Lessons From the Freedom Rides

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Ride. It has been gratifying to see a number of public events commemorating the occasion; too often progressive history goes unmarked and unremarked. For example, George Houser, the last surviving participant in the 1961 Freedom Ride, appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s television program on May 4. Interestingly, some of the recent publicity has identified the 1961 Freedom Ride as the first Freedom Ride. Actually, it was the second Freedom Ride.

The first Freedom Ride occurred 14 years earlier in April 1947. The reason that some historians get confused is that the earlier event also went by the name “Journey of Reconciliation.” There were a lot of overlaps between the first Freedom Ride (1947) and the second Freedom Ride (1961). Both events were organized jointly by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a national religious pacifist organization, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Both the first and second Freedom Rides were designed to test the then-recent Supreme Court decision that purported to desegregate buses in interstate transportation, Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946).

The first Freedom Ride, in 1947, had heavy participation from men who had been imprisoned draft resisters during World War II — Wally Nelson, Jim Peck, Igal Roodenko, Bayard Rustin, and George Houser. Peck, Rustin, and others had conducted a strike and fast while incarcerated in Danbury Prison that had successfully desegregated prison mess halls throughout the United States. The leadership of these World War II draft resisters in the first Freedom Ride is a wonderful example of how social change movements are synergistic and build on one another.

Two interesting things about that First Freedom Ride come to mind.

First, the group approached Thurgood Marshall, later the first black Supreme Court Justice, in advance, asking him to represent them if/when they got arrested. Marshall was a logical choice; he had been Irene Morgan’s attorney in Morgan v. Virginia. The underlying idea of the Freedom Rides (both first and second) was the essence of simplicity: Let’s test the Morgan decision (that Marshall had won) and see if it really works; let’s see if those interstate buses really are desegregated. Marshall refused to have anything to do with the Freedom Riders, because they did not fit into his plan to effect desegregation in a measured and stepwise manner. Marshall is often referred to as a “visionary,” and so he was; but his vision was, in some important respects, narrowed by blinders. He could see only the legal path, through the courts, and had too little respect for nonviolent direct action.

The second interesting thing about that first Freedom Ride is that the participants were all men. There was pressure within FOR to include women — Marj Swann and Juanita Nelson were among those pressing the issue. The men made a conscious, deliberate decision not to include women. It was felt that the image of black men with white women would be potentially too inflammatory.

One of the things I did when I served as General Counsel to FOR from 1998 to 2006 was to pursue FOR’s Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for FOR’s dossier. We won the case, and received 85 volumes of files, dating back to 1923. (A complete set of these wonderful, fascinating materials now resides at the Swarthmore peace archive.) Some of the most extensive part of the dossier stemmed from governmental surveillance of both the first Freedom Ride in 1947 and the second Freedom Ride in 1961. The names of the participants were redacted, but that didn’t matter. I sat down with George Houser, who remembered the events as clearly as if they had been a week earlier, and George was kind enough to fill in the names for me. “That redaction is Jim; that one is Bayard. Oh, yes, this one here is me,” George told me.

The FBI files we received on surveillance of the Freedom Rides were interesting in many ways. For one thing, much of the surveillance had been carried out by U.S. Army intelligence, something that was illegal at the time. Another interesting tid-bit was a report of a southern judge giving Igal Roodenko a six-month sentence in connection with the first Freedom Ride, and having to be corrected by the local prosecutor, who reminded the Judge that the “offense” for which Igal had been arrested carried a maximum penalty of 90 days!

This history can also serve to remind us that social-change movements often derive their power from the synergies that result from different activists using different tactics. Thurgood Marshall was right that it was important to the civil rights movement to chart a legal path through the courts to challenge and ultimately bring down Jim Crow laws, but he was wrong in thinking that this was the only course worthy of support. The nonviolent direct action of the Freedom Riders was also a crucially important component of the wider civil rights movement, as was the nonviolent civil disobedience committed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of others.

Unfortunately, this was a lesson that progressives in the United States have been slow to learn. During the Vietnam War era, peace activists wasted significant time and effort arguing about what the one right tactic was that would end the war. Some argued that mass, legal demonstrations were the way to end the war; others argued for pressure on Congress to cut off funding for the war; still others valorized draft resistance and other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. In retrospect, it is clear that all of these tactics contributed to such successes as the anti-war movement had. Social changes advocates are right to think through carefully the ethical dimensions and likely practical consequences of our actions; at the same time, we need to recognize that there is rarely just one right way forward.

Jerry Elmer is an attorney in Providence, Rhode Island. He was a Vietnam-era draft resister, and was the only convicted felon in his graduating class at Harvard Law School. He is the author of Felon For Peace (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), which was published in Vietnam as “Toi Pham Vi Hoa Bing” (The Gioi, 2005); this was the first book by a U.S. peace activist ever published in Vietnam.




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