Mother Recalls Her Perilous Freedom Ride

Scores of civil rights activists faced violence and arrests when traveling into the heart of the segregated South as "Freedom Riders" in 1961. Theresa Walker, one of the few women and very few mothers who braved that journey, is being honored Wednesday by the National Women's Law Center. She speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. That was the civil rights era campaign by the Congress of Racial Equality where young activists went into the heart of the Jim Crow South to challenge segregation laws.

There, Freedom Riders faced angry mobs, arrest and often brutal conditions behind bars. The specter of violence hung over everyone who participated, including the many women who took part. A group of these women are being honored today by the National Women's Law Center and one of them joins us now. In June of 1961, Theresa Walker joined the Freedom Rides with her husband, also a civil rights activist. They rode from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi. And she's with us now.

Thank you, Mrs. Walker, for joining us. Thank you so much.

THERESA WALKER: You're quite welcome.

MARTIN: How did you come to the decision that you wanted to join the Freedom Rides?

WALKER: Well, I had four children and they were our pride and joy and I wanted to contribute in some way. I didn't have any money to contribute. We were kind of poor. So when my husband came home one evening and said he was going on the Freedom Rides, I decided that I would join him, but I didn't tell him until I'd made arrangements for the four children to go their grandparents in New York and New Jersey.

MARTIN: How did he react when you mentioned that you would be going along, also?

WALKER: I don't remember, but he was all right with it.

MARTIN: How did your children's grandparents, your parents, react when you told them? Or did you tell them what you were up to?

WALKER: No. We didn't tell them. I'm an only child and I was my dad's pride and joy and there was no way I could tell him that I was going to go to jail. He wouldn't even come to visit me below the Mason-Dixon line.

MARTIN: Because he was not willing to move to the back of the bus to these segregated facilities?

WALKER: Right.

MARTIN: Now, were you afraid? I have to ask. I know maybe it sounds like such a ridiculous question, but were you scared?

WALKER: Oh, yes. I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen. I think, you know, you're usually afraid of the unknown.

MARTIN: Tell me how it started. When you first got there - when you first started on the ride, I think your Freedom Ride actually started - what? In Atlanta?

WALKER: It started in Atlanta.

MARTIN: And what was that like? When it started out, did it start out kind of fine or how did it go?

WALKER: It started out fine, but then the bus driver would not let us off the bus all the way to Jackson, Mississippi. He let the regular passengers off, but he would not let us get off the bus, so we could not go to the bathroom or get anything to eat.

MARTIN: And I understand that you were arrested almost immediately after you arrived in Mississippi. Is that right?

WALKER: Yes. As soon as we got off the bus and went into the white waiting room, they had the paddy wagon waiting and they took us right to Jackson City Jail.

MARTIN: And I understand that this is a painful memory and I do apologize...

WALKER: It is a painful memory.

MARTIN: ...for asking you to relive it. But would you mind very much telling me what the conditions were there?

WALKER: Well, that night, in the Jackson City Jail, they gave us for dinner - they gave me for dinner, because I was the only black woman and I was in a cell by myself, they gave me cold peas and cold corn for dinner. The next morning about 6:30, they got us up and took us to the Hinds County Jail and that's where we spent seven days.

It seemed as if, when you wanted to bathe, the water ran cold. If you wanted a drink, it ran hot. The toilet was - and the shower, which did not work, was on the open corridor, so anybody walking by could see you. The bugs - when the girls slept at night, the bugs crawled all over them and mice ran around. It was just terrible. It was horrible. We had no toothbrushes. At least, I didn't. I didn't have a toothbrush, nor a washcloth, no toothpaste. And a minister from the city said he came by and left 30 pounds of supplies. We never got them.

MARTIN: Did the jailer say anything to you while you were there?

WALKER: The jailer, when we came in, the jailer took an envelope and put our rings - I didn't know they were going to do that - and earrings and whatnot in the envelope. When I got ready to leave, my wedding diamond was missing. The band was there, but the diamond was missing. And the jailer said that he was the only one who had the key and my husband said to him, well, if you were the only one who had the key, then you stole my wife's wedding ring.

And I then said, oh, my goodness. They're going to put us back in jail, but they didn't. But I never did get my ring.

MARTIN: When you were going through all this, what was going through your mind?

WALKER: Well, we tried to comfort each other and console each other. Someone had a book. I read the book. It was something about a long journey and I've tried to find it since, but I couldn't remember who wrote it. But it was a very good book.

We sang and then, at night, we sang freedom songs to the men in their part of this - I think they were in another building, but we could hear them. And then they would sing back to us. The only time the jailer would really talk to us - he would tell us to be quiet and, if we weren't quiet and if it was a warm day, he would turn up the heat. If it was a cool evening, he would turn the air conditioning on.

But we wouldn't cease. That was our way of communicating with the men to let them know that we were all right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with a woman who's being honored for her part in the historic Freedom Rides. Theresa Walker took her campaign for civil rights directly into the heart of Jim Crow country 50 years ago. She's being honored by the National Women's Law Center today.

You said that the women would sing at night and then the men would sing back to kind of respond to them. Do you remember any of the things that you sang, any of the songs that you sang?

WALKER: Yes. We sang, freedom's coming and it won't be long, to the tune of Harry Belafonte's "Day-O." We sang, freedom's coming and it won't be long. We took a trip on the Greyhound bus. Fight segregation, that we must. We took a trip down Alabama way. Not much violence on Mother's Day. Come, Mr. Kennedy, take me out of my misery. End segregation. Look what it has done to me. When you travel, wherever you go, be sure to travel non-Jim Crow.

And then we sang, oh, freedom, oh, freedom, oh, freedom over me. We sang, over my head, I hear music in the air. Of course, we sang "We Shall Overcome." Those were the freedom songs and there were a lot of them. Those who could sing would lead them and the rest of us would just follow along.

MARTIN: Did anybody come to visit?

WALKER: Yes. A Reverend Whitney and a Reverend Mayes(ph) visited and then the Salvation Army ladies came to visit us one day and they told us we were all going to hell for sinning and they told us to trust in the Lord, put faith in the Lord and ask him to forgive us our transgressions. And we immediately sang, "We Shall Overcome." Oh, they sang out, "Throw Out the Lifeline" to us and "He Lives" and "The Old Rugged Cross."

MARTIN: So you had a sing-off.

WALKER: And the reason I remember this is because I took notes and I brought the notes out with me and I have a diagram of where everybody who was in my cell - I have their name and a diagram of where their mattress on the floor was.

MARTIN: What gave you the idea to do that?

WALKER: I don't know. Well, there wasn't that much to do, so I guess to keep busy.

MARTIN: It was an integrated group. There were white Freedom Riders, too. Were they kept separately or were they...

WALKER: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: ...kept with you?

WALKER: They were in a separate cell.

MARTIN: Separate cells. So did you happen to compare notes later on, what their experiences were?

WALKER: No. See, we didn't know each other until we met that morning to travel. We only knew Henry Schwarszchild, who was an attorney and who had worked in the movement a good bit. So, you know, we had no way of keeping in touch with each other.

It was so painful, I could not talk about it for 30 years anyway, so I didn't even mention it to my husband anymore.

MARTIN: I had heard that you did not talk about this for 30 years, it was just such a...

WALKER: No.

MARTIN: ...terrible - tell me about - why is it that - did he ask you or was it one of those agreements that you, sort of, married couples have between themselves just not to ask and...

WALKER: I never really discussed it with my husband until we were invited to come on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" for the 50th anniversary and we didn't really discuss it. You know, I asked him, did he remember such and such and he did and we talked about how they stole my ring and whatnot, but we never really discussed it.

MARTIN: Well, now that you have started talking about it, how do you feel?

WALKER: I feel that the sacrifice was worth it. You can sit anywhere on the bus you want to, interstate, intrastate, and you don't have to use a colored waiting room. So I feel it was worth it.

MARTIN: And did you stay active after this in the movement? It seems like after going through something like this, a lot of people would have said, OK. I've done my bit. That's enough.

WALKER: No. I was as active as I could be with four children. I wish I could have done more, but I did go to jail. No. I didn't go to jail in Birmingham. I was knocked in the head by a national guardsman in Birmingham on Mother's Day. And then, when my children and I came back to Atlanta, the police recognized my husband's car and they pulled up beside me and said, what do you do when you see the lights flashing on a police car? I said, you pull over. They said, well, you didn't pull over. Follow me.

And I had to follow them to jail with my four children and the oldest one - I think she was nine at the time.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. They arrested you and your four children? They arrested you and four little kids?

WALKER: Right. Four kids. And this was Mother's Day.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel about the way things are going now in this country? When you think about, like, all that you experienced and all that you've seen and all that you've done, do you feel mostly - what? Optimistic, pessimistic? How do you feel?

WALKER: I'm optimistic. Yes. I was most optimistic when Obama was elected president. I couldn't believe this country had come that far and I did wish that Dr. King had been, you know, was still alive so that he could see it. But I sat on the sofa that day when they had his inauguration in front of my television and cried all that day. But it was tears of joy.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking with us. You know, when people have served their country, we often thank them for their service. May I thank you for your service, for what you did?

WALKER: Well, you're quite welcome. And we just ask that, whenever you find injustice, that you call it out anywhere today.

MARTIN: Theresa Walker was a Freedom Rider and she joined us from her home in Chester, Virginia. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WALKER: Oh, you're welcome.

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