pbs.org/video/1925571160/


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3 responses to ““Baptism on Wheels” – reading about the Freedom Rides

  1. piningforthewest

    I had absolutely no idea that this sort of thing happened. Stupidly I assumed that the white people all obeyed the law when things began to change. It must have been terrifying.

  2. I saw a book about this — not Baptism on Wheels, it was called something else — at the bookstore the other day. It’s amazing to me how much bravery and grace people displayed even when the decks were so, so stacked against them. I grew up on the story of Ruby Bridges (we had a book about her, and The Wonderful World of Disney had a TV movie about her, which we watched approximately 1000 times), and it’s insane to me how brave that bitty little girl had to be (and was).

  3. pining – While certainly racism fueled the mobs, it was also a federal vs. state thing too, in the case of the Freedom Rides. Federal law stated that interstate buses and their facilities should be desegregated, but the state segregation laws were still very much in effect in the Deep South and elsewhere, and so many white people resented “the government” interfering with their (racist) way of life and hated the black and white students who dared to test the enforcement of that federal law.

    Jenny – I totally agree about being just in awe of the bravery and grace of the civil rights activists. Ruby Bridges was not mentioned in Parting the Waters, but she is familiar to me from historic photographs and the Norman Rockwell painting. I didn’t know there was a TV movie about her. Speaking of awesome girls – in this case a teenage girl – I did not know before this book that one of the five cases that made up Brown v. Board of Education was started by a student protest, instigated by 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns.

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