Remembering The 'Freedom Riders,' 50 Years Later Fifty years ago, seven black people boarded buses with six white people in Washington, D.C., and took the fight for civil rights to the Deep South. Their trip became known as the Freedom Rides, and a new documentary by Stanley Nelson talks with the people who witnessed the rides firsthand.
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Remembering The 'Freedom Riders,' 50 Years Later

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Remembering The 'Freedom Riders,' 50 Years Later

Remembering The 'Freedom Riders,' 50 Years Later

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Fifty years ago this month, seven black and six white people took the fight for civil rights to the Deep South. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, the Freedom Riders boarded interstate buses in Washington, D.C., for a trip to New Orleans through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

They were attacked by a white mob in Birmingham and completed the trip by airplane, but civil rights activists in Tennessee decided the campaign of nonviolence could not be intimidated. The Freedom Rides had to continue. Frederick Leonard was among that second wave.

Mr. FREDERICK LEONARD: CORE, I think, they didn't understand. We deal with violence every day in the South. They didn't treat us like we were human. They treated us like vicious animals, like they were always on guard, thinking we're going to do something to them while they were doing it to us.

And CORE, I think, they felt: We'll go down there, and, you know, they'll let us ride at the front of the bus and go into the white stations and white waiting room, and everything will be all right. We'll just go all the way to New Orleans doing this and then come back to New York and say we did it. It wasn't like that.

CONAN: In the months that followed, hundreds of Americans, black and white, put their bodies on the line. Many faced prison to force authorities to enforce laws that desegregated interstate bus stations, even those in the Jim Crow South.

In a new documentary, filmmaker Stanley Nelson gathers testimonials from those who witnessed this history firsthand: state and federal government officials, journalists and the Freedom Riders themselves.

If you lived on the route of the Freedom Riders - Columbia, South Carolina; Atlanta, Birmingham, Anniston, Jackson and New Orleans - what did the Freedom Rides change? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website, too. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stanley Nelson joins us here in Studio 3A. His film "Freedom Riders" airs on PBS starting Monday, May 16, and nice to have you with us today.

Mr. STANLEY NELSON (Filmmaker, "Freedom Riders"): Thank you, it's good to be here.

CONAN: And listening to that clip from the film, we have to remember that that first Freedom Ride was, well, in retrospect pretty naive.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, I think that the first group of Freedom Riders didnt really know what to expect. But I think it was almost impossible to know what to expect. You know, the level of violence that they faced in the South was, you know, unprecedented.

CONAN: And the openness of it, that was Bull Connor's Birmingham.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, you know, Bull Connor gave the mob in Birmingham 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted to do to the Freedom Riders when they got to the bus station. He told them - there's a guy in the film who quotes him as saying, you know, you can kill, maim. I don't give a goddamn if you kill them. You've got 15 minutes, and nobody's going to get arrested.

CONAN: And nobody's going to get arrested except maybe the Freedom Riders for trying to integrate a bus station.

Mr. NELSON: So, you know, the mob was waiting there for them with iron pipes and ready to go.

CONAN: We have to remember there had been two Supreme Court decisions that said in interstate commerce - these were interstate buses - there could be no segregation. There couldn't be a white waiting room and a black waiting room, a white lunch counter and a black lunch counter.

Mr. NELSON: Sure, that's kind of the basis of the Freedom Rides, this legal decision. But, you know, nowhere in the South was it adhered to. So there were still signs up that said colored only, white only in the bus stations, at the restrooms.

And on the bus when the interstate buses crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the black people had to move all the way to the back of the bus, or else they would get thrown off the bus or arrested.

CONAN: And it's also interesting to note that as these trips continued, well, there were some people who said: Well, we figured given the situation, the politics of this, there would be a lot of places that would integrate for the afternoon. While we were in the bus station, there wouldn't be too much of a problem. They'd go back to what they usually did as soon as we left.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah, and that's what happened in a good part, in the Upper South. You know, at that point, you know, the South was kind of thought of as divided into Upper South and Lower South.

So the Upper South was, you know, North Carolina, Tennessee, those states.

CONAN: Virginia.

Mr. NELSON: Virginia, you know, even Georgia maybe a little bit. But Alabama and Mississippi were really thought to be off-limits. You know, it was thought by everybody, even civil rights leaders, that, you know, you cannot go in to Alabama and Mississippi, not yet.

You know, we have to first take some time and build a movement in the Upper South. And then we can go into the Lower South, into Alabama, in Mississippi. But the Freedom Riders said no. You know, if something is - if this is wrong, we've got to confront it right head-on, right now.

CONAN: And there had been the lunch counter sit-ins in some parts of the South, but in the Carolinas.

Mr. NELSON: Right, right. In the Carolinas and in Tennessee, there had been the lunch counter demonstrations and sit-ins before this.

CONAN: You said the first set of Freedom Riders on the Greyhound and Trailways bus did not necessarily know what to expect. The second group of Freedom Riders certainly did.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is Ernest "Rip" Patton, who took part in the May, 19-24, 1961 Greyhound Freedom Ride from Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi. And it's very good to have you with us here in the studio.

Mr. ERNEST "RIP" PATTON: And it's good to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about the thinking that went through your mind as - you knew what was likely to be ahead of you.

Mr. PATTON: Yes because I was in what we called the third wave from Nashville. The first wave was led by Congressman John Lewis, and the second one was...

CONAN: Now congressman, yeah.

Mr. PATTON: Now-Congressman John Lewis. The second one was by one of his classmates, Bernard Lafayette. And I was in the third wave with James Bevel.

CONAN: So by that time, there had been the situation of the mob attacks in Birmingham, but even more to the point, you knew when you got to Mississippi you faced the prospect of being arrested.

Mr. PATTON: Well, they had had the mob attacks in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery.

CONAN: And then...

CONAN: And then after the - I went down to Montgomery after Nashville was attacked and Montgomery, knowing that Jim Zwerg and John Lewis and some of the others had been attacked and hospitalized. And we still drove down from Nashville in a car, early the morning of the 23rd of May.

CONAN: There's that great scene - Stanley Nelson, I was hoping you would describe it for us - that I think the first wave, their buses came into Alabama, and then they were escorted back north of the border and dropped off.

Mr. NELSON: Right. Bull Connor, once they get to Birmingham, Bull Connor promptly arrests all the Freedom Riders for their own good, he says. You know, I'm going to arrest you for...

CONAN: For self-protection.

Mr. PATTON: Right, so a mob can't get you. And then in the middle of the night, he takes them all out of jail and drives them to the Tennessee-Alabama border and says: Okay, you know, you all can go and get a train back to Nashville. And drives away, leaves them in the middle of the night, by themselves, in the middle of nowhere.

And they don't know if the Klan is going to follow them or what's going to happen. But they finally are able to get shelter. And as soon as they can get a car, they head straight back to Birmingham.

CONAN: Yeah, they say: We're going to be in Birmingham for lunch tomorrow.

Mr. PATTON: Right, by high noon.

CONAN: High noon, that's right, high noon. And that wasn't your trip, Rip Patton, but the situation was just as dire. We don't mean to sugarcoat it at all.

Mr. PATTON: You're right. That was not my trip. But we were - I was in Nashville at that time, working at the headquarters, and we were monitoring what was going on with each group.

And so after that first group was brought back to the state lines, we borrowed a station wagon from one of our white, female riders, from her mother, and drove - one of our people drove down and luckily found them because one of the things we have to remember, there was no interstate system. We're talking two-lane highways.

There was no - from Nashville to Birmingham nowadays, you can take Highway 65, but they were on 31. And you didn't have the big city - you didn't go through big cities.

And just before you cross the state line, you're going through Pulaski, Tennessee. That's home of the Klan. And here's a young man driving and trying to get to the town where the Freedom Riders had called from and then taking them back without anybody seeing them from the state lines back to Birmingham.

CONAN: And we want to get calls today from people who witnessed this history, as well, particularly those who lived along the route of the Freedom Riders, through the Carolinas, through Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Roger's(ph) on the line, Roger calling from Minneapolis.

ROGER (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ROGER: Back in the early '70s, I was part of a group of college students from the University of Minnesota, and we - our group was invited down to Natchez, Mississippi, by I believe it was Charles Evers, Medgar Evers' brother.

CONAN: Yes.

ROGER: And I believe it was Medgar Evers that had been assassinated down there.

And we - the intent of our group of going down to Natchez in a bus, of which we stayed at in St. Louis overnight, was all set up previously before we got on the bus, where we were going to stay in St. Louis, as well as where we were going to stay in Natchez and various other parts of the Lower South.

Once we got down to Natchez, Mississippi, is where I was positioned with a few other students, our goal was to canvas the black community and bringing them to - educating them about their voting rights and that their power lies in the ability to get out there and get the vote in.

CONAN: And you raise an interesting point, Roger. And Stanley Nelson, the Freedom Riders were out to enforce what seemingly was a simple piece of legislation.

Yet they were part of a movement that had far greater ambitions, including not just the Civil Rights Act, which would be passed in 1964, but the Voting Rights Act, which was passed afterwards, in 1965 and, as Roger suggests, took some time after that before it was fully enforced.

Mr. NELSON: I think the thing that we have to understand, though, about the Freedom Rides was that this was at the beginning of the civil rights movement. It was kind of a national civil rights movement.

So you had a few things happen before that, you know, the Montgomery bus boycott, some of the sit-ins had happened. But this was really at the beginning, and I think that's one of the things that makes this story so dramatic is there's no guarantee that this is going to work.

You know, and for a good time, it seems like it's not going to work. I mean, they - the first group is beaten back, and they have to give up. So I think it's at this time where the whole civil rights movement is kind of hanging on this edge.

CONAN: We'll talk more about the Freedom Riders with Stanley Nelson, the award-winning documentary filmmaker, whose new film "Freedom Riders" starts to air Monday, May 16, on PBS. Also with us, Ernest "Rip" Patton, one of the Freedom Riders. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about six months in 1961 that changed America, the freedom rides. Hundreds of people, black and white, boarded public buses and took the fight for equality deep into the heart of the segregated South.

Fifty years later, filmmaker Stanley Nelson documents those rides, the riders and their accomplishments in a new film, "Freedom Riders," which airs on PBS starting May 16, part of the series "American Experience." There's a link to the trailer for the film at our website. Go to npr.org. You can also get a preview if you like PBS on Facebook.

Our guests are Stanley Nelson, the producer, writer and director of "Freedom Riders," and, Ernest "Rip" Patton, who joined the Greyhound freedom ride from Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1961. He was arrested and later transferred to Mississippi's Parchman State Prison Farm.

If you lived along the route of the Freedom Riders, give us a call. What change, what difference did it make? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Again, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rip Patton, we mentioned that arrest in Jackson. The route was not to beat up people, it was to arrest people and try to intimidate them, not through violence, but to throw them into the most notorious prison in the South.

Mr. PATTON: That's correct. I think in the documentary, you will see some of the actual - a shot - I don't know if it's the actual prisoners, but it will give you a sense of if you are arrested, you're going to Parchman, and you're going to do hard labor.

There were times when I wish I could have done hard labor. We were in a cell, and we never saw the outside, other than the sun shining through the window across from the jail cell.

CONAN: So a little exercise started to look pretty good.

Mr. PATTON: Yes, exercise would have been real nice. But I guess maybe that was part of the punishment.

CONAN: When was the decision taken, which Stanley describes in the film, to meet this new challenge with a challenge of your own: We're going to stuff the prison.

Mr. PATTON: In Nashville, during the sit-ins, that was one of the things we did. That's one of the things that Gandhi did in India was to stuff the prisons, as you say. When we would have sit-in demonstrations, we would be arrested and be jailed.

The fine might be a $50 fine, and the sentence might be 31 days, but we would choose the 31 days. It makes it hard on the system to have to feed and take care of a lot of students that they really didn't expect to do that with.

In a jail, you might have a small number of prisoners, local drunks or whatever, but when you get a group of college students who are determined to spend that time in jail. That's a different situation.

CONAN: In prison, yeah.

Mr. PATTON: And in Parchman, we knew from Nashville that we would have our Nashville contingency to come behind us. Now, once you're in jail, you don't know who else is coming because you don't have that communication, but it was nice to know that people just caught on.

I think I remember one time listening, and they said: What are you going to do this summer? Well, I can flip burgers, or I can go to Parchman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PATTON: So they decided to go to Parchman.

CONAN: And it was interesting. Stanley Nelson, you describe it in the film as almost a crucible of nonviolence. This is where people got together, had plenty of time to talk about tactics, talk about politics, to talk about the movement, to talk about what they were going to do after they got out and where things were going to go from there.

Mr. NELSON: Sure. Again, this is one of the worst jails in the country. They don't have TVs. They don't have radios. You know, they don't have footballs to throw around or anything. They're just there.

So what the Freedom Riders decided to do was kind of hold classes and have it be this kind of university, and some of that was a university of nonviolence. It's the same thing that kind of happened in South Africa with Nelson Mandela and the prisoners in South Africa. So they decided that they would teach each other and learn, and that's what they did.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. this is Francesca, Francesca with us from East Hampton in New Jersey.

FRANCESCA: Yeah, no...

CONAN: In New York, yes.

FRANCESCA: That's right. My father is in the film. Rabbi Martin Freedman was one of the Freedom Riders who was - of the Tallahassee 10. They integrated the airport in Tallahassee, Florida.

And I can remember - I can remember the time it happened. I was 12 years old when they went down there, and I don't remember this, but my father told me that when the New York Times reporter called the house, and I answered the phone, he asked me: What do you think about your father being in jail? And I said: Well, I think if my father is in jail, he must have a good reason to be there.

CONAN: Even then a good quote.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANCESCA: And he had a tremendous influence on my - you know, on the way I see the world, and I've always been committed since that time to issues of social justice. So I think, in fact, I remain that way. I'm not sure my father did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Another point you make in the film, Stanley Nelson, is that this was a biracial effort. Yes, the majority were African-American, but a significant number of young white people were there, as well, and particularly some who knew that they would be picked out for special, harsh treatment because they were seen as race traitors.

Mr. NELSON: Sure, and it was really funny. When we were doing the interviews, you know, we - at first, I myself was a little bit skeptical about that, you know. But over and over, people told us that, both white and African-American, that the white people were kind of centered out and that the mobs would go straight to the white people, the white Freedom Riders, and they would receive the most savage beatings.

Certainly Jim Swerg, Jim Peck(ph), two of the people on two of the different legs of the Freedom Riders, received really, really horrible beatings.

CONAN: Francesca, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

FRANCESCA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ed(ph), and Ed's with us from Simi Valley in California.

ED (Caller): I remember when the freedom ride buses went through my town in Mississippi. I was a white - young, white, Methodist minister in the town of Hickory, Mississippi. And I saw those buses go through. The highway was closed to - no traffic except for those buses and the police escort.

And I stood there by the road and said: I've got to say something. I'm a Mississippian, but I am ashamed of what was happening in my state. And I'm American first. And a group of us white Methodist ministers the next year signed a statement we call the Board of Conviction that became a very public thing that we were against segregation, we were for the equal rights of all people. And I think that was one of the highlight moments in my life, to be able to take a stand.

It was not an easy stand. It was pretty costly as a Methodist minister. I finally wound up in California, where I am not as a retired...

CONAN: I wonder: have you kept in touch, though, with people in Hickory, Mississippi?

ED: Yes, I was back there last fall for the 150th anniversary of the church, and we talked about that era and the buses going through our town.

CONAN: What's changed since then, do you think?

ED: Oh, a lot of things have changed. The state is not perfect, but the state is so open to the rights of all people. I was back in Mississippi two weeks ago, and I went to a museum exhibition of the freedom rides, which showed all 229 mug shots of those who had been arrested in Jackson.

And it was beautiful to watch people of both races come in, read the stories of all these different people. I particularly noticed a young couple that had not even been born in that era, black couple, walking hand in hand looking at this, and I'm thinking: They think of this as just in history. They wouldn't have even been in the - been able to be in that museum looking at this if it hadn't been for the work of those Freedom Riders and others like them.

CONAN: Rip Patton, one of those mug shots must have been yours.

Mr. PATTON: Well, I hope so. I'd like to chime on what he said about watching the buses go by. I've talked to other Freedom Riders, and one of the joys of riding from Montgomery to Jackson was to see sharecroppers on the side of the road waving because they knew what was going on. And they knew that someday, things were going to change.

CONAN: And have you been back to Mississippi?

Mr. PATTON: Well, I've been back in a job capacity, but I haven't been back just to vacation.

CONAN: Would you?

Mr. PATTON: Would I? I intend to go back and just kind of look around and see and some of the places. I'm going back on the 18th, I believe. I'm going to try to get back on the 18th. There's a celebration in one of the cities on the 17th and 18th. I'll think of it before the show is over. And I know that Diane Nash and Reverend Lawson and probably C. T. Vivian, they go every year. And I told Diane that I would try to get back on the 18th.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. It's important to remember, yes, this is a dramatic story of something that was very important at the time, but as we suggested, something very important not just to the movement but to the leadership of the movement. And you describe a critical moment where Martin Luther King is in a conversation with the attorney general of the United States, Robert Kennedy, the brother of the president, and the first time that a civil rights leader has been in direct contact with the federal authorities at that level in that kind of a situation.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah. At this point the Freedom Riders are now trapped in a church in Montgomery. They hold a rally and they're trapped by a different mob, who's outside setting cars on fire and other things. And Martin Luther King is on the phone with Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, basically pleading with him that, you know, you have to step in and you have to do something. You know, this is a critical situation. We have 12 to 13 hundred African-American men, women and children and they're trapped here.

And the Kennedys had to this point really tried to stay out of it. You know, it's a complicated situation, but they don't want to interfere in the South. I mean, that's - they don't want to be seen as bringing federal troops into the South. And finally, they have to make a decision.

CONAN: And they eventually do make a decision, and it is to bring the force of the federal government into this crisis. Yet they also thought they made a deal.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah. They are constantly kind of making political deals, you know, to kind of backtrack and not give the Freedom Riders the full support of the federal government. So they actually - to get out of the church, they make a deal with the governor of Alabama. They finally forced John Patterson to sign out - to sign the document that will call out the National Guard. So it seems like it's the governor of Alabama who's actually doing it.

CONAN: We're talking with Stanley Nelson, who's the director, writer and producer of a new film called "Freedom Riders," that premieres Monday, May 16th on PBS series "American Experience." Also with us is former Freedom Rider Ernest "Rip" Patton. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You mentioned Governor Patterson. He's constantly shown in clips from the time as saying these are outside agitators who are trying to provoke us into violence. And, well, of course violence ensues.

There's a moment, though, at the beginning of the film where you're describing the training in nonviolence, where you say, the goal of CORE all along - well, if they rode through the South and got to New Orleans, no problem. Well, that would have been fine. But if there was an attack, they were not only ready for it, but in a way that was their goal.

Mr. NELSON: Yeah. In the film, it was actually Julian Bond who says it. I mean, you know, you don't want violence to happen outright. But, you know, doesn't that then bring publicity to our cause? You know, doesn't that heighten what we're doing, if something does happen? You know, if the Freedom Riders had been able to just ride through the South and get to New Orleans and the South kind of ignored them, then what would have happened? So as Julian puts it, you know, in some ways it's good for our cause if something happens. But you know, nowhere did they in any way imagine that the violence would be the violence that did happen.

CONAN: And I wonder, Rip Patton, younger person at that time, did you think nothing would happen?

Mr. PATTON: No. It's like Freddie Leonard said, we lived with it every day and we knew something would happen. We knew that once you got into the Deep South, that something was going to happen.

CONAN: And Stanley Nelson?

Mr. NELSON: Yes. I just want to add, you know, by the time, you know, Rip's group goes, violence had already happened. So in some ways, I mean, they - this was an incredibly brave crew because they knew, you know, a bus had been firebombed, the mob had brutally beaten the other bus riders in Birmingham. So they knew what was waiting, but they still got on those buses.

CONAN: And got on those buses - in many cases, it was described in the film, people had to drop out of school, out of college to go on that trip. This was in the middle of final exams.

Mr. PATTON: This was the month of May, and this was final exams. And so you had to make a choice. You either stay and finish and do your exams or due to the urgency of the Freedom Rides, you go on the Freedom Rides and that's what we did.

CONAN: Why then? Why was it so urgent right then?

Mr. PATTON: Because let's say that the fire was hot and we had to keep it hot. It was important not to slack off or have that waiting period. Let's wait and see what's going to happen. We didn't want that. We wanted to go right then and there, while it was - it was just time to go.

CONAN: Stanley?

Mr. NELSON: I think, you know, too that if you can imagine what would have happened if the first group of Freedom Riders had been beaten back, as they were, with massive violence, then all it - what it says to the South, the racist South, is that all you have to do is be really violent and you can stop any kind of movement. I think that's also one of the things that Rip's group -you know, you just couldn't stop.

CONAN: They were going to keep coming no matter what until, as it turned out, the International Commerce Commission, a group we don't hear very much about these days, finally said, wait a minute, we have to make these laws standard across the country. You cannot have segregated waiting rooms and lunch counters in interstate commerce.

But in the course of "Freedom Riders" we learned an awful lot, not just about the civil rights movement and about the American South and about America in 1961, we learn about the politics of the Kennedy administration. We learn about Martin Luther King, and well, that he was not always the sainted figure that we sometimes regard him to be, though sometimes he was - a complicated human being. And we learn a lot about people like Rip Patton, who we don't think about enough. We thank you very much for being with us today and sharing your story.

Mr. PATTON: Well, thank you for having me. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much. Ernest "Rip" Patton took part in the May 24, 1961 Greyhound Freedom Ride from Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi, spent some time on Parchman Farm for his troubles, a participant in the film made by Stanley Nelson that premieres on May 16th at 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. on many PBS stations. It's called - part of the "American Experience" - "Freedom Riders." Stanley Nelson, thanks very much for your time as well.

Mr. NELSON: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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