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Freedom Riders

Freedom Rides

Throughout the South the waiting areas in bus stations, train stations and airports where designated WHITE ONLY or COLORED ONLY. This was in direct defiance of a Supreme Court decision in 1960 that segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, was unconstitutional.

CORE Freedom Riders, men and women, Black and white, set out on May 4, 1961 to challenge this form of discrimination. The plan was to ride a Trailway and a Greyhound bus from Washington, DC to New Orleans testing this ruling..

The first violence occurred in Rock Hill, South Carolina when an integrated team of John Lewis (currently a member of the US Congress) and Albert Bigelow attempted to enter a white-only waiting area and were brutally beaten. Two days later one of the buses reaching Anniston, Alabama, was attacked by an angry mob that set the bus on fire and beat the Freedom Riders as they fled the burning bus. Later that same day the second integrated group was also attacked when their bus reached Birmingham, Alabama - they were beaten with baseball bats and lead pipes, while law enforcement officers stood by and did nothing.

Refusing to accept defeat and believing this challenge must continue, a national plea to join the Freedom Riders, to fill the jails, and to work to end violence was heard all across the nation. Ray Cooper, a 19 year old art student from Seattle heard this plea. Ray's story follows with details of his Freedom ride to Jackson, Mississippi and the 45 days he spent in Parchman Farm Penitentiary. Upon his release from prison the Seattle CORE chapter raised money for Ray's bail and funds for transportation when Ray had to returned to Mississippi in early spring for his court appearance.

The Freedom Rides became the spark that ignited the civil rights movement not only in the South, the North and mid-west but right here in Seattle.

PBS Freedom Riders' Broadcast
Authors' Discussion at Coffee House
UW Video Interview with Authors
PBS Interview with Authors

Memories of a Freedom Rider, by Ray Cooper

Ray Cooper

In the spring of 1961 a Greyhound bus was bombed and burned in Anniston, Alabama while the police watched. Passengers were attacked, pulled from the bus and beaten. They were Freedom Riders from the National Congress of Racial Equality. James Farmer, the director, had America's attention when he called for a continuation not a retreat. The image of the burning bus on television made a clear case for a strategy of sending bus after bus into Jackson, Mississippi until the jails became full and the state would be forced to desegregate inter-state travel facilities. And that is what happened. It was the law of the land. The Supreme Court had established it. The appeal produced Riders from across America. While friends began organizing a Seattle chapter of CORE with the goal to raise funds for airfare to Los Angeles, I volunteered to join the California group. Within two weeks of the Anniston bombing I was on a bus bound for New Orleans. The CORE chapter in New Orleans was conducting training classes in the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Photo is a mug shot of Ray Cooper arrested during a Freedom Ride in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961.

Gathering in New Orleans, we were getting to know one another, bonding to find the courage to act together. There was a wave of volunteers and we had the moral advantage. I could not have continued past New Orleans if there had been a meager turn out. Strength in numbers. Was I frightened? Yes. But like the others I was calm and focused. I was nineteen and was about to do something meaningful for the first time in my life. I had resolved not to participate with the U.S. military adventure in Vietnam. The battle at home was my choice. I was testing myself, challenging my country to actually "free the slaves" not just talk about it. Do it now.

I had read about Gandhi in high school. He stood against the British Empire. People listened to him and won. I admired that. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted him. I respected that. I believed that nonviolent resistance would also work in America where people professed belief in democracy. It was a gamble but was a rather "strong hand," we won.

Now in my mid sixties, I live in the South. The South has changed. America has changed since 1961. It was not the Freedom Riders that produced that transformation. The Freedom Ride's victory was the set up for the voter registration campaign. It was that victory which changed America. If you can vote you are a citizen. The truly brave people in the struggle were local folks who went to the voter registration offices and then returned home and faced the consequences. There were young people from Jackson, black and white, who walked into the segregated Greyhound station, joined us, went to prison and when released returned home in Jackson. These Freedom Riders were the courageous ones.

We finally headed for Jackson. We sang freedom songs from the long struggle, crafting new words to suit our campaign. There were nonfreedom riders on this Greyhound bus also. Greyhound maintained a business as usual schedule through out the summer, treating us well.

We arrived in Jackson in June. Police and their vans surrounded the terminal. They watched passively as we walked into the whites only waiting room. Once inside we sat on available benches together with arms locked. The police ordered us out. We declined. Threatened with arrest we went limp and were dragged from the Greyhound station by our feet and were loaded into paddy wagons. (The Black Mariah, we later called it.) Arrested and booked for unlawful assembly, we entered the jails of Jackson City and County. We were, of course, segregated by race and sex. Our fear was not of police mistreatment, but of the uncertainty of being housed with criminal prisoners. At no point during the summer did this occur. The standard length of incarceration was forty-five days, first in Jackson and ultimately at Parchman Farm Mississippi State Penitentiary. All summer long the buses kept arriving with more Freedom Riders. Our plan to max out the jail facilities was working. What a relief!

At the Parchman Farm, some distance north of Jackson, we first were housed in maximum security cells, three men in a two man cell. We alternated by sleeping on the floor . . . cement. The summer heat was intense, the food was poor and time stood still. We sang but that quickly enraged the jailer. They threatened to put us out in the farm's cotton fields as forced labor. We refused. It was not the work we feared but the danger of isolation out in the fields with chance of bodily harm. As a group we decided to be beaten together inside, than alone in the fields. We remained indoors, unbeaten, until moved to a large communal housing where we met Freedom Riders from across the nation for the first time.

The routine was dull. Summer just crawls in the Mississippi heat. We made chess men from Wonder bread, practiced yoga, took cooling showers (cold water). The Broadway musical West Side Story was a hit in 1961. Some New Yorkers had seen it and did a mangled yet entertaining re-creation. There was nothing to read. I slept a lot. On Sundays a rabbi from Jackson visited us for service. Of course, we were all Jews. The guards laughed and said they expected that we were. The rabbi did an inter-denomination service interjecting relevant news concerning world and national events, as well as related to our legal situation. This he did against regulations. Our lawyers were able to communicate, somewhat, with us through the rabbi. The news that buses were still arriving in Jackson encouraged us greatly. Wonder bread, pork 'n beans, grits, and greens, corn bread and an egg now and then with thin coffee made with chicory and most amazingly a scraping of blackened fried grease . . . forty seven days in Hell's Kitchen. Uncertain about when we would be released, kept ignorant until the hour of our departure, we were transported back to Jackson in a motley fleet of small pickups with camper backs. We saw the cotton fields recede behind us. Yazoo City and other cross road towns looked as timeless and god forsaken as anything we had ever seen.

In Jackson, we were hosted by a church. Supper in the basement dining hall. Ham!! Salad!! Green beans!! Mashed potatoes, pie!! Coffee and iced tea. Smiling black mothers saying "have another piece of pie, son?" Shaking our hands. Smiling, Smiling. It only occurs to me now, that this reception was for them, to be repeated daily until all the Freedom Riders were eventually released. Weeks on end of pies and hams and smiles. God bless them, we were home and safe. A dance at the Negro community social center followed-an integrated event in Jackson, Miss. in 1961! A police guard with patrol cars out front kept order as we rocked on indoors to the hit of the summer. Ray Charles "Hit The Road Jack." This same summer Ray Charles refused to play a segregated concert hall in Atlanta. The wall was coming down. Dixie was cracking up. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were right: challenge people with love and nonviolence and they have a chance to behave well. Change them in their hearts with love. There were rough days ahead for others but our group was treated well. Except for greasy grits.

Contributions to our legal defense funds were generous, and provided bus fare home with pocket money, to eat as we traveled. We promised to return to Jackson for arraignment and then for trial. I made two trips from Seattle to Jackson, first arrest, then arraignment. Then Mississippi capitulated, all charges dropped. No trial.

At home from prison I toured Washington State with CORE's Freedom Ride film, receiving contributions for on going legal expenses. We were ready to return to prison believing that was likely and then Mississippi folded. I spoke at churches and colleges, showing the film. I was briefly famous in my home state, remaining active in the civil rights movement for a time. Having no particular political skills and needing to gain an education, I turned my attention to art school in California.

From the Freedom Rides I learned to face the world with confidence. Along the way I met Martin Luther King Jr., shook his hand and thanked him for his good leadership. His call for justice in America has been key to who I am, what I have become. The Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, the integration of public schools, the Freedom Rides . . . I had stood with these courageous people and found myself. I did not participate in the Voter Registration drive. I went to college, then traveled in the world, became an artist and a father. I live in the South now. I love it here. Is it perfect? No place is . . . yet.