Freedom Riders Reflect On 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago, a small group boarded a bus in Washington D.C. to challenge racial segregation in the deep South. They were nearly burned alive in Alabama. Then hundreds of activists joined the movement to keep the rides going. Host Michel Martin speaks with two Freedom Riders about this historical episode. Congressman Bob Filner and Rev. Reginald Green were college students when joining and were consequently jailed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, did you know there's already a presidential debate scheduled? It's set for tomorrow in South Carolina. NPR political editor Ken Rudin is going to tell us who is in and who is not. That conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we go back to an historic moment in the American South. Fifty years ago today, a small but spirited group boarded a bus in Washington, D.C. to challenge entrenched racial segregation in the Deep South. Some had high hopes that the ride would go smoothly. By the time they reached Alabama, they realized it would not.

(Soundbite of movie, "Freedom Riders")

(Soundbite of mob)

JIM ZWERG: You could see baseball bats and pieces of pipe and hammers and chains. And one fellow had a pitchfork.

MARTIN: That was Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg describing the hostile crowd the bus riders faced in Montgomery, Alabama. By 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that segregating interstate travel facilities like buses and bus terminals was unconstitutional. But most places in the South continued to violate the law. So a group of young people, mainly college and university students, decided to draw attention to it.

When the first group of riders were viciously attacked in Anniston, Alabama and nearly burned alive, hundreds of other young people decided to follow them to keep the rides going.

Today we speak with two men who participated in those rides. And given the time period we're talking about, we'd like to let our listeners know that there may be some racially offensive language in the conversation. Bob Filner is now a member of the U.S. Congress representing California's 51st congressional district, which includes San Diego and California's border towns. He was a student at Cornell University when he joined the Freedom Rides. He's with us from the studios at the Capitol.

The Reverend Reginald Green boarded a Trailways bus in 1961 when he was a student preparing for the ministry at Virginia Union University in Richmond. After that he served for more than 40 years as pastor of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Reverend REGINALD GREEN: Thank you for the invitation.

Representative BOB FILNER: Of course.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you how you heard about the Freedom Rides. Reverend Green, why don't you tell us?

GREEN: Yeah, as a student at Virginia Union and having just gone through the '60s sit-ins, when I heard about the bus, it drew upon my own conscience and consciousness that maybe I need to be a part of this. And having gone through the sit-ins, it seemed like a logical flow for me to get involved.

MARTIN: Mr. Filner, how did you hear about the Freedom Rides?

FILNER: You know, I was studying for my final exams at Cornell University and I was a sophomore and it was Sunday, Mother's Day, and all of a sudden the news came on with this picture of this burning Greyhound bus that had been forced off the highway, firebombed, everybody pulled out, almost beaten to death, and it was just an incredible picture, an incredible sight. And I said, this was not what America ought to be and I got to be on that next bus.

MARTIN: One of the reasons we were interested in talking to both of you is that each of you joined the rides after this had happened. One of the things that some of the first riders have told us is that they really had hopes that it, you know, wouldn't be that bad. But by the time you each decided to join, you realized what was possible. So Mr. Filner, I'll start with you. Why, even after knowing that you could be killed, did you decide that you had to go?

FILNER: It was too important. It showcased something that was very clear about racial segregation and the signs that were up, white only, you know, colored only signs. I had been brought up being taught that racism was the worst evil and you had some personal responsibility to deal with it. We thought we had to put our lives on the line, our bodies on the line, to make America live up to its ideals.

MARTIN: Reverend Green, I want to ask you the same question. Before I do, I want to play a short clip. This clip and the one you just heard earlier are from an upcoming film directed by Stanley Nelson. It's called "Freedom Riders." It's going to air on PBS beginning May 16th. People will want to check their local listings for times. I just want to play a short clip from Diane Nash, and here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Freedom Riders")

(Soundbite of crowd singing)

DIANE NASH: It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.

MARTIN: Was that part of your thinking, Reverend Green, as well?

GREEN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. My whole attitude was, here I am preparing for ministry, and my understanding of the Gospel was a social context to it. That Gospel is about liberation. It's about being whole. And here was the moment of truth in which I could honor the Immanuel Kant postulates that you do what you do because you ought to do it. So I just decided, whatever came, whatever - and in fact that I didn't tell my dad or any of them that I was going.

MARTIN: You didn't tell your parents?

GREEN: No, they found out later.

MARTIN: When did they find out?

GREEN: Well, a reporter from New York got the names. However he got those names, I don't know, and located my father and called him, wanted to know if he had a son named Reginald Green. And my father of course said yes, but he's in Richmond, he won't be home for the summer 'cause he's working his way back to school. And the reporter said, no, Mr. Green, your son is in jail in Mississippi.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the historic Freedom Rides set to challenge segregation in the South. We're talking to two men who were a part of it, Representative Bob Filner of California and the Reverend Reginald Green.

Representative Filner, another question I wanted to ask you is that there were some people who reported in Stanley Nelson's film that some of the white Freedom Riders, the mobs made a beeline for them, because the attitude was you're not just an agitator, you're a race traitor. And I wondered if you were afraid of that and if, in fact, that was your experience as well.

FILNER: You know, those of us who ended up in Jackson, Mississippi, and the Mississippi authorities took a whole different posture and just made sure we were arrested immediately before anybody got beaten up. At first, actually, the way the Mississippians treated us, they thought we simply didn't understand the issue clearly enough, and I would be taken down to the police chief's office and he would say, you know, you're here, you're suffering a little bit, Martin Luther King is eating big steaks and walking around in freedom back in New York or wherever, and don't you want to go home? And I said, no, sir. They thought, you know, they treat their Negroes right, as they said.

MARTIN: They would try to educate you.

FILNER: Right.

MARTIN: And kind of change your thinking. What about you, Reverend Green? Clearly there was not that intention to educate you about that.

GREEN: That's for sure.

MARTIN: What was it like for you after you too were arrested? In fact, you were both in the same prison, but you probably never saw each other.

GREEN: Yeah, Hinds County. But, see, I was in Hinds County for about three or four days.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, were you frightened?

GREEN: I think my first time of really being really frightened was when on the way to Jackson someone had a transistor radio, they turned it up with a mic and there were some words coming across - there's some more Freedom Riders, some more of them niggers and those nigger lovers coming and they don't know what trouble they're in for. And that's the first time you really began to think about it.

MARTIN: Congressman Filner, do you mind if I ask, were you scared?

FILNER: Well, maybe we weren't smart enough, I guess, to be scared. The thing that scared me the most, I think, when you're in jail - I mean the whole purpose of jail is to isolate you from every other, you know, social connection and public connection, so you're completely at the mercy of guards and arbitrary violence in jail. We were guarded by so-called trustees - that is, other prisoners who were trusted enough to bring us food and stuff, and who knows what they might do arbitrarily? They're already in jail. So you know, if they hit us or beat us or, you know, asked us to say yes sir and no sir, they had complete authority. That scares you because you are under their completely arbitrary decision-making. And we didn't have anything to read, nothing to write. We were never allowed out of our cells, no exercise. And they would penalize us for singing at times.

We had a mattress on a steel frame they might take away or take our shorts and t-shirt away so you're sleeping naked on a steel bunk. Turn up the air conditioning at night when it was cold, turn it off during the day when it was hot, making things very uncomfortable for us.

And the ever-threatening violence that somebody could do without any recourse, there was no accountability because you were isolated. That's what I think scared me the most. And the fact that those of us who sort of survived that with dignity - I think Reverend Green would agree with me, I mean, we came out with a sense of discipline and confidence. And I think the whole leadership of the next decade in civil rights came out of that Parchman Penitentiary group. And we actually changed American history. I mean we brought down the legal structure of segregation. And when you have that kind of sense of accomplishment, it's hard to stop you in the future.

MARTIN: Reverend Green, you were telling us earlier that, yes, it did take, you know, courage to go down and get on the bus and face, you know, a mob, not knowing how this mob would react. But you were making a point earlier about who you thought really had courage.

GREEN: Yeah. Those of us who were Freedom Riders, all those who came from the North could return to school eventually or their careers get started if they left Mississippi. But it's the people who resided, whose residence was in Mississippi, particularly those in the Delta and those in the cities who were putting at risk their lives - not only their lives, but their children's education. And of course their livelihood.

MARTIN: People would be blackballed for participating.

GREEN: Be blackballed from participating in other activities. So for me...

MARTIN: They'd lose jobs, they'd...

GREEN: So I give them great credit for helping to keep alive this movement that's still being perpetuated now.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, and we appreciate both of your taking the time, I wanted to ask each of you, in the couple minutes that we have left, what effect do you think this had on your lives? Congressman Filner, will you start?

FILNER: Well, the fact that we won showed to all of us - it gave to all of us an optimism about change in America that if you get involved, work with other people, you can actually change America. We didn't make America perfect. You know, we still have racism and discrimination, but we changed the laws in the Southern states. And that optimism about change has always stayed with me. It led me to run for office and be in Congress, that working together with people like Reverend Green and others, we can actually change America.

MARTIN: Reverend Green, what about you? What effect do you think this period had on your life?

GREEN: It gave you a broader understanding of ministry, I talked about earlier in terms of wholeness. It also gave me an opportunity to understand that we're so much more in common than the opposite of that. And the fact that you had white, black, young, old, Jew, Catholic, Protestant in that episode in the '60s is a testament to the power of diversity and acceptance of that diversity. The Scripture says put your hands to the plow and don't look back.

MARTIN: Reverend Reginald Green was a Freedom Rider. He served as pastor of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. until he retired in 2006. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Representative Bob Filner was a student at Cornell University when he joined the Freedom Rides. He now represents California's 51st district and he was kind enough to join us from the studios at the House of Representatives. I thank you both so much for joining us.

GREEN: Thank you.

FILNER: Pleasure.

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