John F. Kennedy Appeals to Mississippi Governor

John F. Kennedy Appeals to Mississippi Governor

After many unfruitful telephone conversations with Mississippi Gov. Kennedy calls the governor one more time to discuss the building tension over James Meredith’s impending registration at the University of Mississippi. Though the governor has made clear his opposition to the Supreme Court order to allow Meredith to attend the school, President Kennedy tries to assess whether the governor will maintain law and order when Meredith arrives.

Did You Know. Border Patrol Was Instrumental in Ending 'Long Night' of Segregation in American South?

James Meredith is escorted
by Federal officials to
register for classes at the
University of Mississippi.
Copyright Estate of Donald
James Proehl.

During the Civil Rights Movement, upholding federal law frequently meant defying state and local governments, as well as managing hostile crowds. At one of the most significant moments in the movement, the U.S. Border Patrol joined U.S. Marshals to enforce federal law by protecting James Meredith as he registered as the University of Mississippi's first African-American student.

Meredith was an Air Force veteran and native of Kosciusko, Miss. In 1961, he applied to the University of Mississippi. When his applications were rejected, Meredith took the University to federal court. He won his case on appeal, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the University to admit Meredith for the fall term of 1962. Despoiling this victory, Ben Cameron, a Fifth Circuit Court judge, negated the ruling even though he had not heard the case. The three-judge panel which heard the case appealed Cameron's actions to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. On September 10, 1962, he vacated Cameron's stays and ordered Meredith's admission to the University.

Crowds gather to protest Meredith's
enrollment at the University of
Mississippi. Copyright Estate of
Donald James Proehl.

Mississippi state and local governments remained undeterred and worked in tandem to prevent Meredith's enrollment. He was arrested and jailed for a day by Hinds County officers. Jackson County Judge Homer Edgeworth convicted him, and the state legislature enacted a law that denied admission to state institutions to criminals. The federal courts once again intervened and ordered the University to enroll Meredith by October 2, 1962.

Protected by a small contingent of U.S. marshals, Meredith made fours attempts to register. They were turned back by state troopers acting on orders from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. President John F. Kennedy brought in marshals from across the country, but now thousands of protesters were blocking Mr. Meredith from registering at the University. More law enforcement personnel were needed. U.S. Border Patrol Agents were sworn in as deputy marshals and Border Patrol assets were employed for support.

Aftermath of the long night of segregation.
Photograph of the following day.
Copyright Estate of Donald James Proehl.

On September 30, 1962, protests deteriorated into a riot, and Border Patrol agents worked through the night along side marshals and the National Guard to restore order. The Attorney General Robert Kennedy commended the heroism and restraint of the federal forces:

The Brownsville Herald reports on
Border Patrol's role in the integration
of the University of Mississippi and
publishes interviews with agents. The
Herald also features pictures of the
return of agents from their “rough duty.”

. . . . if these men hadn't remained true to their orders and instructions, if they had lost their heads and started firing at the crowd, you would have had immense bloodshed, and I think it would have been a very tragic situation.

The next day James Meredith was taken to register at the University in a Border Patrol vehicle, which had been heavily damaged by the riot. Meredith described it as "battered and smashed bullet holes had riddled the sides the windows were all shot out."

Border Patrol agents also paid a price for their attention to duty. Of the over 300 agents deputized, 72 were injured. This included agents from Brownsville, Texas. The Brownsville Herald characterized their deployment as "rough duty" and on October 7, 1962, published an interview with Border Patrol Agent Bill Marshall. He reported a harrowing siege, stating that "All around us some men were hurt by thrown rocks and with clubs . . . . Once we were cut off for three hours. We couldn't get our wounded out. The mob wouldn't let ambulances through it was a long night."

Due in part to Border Patrol agents, Meredith safely enrolled in the University and attended classes. He graduated on August 18, 1963.

John F. Kennedy Appeals to Mississippi Governor - HISTORY

John F. Kennedy
Radio and television report to the nation on the situation at the University of Mississippi
September 30, 1962

Good evening, my fellow citizens:

The orders of the court in the case of Meredith versus Fair are beginning to be carried out. Mr. James Meredith is now in residence on the campus of the University of Mississippi.

This has been accomplished thus far without the use of National Guard or other troops. And it is to be hoped that the law enforcement officers of the State of Mississippi and the Federal marshals will continue to be sufficient in the future.

All students, members of the faculty, and public officials in both Mississippi and the Nation will be able, it is hoped, to return to their normal activities with full confidence in the integrity of American law.

This is as it should be, for our Nation is founded on the principle that observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty and defiance of the law is the surest road to tyranny. The law which we obey includes the final rulings of the courts, as well as the enactment's of our legislative bodies. Even among law-abiding men few laws are universally loved, but they are uniformly respected and not resisted.

Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law but not to disobey it. For in a government of laws and not of men, no man, however prominent or powerful, and no mob, however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law. If this country should ever reach the point where any man or group of men by force or threat of force could long defy the commands of our court and our Constitution, then no law would stand free from doubt, no judge would be sure of his writ, and no citizen would be safe from his neighbors.

In this case in which the United States Government was not until recently involved, Mr. Meredith brought a private suit in Federal court against those who were excluding him from the University. A series of Federal courts all the way to the Supreme Court repeatedly ordered Mr. Meredith's admission to the University. When those orders were defied, and those who sought to implement them threatened with arrest and violence, the United States Court of Appeals consisting of Chief Judge Tuttle of Georgia, Judge Hutcheson of Texas, Judge Rives of Alabama, Judge Jones of Florida, Judge Brown of Texas, Judge Wisdom of Louisiana, Judge Gewin of Alabama, and Judge Bell of Georgia, made clear the fact that the enforcement of its order had become an obligation of the United States Government. Even though this Government had not originally been a party to the case, my responsibility as President was therefore inescapable. I accept it. My obligation under the Constitution and the statutes of the United States was and is to implement the orders of the court with whatever means are necessary, and with as little force and civil disorder as the circumstances permit.

It was for this reason that I federalized the Mississippi National Guard as the most appropriate instrument, should any be needed, to preserve law and order while United States marshals carried out the orders of the court and prepared to back them up with whatever other civil or military enforcement might have been required.

I deeply regret the fact that any action by the executive branch was necessary in this case, but all other avenues and alternatives, including persuasion and conciliation, had been tried and exhausted. Had the police powers of Mississippi been used to support the orders of the court, instead of deliberately and unlawfully blocking them, had the University of Mississippi fulfilled its standard of excellence by quietly admitting this applicant ' in conformity with what so many other southern State universities have done for so many years, a peaceable and sensible solution would have been possible without any Federal intervention.

This Nation is proud of the many instances in which Governors, educators, and everyday citizens from the South have shown to the world the gains that can be made by persuasion and good will in a society ruled by law. Specifically, I would like to take this occasion to express the thanks of this Nation to those southerners who have contributed to the progress of our democratic development in the entrance of students regardless of race to such great institutions as the State-supported universities of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky.

I recognize that the present period of transition and adjustment in our Nation's Southland is a hard one for many people. Neither Mississippi nor any other southern State deserves to be charged with all the accumulated wrongs of the last 100 years of race relations. To the extent that there has been failure, the responsibility for that failure must be shared by us all, by every State, by every citizen.

Mississippi and her University, moreover, are noted for their courage, for their contribution of talent and thought to the affairs of this Nation. This is the State of Lucius Lamar and many others who have placed the national good ahead of sectional interest. This is the State which had four Medal of Honor winners in the Korean war alone. In fact, the Guard unit federalized this morning, early, is part of the 155th Infantry, one of the 10 oldest regiments in the Union and one of the most decorated for sacrifice and bravery in 6 wars.

In 1945 a Mississippi sergeant, Jake Lindsey, was honored by an unusual joint session of the Congress. I close therefore with this appeal to the students of the University, the people who are most concerned.

You have a great tradition to uphold, a tradition of honor and courage won on the field of battle and on the gridiron as well as the University campus. You have a new opportunity to show that you are men of patriotism and integrity. For the most effective means of upholding the law is not the State policeman or the marshals or the National Guard. It is you. It lies in your courage to accept those laws with which you disagree as well as those with which you agree. The eyes of the Nation and of all the world are upon you and upon all of us, and the honor of your University and State are in the balance. I am certain that the great majority of the students will uphold that honor.

There is in short no reason why the books on this case cannot now be quickly and quietly closed in the manner directed by the court. Let us preserve both the law and the peace and then healing those wounds that are within we can turn to the greater crises that are without and stand united as one people in our pledge to man's freedom. Thank you and good night.

NOTE: In addition to the President's address, the White House released the following papers:

1. On September 29 an announcement that the President had talked to Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi on three occasions that the President was unable to receive satisfactory assurances that law and order could or would be maintained in Oxford during the coming week that the President was therefore federalizing units of the Mississippi National Guard and that the units would be available for service on October 1.

2. On September 29 the text of Proclamation 3497, ordering persons engaged in obstructing justice in Mississippi to cease and desist therefrom and to disperse and retire peaceably forthwith.

3. On September 30 the text of Executive Order 11053 directing the Secretary of Defense to take all appropriate steps to enforce the court orders, including the calling into active service of units of the Mississippi National Guard.

“Rockwell & Race” 1963-1968

In June 2011 at the White House, Norman Rockwell’s 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With, depicting a famous school desegregation scene in New Orleans, began a period of prominent public display with the support of President Obama. The White House exhibition of Rockwell’s piece, which ran most of 2011, drew national attention to an iconic moment in America’s troubled civil rights history.

Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of six year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted into a New Orleans school in 1960, was printed inside the January 14, 1964 edition of Look magazine, and also displayed at the White House in 2011. Click for wall print.

Rockwell’s painting focuses on an historic 1960 school integration episode when six year-old Ruby Bridges had to be escorted by federal marshals past jeering mobs to insure her safe enrollment at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was the first African American child to enroll at the school, and the local white community – as elsewhere in the country at that time – was fiercely opposed to the court-ordered desegregation of public schools then occurring. Rockwell’s rendering focuses on the little girl in her immaculate white dress, carrying her ruler and copy book, as the four U.S. marshals escort her. The painting also captures some of the contempt of those times with the scrawled racial epithet on the wall and the red splattering of a recently thrown tomato.

Norman Rockwell at work, mid-career.

The context of the Ruby Bridges scene rendered by Rockwell had been heavily reported in print and on television in November 1960, with the anger of the mobs that day burnished deeply in the public mind.

Magazine readers viewing Rockwell’s piece in 1964 would likely recall the unhappy context of young school children being heckled and needing federal protection.

July 15, 2011: President Obama with Ruby Bridges (girl in painting), Rockwell Museum CEO, Laurie Moffatt, and behind Obama, Rockwell Museum President, Anne Morgan, viewing Rockwell’s painting at the White House near the Oval Office. White House photo, Peter Souza.

“The President likes pictures that tell a story and this painting fits that bill…,” explained a statement in the White House blog. “In 1963 Rockwell confronted the issue of prejudice head-on…”

However, at the time of the painting’s White House display, some reporting had erroneously stated the Rockwell piece had initially appeared on the cover of the January 14th, 1964 Look magazine. That is a forgivable mistake given the fact that so much of Norman Rockwell’s work frequently did appear on magazine covers, most notably at the Saturday Evening Post. But the error raises an important question, nonetheless. Why didn’t the Rockwell painting of the famous civil rights incident run on the cover of Look magazine or some other magazine?

Norman Rockwell, circa 1940s.

Norman Rockwell

Born in 1894, Norman Rockwell grew up in New York city, and as a boy dreamed of becoming an artist. By the time he was ten he was drawing constantly. He soon dropped out of high school and enrolled in art school, first at the National Academy School, but by 1910, at the prestigious Art Students League. After graduation he did some of his first work for Boy’s Life magazine. In 1916, Rockwell did his first cover for Saturday Evening Post, then one of America’s premiere weekly magazines. For nearly the next fifty years, he would continue making much-loved Saturday Evening Post covers, most depicting everyday scenes of 20th century Americana. Rockwell in fact, would do more than 320 covers for the Saturday Evening Post through 1963. But that’s only part of his story.

1949: Game Called, Rain.
1958: The Runaway.

Rockwell’s cover subjects for the Post ranged across American daily life – from a young boy in a doctor’s office awaiting a curative needle or teenage girls gossiping at a soda fountain, to a rookie baseball player reporting to play his first game or a worn-out politician at the end of a hard day of campaigning. Some of Rockwell’s covers dealt with aspirational themes and democratic values. In 1942, in response to a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt, Rockwell made his famous “Four Freedoms” series, each of which also ran as a Saturday Evening Post cover – Freedom of Speech (Feb 20, 1943), Freedom of Worship (Feb 27, 1943), Freedom from Want (March 6, 1943), and Freedom from Fear (March 13, 1943).

During this period as well, his Rosie the Riveter cover for the May 29th, 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and another depicting a “liberty girl” for the September 4th, 1943 edition, helped the government recruit female workers for the war effort during WWII. Some of these paintings traveled around the country in the mid-1940s, shown in conjunction with the sale of government war bonds. “The Four Freedoms” series reportedly brought in a tidy sum of $132,992,539 in war bond funds. Rockwell also did poster art for the U.S. Office of War Information in conjunction with the war bond drives.

Norman Rockwell at work on a 1953 painting for Saturday Evening Post cover, “Soda Jerk.”

Civil Rights Subjects

“Freedom of Speech” was one of a Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series admired by African American activist Roderick Stephens, who urged Rockwell in 1943 to do a similar series to promote racial tolerance. Click for wall print.

Stephens had been moved by Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” and was worried at the time that urban race riots would ensue in major cities like his own New York, touched off by the migration of southern blacks to major cities. Race riots, in fact, had then already occurred in Houston, Los Angeles, and Detroit.

Although Stephens expressed his admiration to Rockwell for his “Four Freedoms,” he noted that two of the freedoms – “Freedom From Want” and “Freedom From Fear” – were, for most blacks at the time, freedoms denied. Stephens proposed that Rockwell do a series of paintings to be printed and circulated as posters, just as the “Four Freedoms” had been, to promote racial tolerance, featuring subject matter that would illustrate the contributions of blacks to American society and how they helped realize the Four Freedoms.

Stephens believed Rockwell was an artist who could make a difference at the time, and could help “advance racial goodwill by years,” offering art to point up what was then in American practice, a restricted conception of freedom. Rockwell is believed to have replied to Stephens, but he never embarked on Stephens’ proposal, more or less rejecting the series idea, explaining to Stephens the difficulties he had encountered creating the “Four Freedoms” series. But there may have been more to it than that, as Rockwell was then laboring under restrictions imposed by The Saturday Evening Post.

Dec 7 1946: “NY Central Diner,” Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

In a 1971 interview with writer Richard Reeves, Rockwell explained the unwritten rule laid down by his first editor at the Post: “George Horace Lorimer, who was a very liberal man, told me never to show colored people except as servants.” Lorimer was Rockwell’s editor at the Post for his first twenty years there.

The Rockwell cover illustration at left from the December 7th, 1946 Saturday Evening Post illustrates the rule in practice. The scene, which is also known as Boy in Dining Car, shows a young boy in a railroad dining car studying the menu with purse in hand, trying to determine the proper payment and tip for the black waiter.

Rockwell’s “Full Treatment” SEP cover of May 1940 includes black shoe shine boy.

The Banjo Player, an illustration for a Pratt & Lambert varnish advertisement appearing inside The Saturday Evening Post of April 3rd, 1926

Thataway, a March 17th, 1934 cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a young black boy pointing to the direction taken by a thrown rider’s horse

Love Ouanga, a June 1936 illustration for a short story in American Magazine depicting a beautiful, stylishly-dressed young African American woman in a church scene contrasted against more coarse and country dress of other farming and working African Americans also in the scene

Full Treatment, a May 18th, 1940 cover for The Saturday Evening Post (at right) depicting a wealthy man being attended to by a barber, manicurist, and a black shoe shine boy

The Homecoming, a May 26th, 1945 cover for The Post depicting a returning military veteran arriving home to a scene of welcoming family and neighbors that also includes an African American worker and

Roadblock, a July 9th, 1949 cover for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a moving van that is blocked by a small dog in an urban alley scene with a variety on onlookers, including some black children.

Continuing into the 1950s and early 1960s, publishing art and mainstream magazines generally were slow to portray African American success stories and the civil rights struggle.

Cover Art, 1950s

1954: Segregation story.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the civil rights movement was struggling for recognition, the American art community – then involved with modern art and abstract expressionism – was generally not doing battle with racial discrimination. Nor, for the most part, were America’s most popular magazines in that era featuring African Americans on their covers or doing prominent stories on civil rights.

In its May 8th, 1950 edition, Life magazine featured a photograph of baseball player Jackie Robinson on its cover, the first individual African American to be so featured by that magazine. Robinson had become the first African American to break the color barrier in professional baseball three years earlier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Time magazine, for its part, had used an artist’s rendering of Robinson on an earlier cover in September 1947.

Back at Life, meanwhile, actress Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American woman to be featured on a cover at that magazine, for the November 1st, 1954 edition. Dandridge was then appearing in her Academy Award-nominated best actress film role in Carmen Jones.

A few stories on segregation also appeared on major magazine covers in the mid-1950s. On September 13, 1954, Newsweek ran a cover story on segregation in schools, showing a white and a black child in a Washington, D.C. school. Time magazine put Thurgood Marshall on the cover of its September 19th, 1955 issue, Marshall then having risen to notice as chief counsel for the NAACP arguing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court. (see “Brown vs Board…” sidebar, later below, for more details).

A portion of the January 24, 1956 cover of Look magazine showing “Approved Killing” story tagline.

There was no mention of race in the story tagline, and it ran on a somewhat incongruous cover featuring the U.S. teenager (shown at left). But the “shocking story” inside the magazine was truly shocking. It featured the August 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old Chicago boy who was savagely beaten, shot, and mutilated by white men in Mississippi while the boy was visiting relatives there. Till, a brash kid who knew nothing about the mean realities of the segregated South, made the mistake of whistling at a white woman at a country store. Later abducted from his relatives’ home, Till was brutally pistol-whipped and dumped into a river, his body tied to a heavy metal fan.

At Look magazine, meanwhile, the January 24th, 1956 story by William Bradford Huie covered the Till murder and also interviewed the two suspects, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who were paid $4,000 to tell their story. In fact, in the article, the two suspects – then safe from conviction after having been acquitted in their friendly Mississippi trial – actually confessed to the Till murder. A year later, in its January 22nd, 1957 edition, Look published a follow-up article, “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?” That story reported that blacks in the local community stopped using stores owned by the Milam and Bryant families, putting them out of business, as both men were also ostracized by the white community. Both later died of cancer Milam in 1980, Bryant in 1994. In March 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that it was reopening the investigation into Till’s death due to unspecified new information.

Cover Art ( cont’d)

In many ways, the outrage over the Emmett Till murder, and the injustice that followed, helped energize the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And at that time as well, some popular magazine coverage – and cover art subjects – began reflecting that change.

On September 3rd, 1956, Life magazine featured a cover story related to slavery and segregation – “Beginning A Major Life series – Segregation,” stated Life at the top of the cover. Time magazine featured Martin Luther King on its cover February 18th, 1957, as King was then in the news for his leadership in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.

Later that year, on October 7th, 1957, Time and Life both featured the school integration conflict at Little Rock, Arkansas with National Guard troops shown on their covers. By the time of the Freedom Riders in 1961, a Newsweek cover story featured photos and quotes from three key players in the controversy: U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Mississippi Governor, John Patterson.

In May 1963, Time’s cover featured author and activist James Baldwin, whose novel, The Fire Next Time, was then popular, portions of which had also been published in The New Yorker magazine. Newsweek’s cover of June 1963, featured Vivian Malone on the cover with a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “We owe them – and we owe ourselves – a better country….” Malone was one of the first two black students to enroll at the all-white University of Alabama in 1963, made famous when George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, attempted to block her and James Hood from enrolling.

For its June 28th, 1963 edition, Life featured a cover photograph of the wife and child of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers at his Arlington National Cemetery funeral. Evers, a Mississippi organizer, was shot in the back in his own driveway by a Ku Klux Klan member.

In July 1963, Newsweek published a special issue on “The Negro in America,” picturing an unnamed black man on the cover. In smaller type on the cover, Newsweek further explained the focus of its series with the following: “The first definitive national survey – who he is, what he wants, what he fears, what he hates, how he lives, how he votes, why he is fighting … and why now?”

For its September 6th, 1963 issue, Life magazine featured a cover story on the historic August 1963 “march on Washington” with a photograph of two of its leaders, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, shown standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In March 1965, Life also ran a cover feature on the civil rights march at Selma, Alabama the march that resulted in the “Bloody Sunday” clash. And as the civil rights movement received more national notice throughout the 1960s, more mainstream magazine coverage and cover features followed.

Norman Rockwell, meanwhile, was experiencing change at The Saturday Evening Post. By the early 1960s, the frequency of his covers there had slowed – down to a half dozen or so a year – and the magazine was experimenting with new formats. Still, after more than 40 years of his cover art being featured for millions of Post readers, Rockwell was clearly an asset to the magazine.

In fact, for the February 13th, 1960 issue of the magazine and its cover story, he was the featured star and title subject. The cover used his famous “triple self-portrait” and gave full billing to a beginning series of articles about him for the magazine taken from a new autobiography written with the help of his middle son, Thomas Rockwell.

Shown at right, the cover taglines for that issue of the Post explained: “Beginning in this issue: America’s Best Loved Artist Finally Tells His Own Story… My Adventures As An Illustrator.” Yet Rockwell was chafing at the Post by this time, and his days there were numbered.

1962: Art Connoisseur.
1963: Nehru of India.

Through the early 1960s, Rockwell continued doing Post covers. In 1960, for example he did five more Post covers in addition to “triple self portrait,” shown above, three of which offered traditional subjects: “Repairing Stained Glass,” April 16, 1960 “University Club,” August 27, 1960 and “Window Washer,” September 17, 1960 (with the washer ogling the secretary). Two more Rockwell covers that year were portraits of the 1960 presidential candidates – U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The magazine by then had begun shifting to more portraits of famous people as cover material, and was also using more cover photography rather than illustrations or paintings. Rockwell cover portraits, in any case, held their own at the Post, and included others in the early 1960s, among them: Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, January 19, 1963 Jack Benny, entertainer, March 2, 1963 a serious portrait of President John F. Kennedy to accompany a cover story on his foreign policy challenges, April 6, 1963 and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, May 25, 1963.

Other more traditional Post covers by Rockwell in the early 1960s included: “Artist at Work,” Sept 16, 1961 “Cheerleader,” Nov 25, 1961 and “Art Connoisseur” of January 13 1962, showing a middle-aged man in a museum observing a Jackson Pollack-type painting (this issue also had cover billing for a story inside the magazine entitled, “The Little Known World of Our Negro Aristocracy.”).

Rockwell at work on “Golden Rule,” 1960.

Art critics have noted that these African American depictions were positive portrayals that broke with the traditional servile stereotypes at the Saturday Evening Post. And along with the other Asians and Africans shown, were Rockwell’s way of following his conscience and “integrating” a Saturday Evening Post cover on his own.

Rockwell also incorporated a portrayal of his second wife, Mary, in the painting. Mary was the mother of their three sons and had passed away in 1959. She is shown in the right middle of the painting holding their grandson she never saw. Rockwell is believed to have completed this painting in November 1960. He was later presented with the Interfaith Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for the painting, a citation he treasured.

Still, Rockwell had become frustrated by the limits the Post had imposed upon his art, especially regarding political themes and social concerns. By then he had begun thinking about and moving on to other subject matter. So in December 1963, he ended his near half-century with the Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell’s final cover for the magazine appeared in mid-December 1963. It was actually an earlier portrait of John F. Kennedy he had done during the 1960 presidential campaign which the Post republished in a special memoriam issue that ran after Kennedy’s assassination.

Look magazine at the time Rockwell signed on, Dec 1963, then featuring Hollywood’s Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn, and 'The Negro Faces North'.

In December 1963, at the age of 68, Norman Rockwell signed on with Look magazine. Look covers at the time dealt with contemporary subjects, celebrities, and general topics of the day, using mostly photographs. A sample cover from December 1963 appears at left, this one also mentioning a civil rights story inside that edition.

Major circulation magazines in the early 1960s were beginning to feel the competition of television. Collier’s had ceased publication in 1956, and even the Saturday Evening Post was feeling the heat. Yet, Life and Look – the “picture magazines,” as they were sometimes called – remained strong, with solid advertising revenue. Look by the mid-1960s would have some of its best years for sales and circulation.

When Rockwell began doing work for Look, Dan Mich was editor there. Mich was a supporter of thought-provoking journalism, and along with art director Allen Hurlburt, they gave Rockwell freedom to pursue his “bigger picture” interests, as he called them. Look wanted to use Rockwell’s art as a compliment to current reportage and that gave Rockwell opportunity to pursue subject matter that interested him.

Rockwell’s third wife, Mary L. “Molly” Punderson, a fervent liberal, was an influence on Rockwell’s work through the 1960s, as was his friend and psychiatrist Erik Erickson. And Rockwell himself, despite being tagged “conservative” by association with his Saturday Evening Post covers, had his own internal guideposts and values, as already noted above. Rockwell was clearly more liberal/progressive than many of his Saturday Evening Post followers might have realized. Some who knew him described him as a “strict constructionist,” especially so when it came to American values. No surprise then, if given a subject and a free hand where American ideals such as freedom and equality of opportunity were at stake, his brush would be on the right side of those concerns.

Ruby Bridges exiting the William Frantz school in New Orleans, November 1960, with U.S. marshals.

Prior to the first integration actions in New Orleans – and there were two schools involved and several black students three at another school – politicians in Louisiana, including the state’s governor at the time, segregationist Jimmie Davis, had maneuvered to prevent and forestall the integration. In September 1960, the schools there opened initially as segregated. By November, however, the courts had set a deadline to begin school integration, but parents did not know which schools would be involved

“Brown vs. Board…”
Landmark Case: 1954

Ruby Bridges being escorted into school, November 1960.

A federal marshal driving first grader Gail Etienne to McDonogh 19 school in New Orleans, November 14, 1960, one of four black children who entered two previously all-white schools in the city. Times-Picayune photo.

Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges

Sidewalk protest in New Orleans over school integration, November 15th,1960.

Rockwell, no doubt knew about all of this and likely read news accounts of the protests. On November 15, 1960, The New York Times reported the greeting Ruby and her mother received as they arrived that day: “Some 150 white, mostly housewives and teenage youths, clustered along the sidewalks across from the William Franz School when pupils marched in at 8:40 am. One youth chanted ‘Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate’…”

Detail from Rockwell painting showing young Ruby in escort and portions of scrawled epithets on wall.

The white parents kept up their boycott of the schools the entire year, and the protests and jeering continued periodically. On December 2nd, 1960, for example, housewives demonstrated at the William Frantz school, one standing with a placard that read “Integration is a Mortal Sin,” citing a biblical scribe as source.

Rockwell’s painting, of course, does not capture all of this, nor was it intended to. His focus appears to be solely on the girl, placed at center, giving no special notice to the marshals, other than they were needed, as he portrays them as anonymous and headless, from mid-torso down. The setting around the little girl is ugly and threatening, but she is innocent and perfect, as her white dress and ribbon-tied hair suggest. As far as she is concerned, she is just going to school.

“…The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white…The little girl did not look back at the howling crowd but from the size the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big…”

November 1960: Demonstrators during school integration in New Orleans, Louisiana one holding sign that reads, “Integration is A Mortal Sin.”

“…No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. . . . But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?…”

Steinbeck wrote that he knew “something was wrong and distorted and out of drawing” in what he had seen in New Orleans. He had formerly counted himself as a friend of New Orleans knew the city fairly well, had his favorite haunts there, and also had many treasured friends there – “thoughtful, gentle people, with a tradition of kindness and courtesy.” Where were they now, he wondered – “the ones whose arms would ache to gather up a small, scared, black mite?” Answering his own question, he wrote:

“…I don’t know where they were. Perhaps they felt as helpless as I did, but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world. The crowd, no doubt, rushed home to see themselves on television, and what they saw went out all over the world, unchallenged by the other things I know are there….”

Another influence on Rockwell at this time was likely Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst at the Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where Rockwell then lived and worked. Erikson treated Rockwell occasionally for bouts of depression, was Rockwell’s friend, and also had a passion for civil rights. Erikson was a colleague and mentor to a younger child psychiatrist named Robert Coles, who had begun working with Ruby Bridges and other children in the early school desegregation cases in 1961. Coles had found that segregation had damaged the self-esteem of the little girls, and by 1963 he had written a series of articles beginning in March for The Atlantic Monthly magazine profiling Ruby Bridges’s experiences during integration of the Frantz school. He also published The Desegregation of Southern Schools: A Psychiatric Study, a short book. Erikson may well have made Rockwell aware of these at the time he was painting The Problem We All Live With.

Look magazine’s cover story of January 14, 1964 focused on “How We Live” – American’s homes and communities – city, farm & suburb. Rockwell's Ruby was inside.

On the Look cover there was no special mention or billing of Norman Rockwell’s painting. The illustration would be found in the middle of the magazine as a full two-page spread with no accompanying text. In the table of contents it was billed under “art” with the title “The Problem We All Live With.” It appeared amidst a series of articles with titles such as: “Their First Home,” “Down On The Farm,” and “Their Dream House Is On Wheels.” One of the stories focused on Theodore and Beverly Mason, a black family living in a mixed community in Ludlow, Ohio.

Detail from “The Problem We All Live With.”

Apart from Rockwell’s work, Look also published cover stories on civil rights issues in that period. On March 23, 1965 the magazine featured “The Negro Now” story by Robert Penn Warren on its cover, describing its content with a series of questions, also on the cover: “How far has the Negro come?,” “What is the South ready to concede?,” “What happens next in the North?,” “Can we move forward without violence?,” and “Who speaks for the Negro now?”

Rockwell’s “Southern Justice” painting of 1965, also known as “Murder in Mississippi,” depicting the killings of three civil rights workers murdered in June of 1964.

Another step that Norman Rockwell took with his civil rights painting in the 1960s, came when he ventured into depicting violence then occurring in the civil rights movement. In 1964, he began work on a painting inspired by the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in June of 1964.

The three young men – James Chaney, a 21 year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi Andrew Goodman, a 20 year-old white Jewish anthropology student from New York and Michael Schwerner, a 24 year-old white Jewish organizer and former social worker also from New York – were helping to register black voters in Mississippi. Initially, the three men were reported missing.

Within days of their disappearance, the story made national headlines, as President Lyndon Johnson ordered a massive search. However, it turned out that shortly after midnight on June 21, 1964, the three civil rights workers were murdered by local members of the Ku Klux Klan, aided in their plot by a local police chief. All three were beaten and then shot, and their bodies not located until August 8, 1964, found buried beneath an earthen dam.

Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman – the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi, June 1964. FBI photos. Click for related book.

Norman Rockwell’s rough study sketch of beaten civil rights workers as it ran with article in Look magazine, June 29, 1965.

As with the Ruby Bridges episode, Rockwell no doubt learned of this civil rights story through the media accounts and newspaper reporting of that day. On June 22, 1964, for example, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the incident using the following headlines and description: 𔄛 In Rights Drive Reported Missing Mississippi Campaign Heads Fear Foul Play–Inquiry by F.B.I. Is Ordered….” After the three workers were found dead, however, local officials in Mississippi refused to prosecute the suspected killers. The U.S. Justice Department then charged eighteen individuals with conspiring to deprive the three workers of their civil rights (by murder). Seven were found guilty on October 20, 1967, but with appeals, did not begin serving their 3-to-10 year sentences until 1970, with none serving more than six years. Three other suspects had been acquitted, but no further legal action ensued in the case until pressure was brought decades later, in June 2005, when the state of Mississippi prosecuted and convicted Edgar Ray Killen – who planned and directed the killing – on three counts of murder.

Look magazine, meanwhile, went on to do other stories on civil rights issues. Less than a year later, on May 3, 1966, Look ran a cover story on the Ku Klux Klan showing a hooded Klansman on the cover wielding two flaming torches. Rockwell had done some other work for Look in 1965 following his Southern Justice illustration. For the July 27, 1965 edition of Look, Rockwell did an illustration to accompany an article on President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program for the poor, entitled “How Goes the War on Poverty.” Rockwell’s illustration featured a “helping hand” clasped to another’s seeking help, superimposed over a background of diverse faces with a quote from President Johnson lettered into the painting: “Hope for the Poor, Achievement for Yourself, Greatness for Your Nation.” In the following year, for the June 14, 1966 edition of Look, Rockwell did the cover art and four other pieces inside the magazine helping to illustrate a story on The Peace Corps – “J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy.” Rockwell’s cover piece included a profile of John F. Kennedy and others who actually served in the Peace Corps (some of whom also modeled for Rockwell as he did the painting), including one African American female. All were shown on the cover in profile looking left, with Kennedy in front (see cover above). Rockwell had thrown himself into the Peace Corps project, actually visiting Peace Corps volunteers in action in Ethiopia, India, and Colombia during 1966 as he created several narrative scenes of them at work. But Rockwell would also do more civil rights work the following year, also published in Look.

Look, Nay 1967: "Suburbia."
Story: Negro in the Suburbs.

The May 16th, 1967 issue of Look magazine was billed as “A Report on Suburbia” – with added tagline, “The Good Life In Our Exploding Utopia.” Look’s cover for that edition also listed the line-up of suburban-related stories inside: “Parties and Prejudices,” “New Styles and Status,” Morals and Divorce, and “Teenagers in Trouble.” One of the stories to follow was by Jack Star, entitled “Negro in the Suburbs.” Mrs. Jacqueline Robbins, a young black housewife who then lived in the all-white Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois with her chemist husband, Terry, 32, and their two sons, was quoted as saying, “Being a Negro in the middle of white people is like being alone in the middle of a crowd.” A Rockwell illustration — entitled New Kids in the Neighborhood — ran in the middle of that article. “Although Negroes are still a rarity in the green reaches of suburbia,” reported the Look article, “they are emerging from nearly all the large metropolitan ghettos with increasing frequency.” In Chicago during 1966, the story explained, 179 Negro families moved into white suburbs – more than twice as many as in the previous year, seven times as many as in 1963…”

Norman Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood” ran as full two-page centerfold in Look magazine, May 16, 1967. Click for print.

Child models used by Rockwell for “New Kids,” 1967.

“Blood Brothers”

A black and white copy of Norman Rockwell’s “Blood Brothers” painting which he later gave to CORE.

What Rockwell began to sketch were two dead men on the ground – one black and one white – both bloodied and beaten, found on a ghetto street after a riot lying parallel to one another, their blood co-mingling in a pool on the ground. According to the Norman Rockwell Museum, “Rockwell hoped to show the superficiality of racial differences – that the blood of all men was the same.”

Norman Rockwell, 1968, in front of easel with his “Blood Brothers” painting as shown in photograph from Ben Sonder book, “The Legacy of Norman Rockwell.”

Rockwell wasn’t happy with the decision, did some soul searching and talked with friends about the painting, but set it aside and moved on to other work. But later that year, Rockwell received an invitation from the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group founded by students at the University of Chicago in 1942. CORE was active in desegregation protests and sits-in from its founding, and became a leading civil rights group in the 1960s, especially in the South, and also helped sponsor the 1963 March on Washington and other events. CORE wanted Rockwell to do an illustration for a Christmas card that the organization likely planned to use to send to its membership or perhaps for fundraising. But Rockwell did not send the group a typical Christmas or Holiday-themed illustration. Instead, he sent them the Blood Brothers painting. CORE, in any case, was happy to have Blood Brothers. However, it is not known how CORE used the painting or whether the group reproduced it for other purposes. One account has reported that the painting is missing from the CORE collection. The earlier studies and sketches Rockwell did for the painting are still held at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

Rockwell RFK sketches.

Also in 1968, Rockwell’s Right to Know – a painting of a diverse group of citizens addressing their government – was published in Look’s August 20th edition. The 74 year-old artist had a number of other projects ongoing that year as well, including advertising work and illustrations for a children’s book. He also found time that year to appear on the Joey Bishop Show and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Belated Recognition

Norman Rockwell continued painting through his 70s. However, it was only in his latter years that his work began to be recognized for its artistic value. During much of his professional life, especially during his Saturday Evening Post years, Rockwell’s work was dismissed by many art critics who regarded his portrayals of American life to be idealistic or too sentimental. They did not consider him a “serious painter” others believed his talents were wasted or put to frivolous purpose. Yet time would work in Rockwell’s favor.

Norman Rockwell, later years.

In 1969, having lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for last quarter of his life, he agreed to lend some of his works to the Stockbridge Historical Society for a permanent exhibition. Word soon spread that his works were on display there and attendance grew annually, into the thousands. By 1973, then in his late 70s, Rockwell established a trust to preserve his collection, placed initially in a custodianship that would later became the Norman Rockwell Museum of Stockbridge. In 1977, Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Gerald R. Ford, recognizing his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” The following year, on November 8, 1978, Rockwell died at his Stockbridge home at the age of 84. An unfinished painting remained on his easel.

Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” became a WWII & women’s rights icon. The original painting sold for Ŭ.95 million in 2002. Click for Rosie's story.

Today, Norman Rockwell originals fetch millions at auction, and in recent years the values have been jumping. Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter painting, used for a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1943 shown at right, was sold twice in recent years – once in 2000 for $2 million, and when resold again in May 2002, escalated to $4.95 million.

In May 2006, Rockwell’s Homecoming Marine sold for $9.2 million at auction. And in November 2006 at Sotheby’s in New York, his Breaking Home Ties sold for $15.4 million.

Collectors of Rockwell art today include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The National Portrait Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others.

1994 U.S. postage stamp for Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want.”

For additional stories at this website on magazine history, magazine cover art, and magazine advertising, see “Magazine History,” a topics page with links to 18 stories. For civil rights history, see “Civil Rights Topics,” a directory page listing 14 stories in that category. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: September 23, 2011
Last Update: June 18, 2020
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Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Rockwell & Race, 1963-1968,”, September 22, 2011.

Sources, Links & Additional Information

1940s: Norman Rockwell at work on a magazine cover.

"Thataway" - March 1934 Saturday Evening Post cover example of early "rule" on African American depiction.

Nov 29, 1960: White parent, Rev. Lloyd Foreman (left) walks his five-year-old daughter Pam to the newly integrated William Frantz School where they were blocked by jeering crowd. At right is AP reporter Dave Zinman. AP photo.

Nov 30, 1960: White parent Mrs. James Gabrielle, with police escort, is harassed by protestors as she walks her young daughter home after day in the newly integrated William Frantz school in New Orleans. Crowd wanted total white boycott. AP photo.

Rockwell’s “Breaking Home Ties,” SEP cover art of Sept 25, 1954, depicts father and son sitting on automobile running board as son departs for college, sold for ฟ.4 million at Sotheby's auction in 2006. Click for print.

Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” SEP cover art of Nov 24, 1951 and a fan favorite, depicts an older women and young boy giving thanks for their meal at a shared table amid busy scene in a working class restaurant. Click for print.

Norman Rockwell’s "Truth About Santa" or "Discovery,” captures the complete surprise of a crestfallen young boy who has discovered Dad’s Santa suit. SEP cover, December 29, 1956.

DeNeen Brown, “Iconic Moment Finds a Space at White House,” Washington Post, Monday, August 29, 2011, p. C-1.

Richard Reeves, “Norman Rockwell is Exactly Like a Norman Rockwell,” New York Times Magazine, Sunday, February 28, 1971, p. 42.

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Robert Coles, The Story of Ruby Bridges. New York: Scholastic Press, 1995 [ Tells the story of Ruby Bridges’ first year of school through words & illustrations for children, ages 4-8 ].

Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes, New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

“‘Brown v. Board at Fifty’- When School Integration Became the Law of the Land,” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Claude Sitton, 𔄛 In Rights Drive Reported Missing Mississippi Campaign Heads Fear Foul Play–Inquiry by F.B.I. Is Ordered…,” New York Times, June 24, 1964, p. 1.

Joseph Lelyveld, “A Stranger In Philadelphia, Mississippi,” New York Times Magazine, December 27, 1964, p. 139.

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Shaila Dewan, “Former Klansman Guilty of Manslaughter in 1964 Deaths,” New York Times, June 22, 2005.

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Louie Lamone (American, 1918–2007). Photographs for New Kids in the Neighborhood, Exhibitions: “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera,” Brooklyn Museum.

Laura Claridge, Norman Rockwell: A Life, New York: Random House, 2001.

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Thomas S. Buechner, Norman Rockwell, Artist and Illustrator, New York: Abrams, 1970. (includes reproductions of 600 Rockwell’s illustrations).

Norman Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator: An Autobiography, Indian-apolis: Curtis Publishing, 1979.

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“The U.S. Civil Rights Movement,” Photo Gallery,

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Jack Doyle, “Rosie The Riveter, 1941-1945” (WWII & women’s rights icon), PopHistory, February 28, 2009.

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An epochal moment for civil rights in a single day: 11 June 1963

I n the early morning of 11 June 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy examined maps of the University of Alabama's Tuscaloosa campus as his three young children played by his feet. Within 18 hours, his brother, the president, had given an impromptu national address on civil rights, the Alabama governor had confronted the federal authorities on national television and blinked, and one of the movement's most prominent leaders had been gunned down outside his home.

In retrospect, the events that summer Tuesday – some planned, most spontaneous, and all more hostage to eventualities than planning – would become emblematic of the trajectory of the nation's racial and political dynamics for the next 50 years.

Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood after successfully enrolling at the University of Alabama. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Bobby Kennedy was trying to work out the federal government's options for getting two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, registered for classes on campus at the university. A few hours later, in a choreographed piece of brinkmanship, Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace, stood at the entrance to the Foster auditorium, flanked by state troopers, to refuse them entry. The students went to their dorms while Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach ordered Wallace to allow them in. Wallace refused and delivered a speech on states' rights.

President Kennedy then federalised the Alabama national guard and ordered Wallace's removal. "Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States," said General Henry Graham. Wallace made another quick announcement, stepped aside and Malone and Hood registered.

"They knew he would step aside," Cully Clark, author of The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama, told NPR. "I think the fundamental question was how."

"It had been little more than a ceremony of futility," wrote journalist and Wallace biographer Marshall Frady:

"And, as a historical moment, a rather pedestrian production. But no other southern governor had managed to strike even that dramatic a pose of defiance and it has never been required of southern popular heroes that they be successful. Indeed, southerners tend to love their heroes more for their losses."

The previous day the president's inner circle was divided as to whether he should deliver a televised national address on civil rights. They decided to wait and see how things went in Alabama. After the incident had passed with more theatre than chaos, they unanimously advised the speech was now unnecessary.

President John F Kennedy addresses the nation on 11 June 1963: every American should 'examine his conscience' on civil rights, he said. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Kennedy decided to ignore them, calling executives at the three television networks himself to request airtime. In The Bystander, Nick Bryant describes how, with only six hours to write the speech, Kennedy's team struggled to pull anything coherent together. Minutes before the cameras rolled, all they had was a bundle of typed pages interspersed with illegible scribbles. His secretary had no time to type up a final version and his speechwriters had not come up with a conclusion. With the cameras on, Kennedy started reading from the text and, for the last four minutes, improvised with lines he'd used before from the campaign trail and elsewhere.

"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

Kennedy went on to reflect on the issues of black unemployment and the slow pace of integration, described how the south was embarrassing the nation in front of its cold war adversaries and announced plans to introduce civil rights legislation. In Bryant's assessment:

"The speech was the most courageous of Kennedy's presidency. After two years of equivocation on the subject of civil rights, Kennedy had finally sought to mobilize that vast body of Americans who had long considered segregation immoral, and who were certainly unprepared to countenance the most extreme forms of discrimination."

A thousand miles away, in Jackson, Mississippi, Myrlie Evers – who, in 2013, would deliver the invocation at President Barack Obama's second inauguration – had watched the presidential address in bed with her three children. Her husband, Medgar, the field secretary of the state's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organisation in the country), arrived home just after midnight from a meeting with activists in a local church, carrying white T-shirts announcing "Jim Crow Must Go".

White supremacist Byron dela Beckwith, after his first trial civil rights leader Medgar Evers, whom Beckwith was later convicted of killing (both 1963). Photograph: Reuters

Lurking in the honeysuckle bushes across the road with a 30.06 bolt-action Winchester hunting rifle was Byron DeLa Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and Klan member from nearby Greenwood. The sound of Evers slamming the car door was followed rapidly by a burst of gunfire. Myrlie ran downstairs while the children assumed the position they had learned to adopt if their house ever came under attack. By the time she reached the front door, Medgar's body was slumped in front of her. A bullet had gone through his back and exited through his chest. A few hours later, he was pronounced dead.

On the day of Medgar Evers' funeral, around 1,000 black youths marched through town, joined later by their elders. When police ordered them to disperse, scuffles broke out. The crowd chanted:

Meeting their demand should not have been difficult. The rifle that was fired was traced to Beckwith, whose fingerprints were on its telescopic sight. Some witnesses reported seeing a man who fit his description in the area that night, as well as a car that looked like his white Plymouth Valiant. If that wasn't enough, he'd openly bragged to fellow Klansmen about carrying out the shooting. Though it took several weeks, he was eventually arrested on the strength of this overwhelming evidence, and charged with the murder.

It was then that matters took an all-too predictable turn. Not once, but twice, in the course of 1964, all-white juries twice failed to reach a verdict. Beckwith was arrested again in 1990, and finally found guilty in 1994. He wore a confederate flag pin throughout the hearings. He died in prison in 2001.

Between them, these three events, which all took place within a day, would signal the end of a period of gruesome certainty in America's racial politics – and the beginning of an era of greater complexity. What soon became evident was threefold: the economic stratification within black America, the political realignment of southern politics and the evolution of the struggle of equality from the streets to the legislature.

Wallace's otiose performance and Beckwith's murderous assault typified the segregationists' endgame: a series of dramatic, often violent, acts perpetrated by the local state or its ideological surrogates, with no strategic value beyond symbolizing resistance and inciting a response. They were not intended to stop integration, but to protest its inevitability. And while those protests were futile, they nonetheless retained the ability to provoke, as the disturbances following Evers' funeral testified.

The years to come were sufficiently volatile that even ostensibly minor events, such as a traffic stop in Watts, Los Angeles, or the raid of a late-night drinking den in Detroit, could spark major unrest. The violence and chaos that ensued polarised communities – not on issues of ideology or strategy, but on the basis of race, in a manner that weakened the already dim prospects for solidarity across the colour line.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP

As Myrlie Evers, who went on to dedicate her life to nonviolent interracial activism, recalled:

"When Medgar was felled by that shot, and I rushed out and saw him lying there and people from the neighbourhood began to gather, there were also some whose colour happened to be white. I don't think I have ever hated as much in my life as I did at that particular moment anyone who had white skin."

In Malone and Hood's registration at the University of Alabama that day, we saw the doors to higher education and, through them, career advancement, reluctantly being opened for the small section of black America that was in a position, at that time, to reap the fruits of integration. There had been a middle class in black America for a long time, but as long as segregation existed, the material benefits deriving from that status were significantly circumscribed, particularly in the south.

Race dominated almost everything. A black doctor or dentist could not live outside particular neighbourhoods, nor eat in certain establishments, nor be served in certain stores. Whatever class differences existed within the black community, and there were many, they were inevitably subsumed under the broader struggle for equality.

With integration, however, came the fracturing of black communities, as those equipped to take advantage of the new opportunities forged ahead, leaving the rest to struggle with the legacy of the past 300 years. Wealthier people could move to the suburbs, their kids could integrate in white schools, and from there go on to top universities.

But this success brought its own challenges. The doors of opportunity were only opened to a few – but enough for some to ask, in the absence of legal barriers, that if some could make it, then why not others. Black Americans no longer fell foul of the law of the land, yet still remained on the wrong side of the law of probabilities: more likely to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned less likely to be employed, promoted and educated.

A national guardsman amid the rubble following the Watts riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For most black Americans, the end of segregation did not feel like the liberation that had been promised. After the Watts riots, Martin Luther King told Bayard Rustin, who organised the March on Washington:

"You know Bayard, I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I've got to do something … to help them get the money to buy them."

With Kennedy's appeal for legislation, we saw the shift in focus moving from the streets of Birmingham to Washington's corridors of power. This was progress. Changing the law had been the point of the protests. Within a year, Lyndon B Johnson, who that November assumed the presidency in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, signed the Civil Rights Act within two years, he'd signed the Voting Rights Act.

But the shift from protesters' demands to congressional bills limited possibilities for radical transformation. Clear moral demands were replaced by horsetrading. Marchers cannot be stopped by a filibuster legislation can. Rustin's argument ran as follows:

"We were moving from a period of protest to one of political responsibility. That is, instead of marching on the courthouse, or the restaurant or the theatre, we now had to march the ballot box. In protest, there must never be any compromise. In politics, there is always compromise."

The trouble was the nature of the deal-making was itself in flux. By aligning himself with civil rights, Kennedy would end the Democratic party's dominance of the south. The next day, southern Democrats would respond by defeating a routine funding bill. "[Civil rights] is overwhelming the whole, the whole program," House majority leader Carl Albert told him. "I couldn't do a damn thing with them."

President Lyndon Johnson with Martin Luther King at the signing of the voting rights act, 1965. Photograph: Hulton Archive

Veteran journalist Bill Moyers wrote that when Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act a year later, "he was euphoric'":

"But late that very night, I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. 'I think we just delivered the south to the Republican party for a long time to come,' he said."

Johnson's fears were well-founded. The Republicans, sensing an opportunity, decided to pitch a clear appeal to southern segregationists in particular, and suburban whites in general, on the grounds of race. This would create a thoroughgoing transformation in the nation's politics that is only today, in the 21st century, beginning to unravel.

"We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said shortly before the last presidential election.

That day, 11 June 1963, epitomised the beginning of the end for business as usual.

Gary Younge's The Speech: the Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream will be published by Haymarket Books in August. Follow him on Twitter @garyyounge

News Conference 58, July 17, 1963

Listen to this news conference.

THE PRESIDENT: I have two announcements.

I have a brief statement to make on the progress of the negotiations in Moscow. After three days of talks, we are still hopeful that the participating countries may reach an agreement to end nuclear testing, at least in the environment in which it is agreed that on-the-ground inspection is not required for reasonable security. Negotiations so far are going forward in a businesslike way. It is understood, of course, that under our constitutional procedures, any agreement will be submitted to the Senate for advice and consent. It is also understood by our allies that the British and American representatives are not negotiating on other matters affecting their rights and interests. Any matter of this sort which may come under discussion will be kept open for full allied consultation.

Finally, it is clear that these negotiations, if successful, should lead on to wider discussions among other nations. The three negotiating powers constitute the nuclear test ban subcommittee of the Geneva Conference, and if the present negotiations should be successful, it will be important to reach the widest possible agreement on nuclear testing throughout the world. But all these questions are still ahead of us, and today, while the negotiators are at work, I think we should not complicate their task by further speculation, and for that reason I do not expect to respond to further questions on this subject.

Second, I received a few hours ago the preliminary budget results for the fiscal year which ended June 30th. The cash deficit was $4.1 billion, just half as large as we estimated some six months ago. The deficit in the administrative budget was $6.2 billion, $2.6 billion less than our January estimate. In both cases, the deficit is below the level of the preceding fiscal year. The Treasury and the Budget Bureau will issue a more detailed statement later in the week.

Since the budget went to Congress, we have been able to reduce our request for 1963 supplemental appropriations by nearly $250 million. Nearly every Federal agency reduced its expenditures below the figure estimated last January. Secretary McNamara announced last week that his campaign to cut costs in the Defense budget had produced 1963 savings of more than $1 billion. We have also lowered net expenditures hundreds of millions of dollars by applying the policy of substituting private credit for public credit through the sale of Government-held mortgages and other similar assets.

Tax collections are also better than we estimated in January. But we still have too many idle plants and jobless workers. The recent improvement in business conditions has contributed to these higher revenues. This demonstrates again the point which I emphasized in my tax message to the Congress. Rising tax receipts and eventual eliminating of budget deficits depend primarily on a healthy and rapidly growing economy.

The most urgent economic business before the Nation is a prompt and substantial reduction and revision of Federal income taxes in order to speed up our economic growth and wipe out our present excessive unemployment. A prosperous and growing economy is a major objective in its own right. It is also the primary means by which to achieve a balance in our Federal budget and in our balance of payments.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in view of the increased contact between the Vatican and the Iron Curtain countries, do you feel it would be fruitful at this time to consider setting up some regular channel of communication between the United States and the Vatican?

THE PRESIDENT: No. It seems to me that the present methods of communication, which are the obvious ones that have been in effect, I suppose, for a great many years-- any time anyone wants to get in communication, it is possible to get messages to the Vatican. The Embassy in Rome, I am sure, would be available. It doesn't seem to me that there is any need for changing procedures. I don't think there is any lack of information or communication back and forth.

QUESTION: Mr. President, referring back to your reference to the tax cut, we wonder, could you appraise the status of your legislative program in Congress today particularly, would you want the Congress to dispose of the civil rights proposals before they begin concentrating on the tax bill?

THE PRESIDENT: I would-- No, I think that the tax bill and the civil rights bill are both very important and also they are very complex pieces of legislation, and it is taking--Congress has been taking a good deal--amount of time, the Ways and Means Committee, in considering the tax bill, six months now. The civil rights bill, of course, in its latest form only went up about six weeks ago, five weeks ago, and that will take, I should think, a substantial amount of time. But they are both important pieces of legislation and I am sure the Congress will be at it for a number of weeks to go. I would think I would not attempt-- This is a matter as to which bill should come to the Floor first, and in which body is a matter for the leadership. It depends on the state of the hearings it depends on the judgment of the committees involved, and of the Rules Committee. What I am interested in seeing is, before the end of this year, both bills enacted. That is what we will be judged on.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do the reports from Secretary Wirtz and others give you any reason to expect a negotiated settlement of this railroad dispute before next Monday's deadline, or the report to Congress?

THE PRESIDENT: No, but I think both groups should be much better off to reach a settlement in the remaining days than they will be to have a strike, which affects the national economy, and interest, and have this matter before the Congress. No one can be certain in what form it would come out. There are a few days left, and I think that they ought to reach an agreement themselves and not depend upon the Government to do it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there have been published reports that the Russians are having second thoughts about landing a man on the moon. If they should drop out of the race to the moon, would we still continue with our moon program or secondly, if they should wish to cooperate with us in a joint mission to the moon, would we consider agreeing to that, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, in the first place, we don't know whether the Russians are-- what their plans may be. What we are interested in is what their capabilities are. While I have seen the statement of Mr. Lovell about what he thinks the Russians are doing, his information is not final. Their capacity is substantial there is every evidence that they are carrying on a major campaign and diverting greatly needed resources to their space effort. With that in mind, I think that we should continue. It may be that our assumption or the prediction in this morning's paper that they are not going to the moon might be wrong a year from now, and are we going to divert ourselves from our effort in an area where the Soviet Union has a lead, is making every effort to maintain that lead, in an area which could affect our national security as well as great peaceful development? I think we ought to go right ahead with our own program and go to the moon before the end of this decade.

The point of the matter always has been not only of our excitement or interest in being on the moon but the capacity to dominate space, which would be demonstrated by a moon flight, I believe, is essential to the United States as a leading free world power. That is why I am interested in it and that is why I think we should continue, and I would be not diverted by a newspaper story.

QUESTION: What about the second part of my question?

THE PRESIDENT: The second question is what cooperation we would be willing to carry on with the Soviet Union. We have said before to the Soviet Union that we would be very interested in cooperation. As a matter of fact, finally, after a good many weeks of discussion, an agreement was worked out on an exchange of information with regard to weather, but we have never been able to go into more detail.

The kind of cooperative effort which would be required for the Soviet Union and the United States together to go to the moon would require a breaking down of a good many barriers of suspicion and distrust and hostility which exist between the Communist world and ourselves.

There is no evidence as yet that those barriers will come down, although quite obviously we would like to see them come down. Obviously, if the Soviet Union were an open society, as we are, that kind of cooperation could exist, and I would welcome it. I would welcome it. I don't see it as yet, unfortunately.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you think that Mrs. Murphy should have to take into her home a lodger whom she does not want, regardless of her reason, or would you accept a change in the civil rights bill to except small boardinghouses like Mrs. Murphy?

THE PRESIDENT: The question would be, it seems to me, Mrs. Craig, whether Mrs. Murphy had a substantial impact on interstate commerce.

QUESTION: Mr. President, if the talks in Moscow do go well, would you be receptive to the idea of a summit conference?

THE PRESIDENT: The matter has never come up since Governor Harriman has been there. I have always said I would go any place if I thought it was essential to the making of an effective agreement. There is no evidence that a summit is indicated or needed. There seems to be every evidence if we can get an agreement that we can reach it in our respective capitals. So I must say with complete frankness that this matter has not been before us, and if it came before us, I would give it consideration in light of what the situation was. But as of yet, there has been no talk about it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there has been rising expectation since your visit to Europe that your next travels would take you to the Far East and South Asia. Could you tell us if you are considering such a trip, and, if so, if it could come by the end of this year or early next year?

THE PRESIDENT: We have no plans for a trip. I would like to go sometime to the Far East. I think it is an area of great importance to us, but we have no plans for it, and I would think that we have a lot of work to do here for a good many months.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there has been a good deal of public concern about the political situation in South Viet-nam, and I would like to ask you whether the difficulties between the Buddhist population there, and the South Vietnamese Government has been an impediment to the effectiveness of American aid in the war against the Viet Cong?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I think it has. I think it is unfortunate that this dispute has arisen at the very time when the military struggle has been going better than it has been going in many months. I would hope that some solution could be reached for this dispute which certainly began as a religious dispute, and because we have invested a tremendous amount of effort and it is going quite well. I do realize, of course, and we all have to realize, that Vietnam has been in war for 20 years. The Japanese came in, the war with the French, the civil war which has gone on for 10 years, and this is very difficult for any society to stand. It is a country which has got a good many problems and it is divided, and there is guerrilla activity and murder and all of the rest. Compounding this, however, now, is a religious dispute. I would hope this would be settled, because we want to see a stable government there, carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence.

We believe strongly in that. We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there. We hope with the great effort which is being carried by the Vietnamese themselves, and they have been in this field a lot longer than we have, and with a good deal more deaths and casualties, that behind this military shield put up by the Vietnamese people, they can reach an agreement on the civil disturbances and also in respect for the rights of others. That is our hope, that is our effort that would bring our influence to bear, and the decision is finally theirs, but I think that before we render too harsh a judgment on the people, we should realize that they are going through a harder time than we have had to go through.

QUESTION: Mr. President, a personal question, sir, if I may. It has been reported that you returned to playing golf again. I wonder if you could tell us how you feel and how you enjoyed returning to what has been reported one of your favorite sports.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I like it. I did not think I was going to play golf again until my trip. I don't want to get into a discussion of back difficulties, but my trip to Europe, I think, helped getting out of that office did something, so I enjoy it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, at Frankfurt, you said the time has come for a common effort on the International Monetary Fund. Could you give us a more specific notion of what you had in mind?

THE PRESIDENT: We are sending tomorrow a balance of payments message which will have a good many of our suggestions. Quite obviously, the dollar is international currency and has served us well, and served the West well, and with the sterling, has been the basis for a good deal of international liquidity. I have every confidence that it can continue to be. I think we can still continue on the gold standard. We have had good bilateral relations with a good many countries of Europe who, by pre-payment of debt, and by other technical transactions, have eased some of the burdens of the balance of payments difficulties we have been undergoing. But I would confine my remarks to that at this time, and recommend my statement tomorrow on the balance of payments. It may be that as time goes on, other suggestions may be made to provide greater liquidity and greater security for the various currencies . I think if the program we are recommending tomorrow is enacted, it will make a substantial difference to our balance of payments, and I think the long-range prognosis for us for our balance of payments, I think, is quite good. Our costs in relation to other costs have remained relatively stable. Brookings Institute makes a judgment that by the mid-60's and beyond we can be in perhaps even a surplus position again. But what we want to do is prevent these large flows back and forth, which cause countries to adopt restrictive measures which affect adversely their domestic economy and, therefore, have a deflationary effect upon the entire Western monetary system.

But to be specific to your question, I have no proposals beyond the ones I am making tomorrow, which will be before you, but it is a matter which I think we ought to continue to talk to the Western European powers about.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in an official reply to the Chinese Communists this week, described the Chinese Communists' policy as one which would lead to a conflict with the capitalist world in which both the victor and the vanquished would wind up under nuclear rubble.

Do you share this view as to the apparent direction of Chinese Communist policy at this time?

THE PRESIDENT: It would seem to be directed to that end, but, of course, if it came to that, the Chinese would be fighting with the Soviet nuclear arsenal. There are some countries which would like to have us fight a war with our arsenal of nuclear weapons, so I think the Soviet Union naturally is not anxious to engage in a nuclear struggle to carry out ideological doctrines that the Chinese Communists may develop. They have a natural reluctance to see their country destroyed for that reason, as do we.

QUESTION: Mr. President, it has been reported that you hope to make a trip of four or five days' duration

around the country in the fall in the interests of conservation. Could you tell us a little bit about that, and might you consider starting or ending your trip in the middle of the Potomac River to survey and perhaps to smell the sewage disposal problem in the National Capital?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, if we do make that trip, I will certainly observe it, pass over it, and even go further than that.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the United States Employment Service is seeking jobs for both the unemployed and the employed, and some of these jobs solicited and advertised by the USES run from $10,000 to $22,500, which is a salary level of Congressmen, and a level at which job seekers wouldn't be thought to need public assistance. Some of your critics have charged that the WES is competing with private enterprise, both in the business community and on the campus.

THE PRESIDENT: What is your question, Mr. Alexander? I didn't hear the first part of it.

QUESTION: The USES is soliciting jobs for people who have jobs and people who don't, and some of the jobs that they are soliciting for people who already have jobs run from $10,000 to $22,500--

THE PRESIDENT: What jobs are they talking about, for example?

QUESTION: They advertise in the papers--

THE PRESIDENT: Was it because we need special skills, perhaps, in the Government?

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: I don't see anything wrong with that. We may need some skills. I am not familiar with the story, but just judging it from your question, I would assume that what they are talking about are certain skills which the Government needs which may be in short supply and, therefore they are announcing that there are openings in the Federal Government for that purpose. That would seem--

QUESTION: No, these are private jobs.

THE PRESIDENT: They are private jobs?

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Alexander, I would be glad to look into the matter, whatever it is. I would assume they are right, but I will be glad to check it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you see any indications that the Castro Government is seeking a more relaxed relationship with the United States, and, if so, are we prepared to meet them in that?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I have seen these verbal statements, but I have seen no evidence. As I say, I think the United States has indicated very clearly that we do not accept the existence and cannot coexist in the peaceful sense with a Soviet satellite in the Caribbean. So I don't see that any progress is going to be made along these lines as long as Cuba is a Soviet satellite.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you agree with Britain's Lord Home who believes that the Sino-Soviet breach cannot be healed?

THE PRESIDENT: I have always said that I thought it would be unwise for the United States to talk about a matter over which we have only limited control. Therefore, I have not commented and would not comment on it until the actuality becomes more obvious than it still is today. Quite obviously, there are strong indications of pressure there, but I would not make any final statements because history has shown that they are frequently reversed.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in the 1960 campaign, you used to say that it was time for America to get moving again. Do you think it is moving, and if so, how and where? The reason I ask you the question, Mr. President, is that the Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution saying you were pretty much a failure.

THE PRESIDENT: I am sure it was passed unanimously. I think that we have made significant progress on the

economic front-- in the increase in our gross national product of nearly $90 billion, in a 25 percent increase in profits, in farm income up 10 percent, and all of the rest. I think those statistics are available, and they are obvious, and I think that they indicate that the United States has made substantial progress. The only thing is that the United States has to move very fast to even stand still. We are going to have to find in the next decade 22 million jobs to take care of those coming into the labor market and those who are eliminated by technological gains. But we have been attempting to do something about the problem. In our tax program and in our various economic and legislative proposals that we have made in the last Congress and in this

Congress, we have attempted to deal with some of the economic problems facing the country. I must say that I found a scarcity of useful resolutions coming out of the source which you name dealing with this problem of unemployment, tax revision, tax reform, minimum wage, social security, trade expansion. All these are areas where we have taken some action. But I am not satisfied at all and I think we have to go a good deal further. Unemployment is still too high and it is particularly concentrated among the un-skilled which is the hard core, and among those who are structurally unemployed because of technological changes, and particularly in areas like the Appalachians, which is very hard to reach even if the economy is going ahead at a strong rate.

I think the tax bill this year will make an important difference to the economic effect of the country. If the tax bill does not pass this year, a good many economic plans, and a good many inventory developments of the last months which have helped, I think, to stimulate the economy, will, of course, be disappointed, and I think the effect would be very adverse. This is a matter which I would hope we would have the support of Republicans and Democrats on. I think the argument about whether the country is moving or not will be, of course, a discussion next year, and I think we can get a better analysis of it after a four-year period. I will be prepared to say it is, and they will be prepared to say it isn't.

QUESTION: Mr. President, getting back to legislation, some of your critics have charged that your proposed domestic Peace Corps will be, in effect, a large waste that it would merely duplicate the work already being done by Federal, State, and local agencies. Would you care to comment?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't agree with that at all. That is the same kind of argument we heard about the Peace Corps when it was formed that this was a useless effort. I think it has been very successful. I think if you go to so many parts of this country-- the difficulty is, and I have seen some interesting articles written about this, that there is a good deal of poverty in the United States, but not many people see it. There are a good many people mentally retarded, but not many people see it. After all, three percent of the population of the United States, of our children, are mentally retarded, and one percent of Sweden.

There are a great many areas where we need to do a good deal more: Indian Reservations, parts of this country with school drop-outs slums, chronic poverty exist. Millions of Americans experience it. But they are scattered and frequently not able to bring their views to bear. All of us move in a rather different atmosphere, so we are not as aware of it as we should be, except statistically. The fact of the matter is I think these young men and women would be proud to give a year of their lives to the service of their country. They are willing to go abroad. I think they would be more willing to stay home. Their example, I think, can be a catalyst. We have millions of people who work in the various agencies, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, all the rest. I think they do a wonderful job. We want to supplement their work. Most of those who work in the field say more can be done. The District of Columbia is a prime example of where we need dozens of volunteers to work with young people. We get a lot of them. There are a goad many people who work in this District, but we need a lot more.

What we want to do is to make it possible for people in this country to give a year of their lives without compensation, but with enough to live on to service in these various areas where people do not enjoy the prosperity which so much of our country experiences. I think those opposed to it are wrong. I think the program is a good idea.

QUESTION: Mr. President, it is pretty generally acknowledged that your Administration has done more for civil rights fundamental advances than any in many years. Do you find that the demonstrations which are taking place are a handicap to you, specifically the Washington march in August? Do you think that this will--

THE PRESIDENT: No, I think that the way that the Washington march is now developed, which is a peaceful assembly calling for a redress of grievances, the cooperation with the police, every evidence that it is going to be peaceful, they are going to the Washington Monument, they are going to express their strong views, I think that is in the great tradition. I look forward to being here. I am sure Members of Congress will be here. We want citizens to come to Washington if they feel that they are not having their rights expressed. But, of course, arrangements have been made to make this responsible and peaceful. This is not a march on the Capitol.

Now, there are other places, of course, where the demonstrations, where there are grievances, where the demonstrations get caught up in a cycle, and we have it in Cambridge, Maryland, where there is no peace. They have almost lost sight of what the demonstration is about. You have an increasingly dangerous situation. You could have violence any night. You have 400 National Guardsmen there now. I am concerned about those demonstrations. I think they go beyond information, they go beyond protest, and they get into a very bad situation where you get violence, and I think the cause of advancing equal opportunities only loses.

But I do feel also-- so I have warned against demonstrations which could lead to riots, demonstrations which could lead to bloodshed, and I warn now against it.

Secondly, some of the people, however, who keep talking about demonstrations never talk about the problem of redressing grievances. I would hope that along with a cessation of the kind of demonstrations that would lead to rioting, people would also do something about the grievances. You just can't tell people, "Don't protest," or, on the other hand, "we are not going to let you come into a store or a restaurant." It seems to me it is a two-way street. If the Congress will act, if most importantly individuals will act, and I am impressed by the fact that since May 22nd we began our meetings at the White House, and Justice Department, and meetings have been held by Governors and Mayors all around the country, that there have been substantial gains made in areas of the country where before there was no progress in restaurants, movies, hotels. So something can be done. So I would suggest that we exercise great care in protesting so that it doesn't become riots, and, Number 2, that those people who have responsible positions in Government and in business and in labor do something about the problem which leads to the demonstration.

QUESTION: Mr. President, may I ask, sir, about the recent demonstration by the African States at the ILO conference with respect to South Africa? What is our American position with regard to South Africa's participation in the UN and many of its agencies?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we have condemned the racial policy of South Africa, which is inimical, I think, to the future of South Africa, as well as repugnant to us. We also do not believe that it is useful to begin to expel nations of the United Nations. I think you have enough pressures on the United Nations. I think these countries ought to stay in the United Nations. The United Nations has every right to express hostility to policies which are pursued which are a threat to peace. But it would seem to me unwise to expel nations from the United Nations because if the hand were moved, others will come, and the United Nations will be fragmented. I think it ought to be as broad as possible a coverage. But I think we ought to be clear in our hostility to the concepts of racial separation.

QUESTION: Sir, I want to ask you something in view of yesterday's interest raise. I want to read you a little bit from the Democratic Platform of 1960:

"A Democratic President will put an end to the present high interest-tight money policy. This policy has failed in its stated purposes to keep prices down. The Republican high interest policy has extracted a costly toll from every American who has financed a home, an automobile, a refrigerator, or television set."

How can you reconcile this with what happened yesterday on interest rates?

THE PRESIDENT: Because as you studied the statement made yesterday by the Federal Reserve, you will realize we are talking about short-term rates, and that under this Administration mortgage rates and other rates which affect business have dropped since this Administration took office, and have dropped in some ways in a significant way, and it is our hope that in the effort which the Federal Reserve is carrying out, which will be an increase in the short-term rates, which primarily affect the short-term flow out of the United States, they will also make an effort to maintain the stability of long-term rates. That is the policy of the Government, that is the effort of the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury, and for that reason, the policy we took yesterday is in accordance with that statement you just read.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you stated that the United States would never agree with coexistence with Cuba as long as it was a Soviet satellite. If the Soviet troops left Cuba and if Cuba started moving towards a Tito-ist type situation, do you see the possibility of perhaps coexistence?

THE PRESIDENT: It is very difficult to base a future policy on presumptions which are not today realized. The fact of the matter is the Soviet troops are there. The fact of the matter is that Cuba does follow a satellite role, and that is what we consider unacceptable to us. I would hope that the situation some day would change.

QUESTION: Mr. President, Governor Rockefeller and Senator Goldwater are sharply divided on what sort of an appeal the Republican Party should make to the South in 1964. Perhaps this question will be faced by you next year, and I wondered whether you planned to either repudiate or reject the support and the votes of segregationists in the South?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that the record of this Administration on this matter of equal opportunity is so well known to everyone, North and South, that in 1964 there will be no difficulty in identifying the record of the Democratic Administration, what it stands for. And my judgment is, based on history, that the Republican Party also will make a clear stand on this issue. I would be surprised if they didn't.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in the last week, the Governor of Alabama, the Governor of Mississippi, and the Attorney General of Arkansas have all testified before the Senate Commerce Committee, insisting that the integration move was Communist-inspired, and this has led to some fears on the part of some Senators that we may be entering into a period of McCarthyism that will submerge this issue.

THE PRESIDENT: The fact of the matter is that the Communists attempt, and obviously, to worm their way into every movement, and particularly to worm their way into those movements where there is an obvious-- where there is trouble. I would think that the relatively few remaining Communists in the United States, and they are very few, I would think that they would attempt to take advantage of whatever difficulties may arise in the United States. But I must say that we looked into this matter with a good deal of care.

We have no evidence that any of the leaders of the civil rights movements in the United States are Communists. We have no evidence that the demonstrations are Communist-inspired. There may be occasions when a Communist takes part in a demonstration. We can't prevent that. But I think it is a convenient scapegoat to suggest that all the difficulties are Communist and if the Communist movement would only disappear, that we would end this.

The fact of the matter is, it is easy it is easy to blame it on the authorities in Washington: it is easy to blame it on the Attorney General or the President, and say, "If they would just stop talking about these things, the problem would go away." The way to make the problem go away, in my opinion, is to provide for a redress of grievances.

“But the Cake Was Already Made”

The success of JFK’s public relations strategy rested on the abilities of his advisors. They included a few prominent blacks, who charted his segmented outreach efforts. While top Kennedy surrogates soft-pedaled his civil rights record in the South (there were few blacks who could vote there anyway in 1960), these black strategists targeted specific messages to black voters. It was a “strategy of association,” Nicholas Andrew Bryant writes in his valuable 2006 book, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality. The key to their strategy: black talent and a black press committed to showcasing it.

The man the Kennedy team recruited to lead the charge was the long-time former editor of the Chicago Defender, Louis E. Martin, whom the Washington Post once called “ ‘the godfather of black politics.’ ” He was the eventual advisor of three sitting presidents, and a “well-versed representative of the black protest tradition,” with strong ties to labor, as Alex Poinsett writes in his 1997 biography, Walking With the Presidents: Louis Martin and the Rise of Black Political Power.

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, Martin had helped turn Detroit Democratic in support of FDR’s New Deal as editor of the Michigan Chronicle. In joining the Kennedy campaign, he, along with black Washington attorneys Frank Reeves and Marjorie Lawson, customized JFK’s image for their friends at leading black newspapers across the country. After all, Martin had helped found the National Newspaper Publishers Association in 1940.

It was a two-pronged attack far more sophisticated than the Nixon people had calculated. While Kennedy toned down his message in the mainstream white papers (and had Lyndon Johnson campaign for him in the South), Martin and company amplified JFK’s support of the Democrats’ strong civil rights plank in a series of brilliant advertisements. The campaigns included a Martin favorite, “A Leader in the Tradition of Roosevelt,” as well as a set of side-by-side pictures of JFK and famous black heroes, from Rep. William Dawson of Chicago (his support was vital) to Virginia Battle, the African-American secretary Kennedy had recruited to his Senate campaign in 1952.

In other words, Bryant’s work suggests: Long before the assassination of JFK catapulted him into the pantheon of civil rights leaders, Louis Martin et al. planted the idea in black newspapermen’s minds.

Along the way, Louis Martin (with others) had a hand in persuading candidate Kennedy to place a timely call to Coretta Scott King when her husband Martin was in jail and got New York’s black powerbroker, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem, to accept $50,000 in exchange for making pro-Kennedy speeches. The call to Mrs. King was “ ‘the icing on the cake,’ ” Bryant quotes Louis Martin as saying. “‘But the cake was already made.’”

And when it came out of the oven …

Kennedy, in a tight election, won 78 percent of the black vote. Soon after, Martin became deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee but really, Bryant writes, Martin was, with his “great savvy in public relations,” Kennedy’s “personal point man on civil rights” (the stage manager of the black Camelot, if you will).

On the eve of the inauguration in Jan. 1961, Martin, with Kennedy’s other point man on civil rights, Harris Wofford (chairman of the subcabinet group on civil rights), lobbied the president-elect to at least include a nod to “human rights … at home and around the world” in the sterling speech Ted Sorenson more famously helped draft. All through the campaign, Kennedy had stressed that his approach to civil rights would flow from executive—more than legislative—action, and now, with Martin’s counsel in casting the players, he was ready to deliver.

“Buses Are A’Comin’” Freedom Riders: 1961

A portion of the DVD cover for the 2011 PBS / American Experience film, “Freedom Riders,” by Stanley Nelson. Click for DVD.

Before it was all over more than 60 “Freedom Rides” would criss-cross the South between May and November of 1961. At least 436 individuals would ride buses and trains to make their point. However, a number of the “freedom riders” were physically assaulted, chased, and/or threatened by white mobs, some beaten with pipes, chains and baseball bats. Many of the riders were also arrested and jailed, especially in Mississippi. Yet these arrests became part of the protest – and in this case, a badge of honor.

Mug shots of some of the more than 300 “freedom riders” who were arrested in Mississippi during the summer of 1961. More on this part of the story follows later.

The freedom rides of 1961, mostly bus rides, had a legal as well as a moral objective. They were testing two U.S. Supreme Court rulings – Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960) – rulings that found that segregated public buses and related facilities on interstate transportation routes were unconstitutional and illegal. That meant trains, buses, planes, ferries, and related terminals and waiting rooms. The first case dates to July 1944, when Irene Morgan was arrested in Virginia after refusing to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus while traveling home from Baltimore, Maryland.

Freedom Ride button issued by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

In 1961, segregated waiting rooms, fountains & restrooms were common in Southern bus & train terminals, despite Supreme Court rulings striking them down.

Farmer and CORE were also testing the newly-elected Kennedy Administration in Washington – President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy – to see if they would enforce laws banning segregation.

The plan for the first ride was to send volunteers on two buses – one group on a Trailways bus and another on a Greyhound bus – both departing from Washington, D.C. bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. Along the route, there would be stops at bus terminals throughout the south, with the passengers selectively testing the “white only” or designated “negro waiting” areas.

First Departure

May 5, 1961: Washington Post story (p. B-4) covers the Freedom Riders’ plan and departure for the first 13 riders.

The Washington Post ran a story on the group’s intentions the following day, May 5th, 1961 on p. B-4 by reporter Elsie Carper. The story, headlined “Pilgrimage Off on Racial Test,” described the group’s trip along with an Associated Press photo of five of the participants looking over a map of their planned route of travel over the next two weeks.

Shown in the photo, from left, were: Edward Blankenheim from Tucson, Arizona James Farmer, of New York city and director of CORE Genevieve Hughes of Chevy Chase, Maryland Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox of High Point, North Carolina and Henry Thomas of St. Augustine, Florida.

The first leg of the Freedom Ride from Washington made stops in Virginia and North Carolina. Source: PBS / American Experience.

The first leg of their trip included stops at Richmond, Petersburg, Farmville, Lynchburg and Danville in Virginia. Stops in North Carolina included Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Charlotte. There were no confrontations with riders at most of these stops. Should trouble occur, however, the Freedom Riders were trained in non-violent tactics and would not fight back. In Charlotte, North Carolina, there was an arrest.

Genevieve Hughes and John Lewis, Rock Hill, S.C.

The second leg of the trip through South Carolina and Georgia included dinner with Martin Luther King in Atlanta. Source: PBS/American Experience.

In Anniston, at the Greyhound station, a white mob had gathered waiting for the first bus with its Freedom Riders. As it arrived, the mob attacked the bus with iron pipes and baseball bats, breaking some windows and slashing its tires. By the time Anniston police arrived, the bus had taken a fair beating, but no arrests were made. The passengers had remained inside the bus. The Anniston police car escorted the bus out of the station to just beyond the Anniston city limit on a rural stretch of road. There, because of the punctured tires, the bus was forced to pull off the road near the Forsyth & Son grocery store. This was about five miles west of Anniston.

Mothers’ Day, May 14, 1961, as Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders and other passengers burns after being fire-bombed by white mob that attacked the bus and some riders near Anniston, Alabama.

The fire-bombed bus at Anniston, Alabama produced thick smoke that filled the cabin, choking escaping riders.

The fire on the mob-burned bus at Anniston, Alabama was eventually put out, but the bus was totally destroyed.

Freedom Riders Jimmy McDonald, center, Hank Thomas, foreground, and regular passenger Roberta Holmes, right, behind Thomas, after bus burning melee, May 14, 1961.

Fireman going through remains of bus, following fire.

Map showing route of two Freedom Ride buses traveling from Atlanta, GA to Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama.

The white mob, meanwhile, had pursued the bus, with a line of some thirty cars and pickup trucks following behind – with at least one car later weaving back-and-forth in front of the bus to slow it down. After the one local police car disappeared, the mob resumed its assault on the bus and its occupants. One attacker hurled a firebomb into the bus. Some reports indicated that the bus door was held shut from the outside preventing riders from exiting, as some of the mob yelled, “burn them alive!” A few of the riders exited through windows.

The bus door was later forced opened, but only after one of the bus fuel tanks exploded, sending some of the mob into retreat. Riders exited gasping for their lives, choking on the thick smoke that had filled the bus.

Riders Beaten

Still, upon exiting the smoke-filled bus, some of the choking Freedom Riders were set upon and beaten by members of the mob. Rider Hank Thomas was one of those beaten with a baseball bat. Some of the mob remained, but a later-arriving state patrolman fired two warning shots into the air, and the mob gradually dispersed.

The Greyhound bus, meanwhile, became completely engulfed in flames and was totally destroyed. The riders on the second bus, the Trailways bus, were still on their way, unaware of what had happened in Anniston.

At the scene in Anniston, importantly was one lone photographer, Joe Postiglione of the Anniston Star, who had been tipped off by KKK members. Postiglione’s photos of the Anniston bus bombing – shown above and at left – were the only still photographs of the incident, and they soon made it over the newswires to newspapers all across the country – some running the photo on the front pages, thereby drawing the first national attention to the Freedom Rides.

Also in Anniston that day was a 12 year-old white girl, Janie Miller, who lived nearby, and after the violence subsided, defied the Klansmen and brought water to the bleeding and choking riders.

“It was the worst suffering I’d ever heard,” Miller would recall in the PBS / American Experience film, Freedom Riders. “I walked right out into the middle of that crowd. I picked me out one person. I washed her face. I held her, I gave her water to drink, and soon as I thought she was gonna be okay, I got up and picked out somebody else.” For daring to help the injured riders, she and her family were later ostracized by the community and could no longer live in the county.

A number of Freedom Riders that day were taken, eventually, to the Anniston Memorial Hospital where one attempt was made, unsuccessfully, by a group of Klansman trying to block the entrance to the emergency room.

KKK on 2nd Bus

Meanwhile, the second bus with Freedom Riders – the Trailways bus – made a brief stop in Anniston at another bus station. At that stop, the bus was infiltrated by some ticketed KKK members who proceeded to restore the “blacks-in-the-back” seating order on the bus by way of brutally beating up two of the Freedom Riders and installing them in the rear seats. These infiltrators stayed on the bus until it arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, slinging verbal abuse at the Freedom Riders en route and promising them a “special reception” in Birmingham.

Part of the attacking mob with KKK members at Birmingham, AL, as black bystander George Webb is beaten by several men in the foreground. Photo, Tommy Langston.

The Trailways station had filled with Klansmen and some reporters. When the Freedom Riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob, some wielding baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. White Freedom Riders in the group were especially singled out by the mob, receiving ferocious beatings.

Jim Peck, a 46-year-old white CORE member from New York, and black Freedom Rider Charles Person, a student from Atlanta, both headed for the “whites only” lunch counter, according to plan, as they came off the bus. However, they never made it there.

Jim Peck in hospital after treatment for injuries sustained during mob beating at the Birmingham bus terminal.

Freedom Riders were not the only ones attacked in Birmingham. Innocent bystanders were beaten too, and so were members of the press. As soon as the flashbulb went off for the photo shown above right, the mob took after the photographer, Tommy Langston of the Birmingham Post-Herald. He was caught in the bus station parking lot and beaten and kicked and threatened with pipes. His camera was also smashed to the ground. He later staggered down the street to the Post-Herald building and was later treated at the hospital.

Headline from 'The Montgomery Advertiser' news-paper (Montgomery, AL) tells of Anniston bus burning & mob attacks in Birmingham.

A few of Langston’s colleagues at the Post-Herald returned to the bus station to retrieve his smashed camera to find, amazingly, that the film was still intact. The photo of the melee, shown above, ran the next day on the front page of the Birmingham Post-Herald, one of the few pieces of evidence documenting the mob attack and its participants.

Meanwhile, back in Anniston, hospitalized Freedom Riders were told to leave the hospital as the staff there became afraid of a growing mob. A group of churchmen and others led by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth headed off around 2 a.m. that night to rescue the hospitalized Freedom Riders in Anniston.

Media Reports

In addition to news reports about the Anniston bus bombing and mob attacks in Birmingham, Howard K. Smith, a national CBS News correspondent, was already in Birmingham at the time of the attacks. He was working on a television documentary investigating allegations of lawlessness and racial intimidation in the Southern city. Smith, a Southerner himself from Louisiana, was trying to determine if the claims he and his network were hearing about were exaggerated or true.

May 1961: CBS newsman, Howard K. Smith, reported on the mob attacks on Freedom Riders that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama.

Smith did deliver news accounts of the bus station melee over the CBS radio network that went out nationally. He would make a series of live radio updates from his hotel room that day. “The riots have not been spontaneous outbursts of anger,” he reported in one broadcast, “but carefully planned and susceptible to having been easily prevented or stopped had there been a wish to do so.” In another he explained: “One passenger was knocked down at my feet by 12 of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp.”[i.e., the Jim Peck beating]. The “rule of barbarism in Alabama,” said Smith in his commentary, must bow to the “rule of law and order – and justice – in America.” Smith reported the facts of the incident for CBS. “When the bus arrived,” he explained in one report, “the toughs grabbed the passengers into alleys and corridors, pounding them with pipes, with key rings, and with fists,” But he was outraged by what he had witnessed, and stated at one point that the “laws of the land and purposes of the nation badly need a basic restatement.” Smith at the time also did a Sunday radio commentary, during which he was more direct, “The script almost wrote itself,” he would later recall. “I had the strange, disembodied sense of being forced by conscience to write what I knew would be unacceptable.” In his commentary, Smith laid the blame squarely on Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose officers had looked the other way during the attack. During that commentary Smith also stated that the “rule of barbarism in Alabama” must bow to the “rule of law and order – and Justice – in America.”

According to historian Raymond Arsenault, author of the 2006 book, Freedom Riders, “Smith’s remarkable broadcast opened the floodgates of public reaction. By early Sunday evening, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Americans were aware of the violence that had descended upon Alabama only a few hours before.” At that point, few people had heard of CORE, and fewer still knew what the term ‘Freedom Rider’ meant. But with reports like the one Smith made, more and more of the general population would soon understand what was taking place in the southern part of their country.

By Monday, May 15th, photographs of the burning “Freedom Bus” in Anniston and Birmingham mob scene were reprinted in newspapers across the country. In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, on May 16th an editorial titled “Darkest Alabama” ran in the Washington Post newspaper. A Washington Post edito- rial of May 16, 1961 used the tagline, “Darkest Ala- bama.” The editors, noting the traditions of the old South such as chivalry, hospitality, and kindness, found them notably absent in Birmingham and Anniston, where the busses and Freedom Riders had been attacked. The Post also noted that “Alabama has a Governor who encourages contempt for the Constitution of the United States and who preaches incendiary racist nonsense.” The Post concluded that Americans traveling in Alabama could not be assured of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. “They are quite justified, therefore, in looking to the United States Department of Justice for the protection of their rights as American citizens.” That message was likely read at the U.S. Justice Department and in the White House.

“The Kennedys”
…and Civil Rights

During the violence and unrest of the Freedom Rides in 1961, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy met frequently to deal with the crisis.

Although John F. Kennedy (JFK) won the 1960 presidential election by a slender margin, with the black vote playing a key role, he had not been quick to move on civil rights issues in the early months of his administration. Kennedy had been cautious on civil rights as he feared taking action would antagonize southern Democrats – “the Dixiecrats” – a group he needed for both his near-term legislative agenda in Congress, and looking ahead to 1964, for his re-election. (In time, the “Dixiecrat defection” JFK feared would occur, helping elect Richard Nixon in 1968). So the Freedom Rides were among the last thing that he and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy(RFK), wanted to see in 1961.

Just a month earlier, Kennedy had gone though the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. And in May, he was in the midst of preparing for a scheduled June 3, 1961 Vienna Summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the first such summit of his presidential term. So Kennedy’s focus was not on domestic issues, and civil rights, least among these. Journalist Evan Thomas explains in the PBS film Freedom Riders: “The Kennedys, when they came into office, were not worried about civil rights. They were worried about the Soviet Union. They were worried about the Cold War. They were worried about the nuclear threat. When civil rights did pop up, they regarded it as a bit of a nuisance, as something that was getting in the way of their agenda.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, center, conferring with Justice Department assistants, Nicholas B. Katzenbach, left, and Herbert J. Miller, during the May 1961 Freedom Rides.

As President Kennedy first learned of the escalating tension around the Freedom Rides, he was not pleased. When reports of the bus burning and beatings in Birmingham reached Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (RFK), he urged restraint on the part of Freedom Riders. The Kennedys, in fact, had condemned the Freedom Rides as unpatriotic because they embarrassed the nation on the world stage at the height of the Cold War. At one point later that summer, Robert Kennedy had called on the Freedom Riders for a “cooling off period.” James Farmer, head of CORE, responded saying, “We have been cooling off for 350 years, and if we cooled off any more, we’d be in a deep freeze.”

Although the Kennedys were initially angered by the Freedom Riders, and thought the bus rides should end, they soon became quite concerned with the incidents and the safety of the riders. Throughout the summer, Robert Kennedy especially, would become heavily involved in federal-state negotiations to protect the Riders – amid repeated attempts to dissuade them from continuing. However, the Administration was in a bit of quandary on just how much the federal government should get involved and what level of force might be needed. JFK, meanwhile, had some political alliances that would prove awkward.

JFK and Alabama Governor, Democrat John Patterson, during a 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign rally.

During his 1960 presidential bid, JFK had made some political alliances that would come back to haunt him. Alabama’s governor, Democrat John Patterson, was one of these. Patterson had been one of the few southern politicians to endorse JFK for president, doing so early in 1959. Yet, when it came to the Freedom Riders, Patterson was squarely on the side of the segregationists and “states rights,” and he and the Kennedys would spar on the matter through May of 1961.

Given the Anniston and Birmingham incidents, the Kennedys worried that there might be more violence in Alabama, and they wanted protection for the Freedom Riders. Governor Patterson had refused to guarantee the Freedom Riders safety. JFK thought at one point he would be able to persuade his old political ally to come around on the matter, diffuse the tensions at the state level, and keep Washington out of the picture. Kennedy had White House telephone operators place a call to Governor Patterson. The governor’s secretary responded that the governor was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and could not be reached. It was then that Kennedy realized what he was up against, and gave the go-ahead to begin preparing for the possible use of federal marshals.

Alabama Gov. John Patterson, left, confers with Robert Kennedy and two unidentified aides. Photo undated.

May 15, 1961: Freedom Rider James Peck, talks with a Dept of Justice official and Ben Cox on plane to New Orleans. Photo, T. Gaffney.

April 1960: Diane Nash, as Fisk University junior with the Rev. Kelly Smith, president of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. Photo: Gerald Holly, Nashville Tennessean.

Meanwhile, other civil rights activists, realizing the importance of the Freedom Ride, and also seeing the national attention the Anniston and Birmingham incidents had brought to the civil rights movement, began planning to continue the bus rides. The Nashville Student Movement, lead by Diane Nash, decided to send “fresh troops” to Birmingham – replacement riders – to continue what CORE had started. Nash and other civil rights activists began to see that what CORE had put in motion could not be allowed to fail, and should not stop because of violence.

Raised in middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Nash attended Howard University in Washington, D.C, before transferring to Nashville’s Fisk University in the fall of 1959. Shocked by the extent of segregation she encountered in Tennessee, she became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. In February 1961 she served jail time in solidarity with the “Rock Hill Nine” — nine students imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in.

Nash felt that if violence was allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years. She pushed to resume the ride and began calling black colleges in nearby states to find replacements for the injured Freedom Riders. On May 17, 1961, a group of eight blacks and two whites – students from Fisk University, Tennessee State University and the American Baptist Theological Seminary – traveled by bus from Nashville to Birmingham, where they would then resume the Freedom Ride from there to Montgomery, Alabama, and then on to Mississippi and Louisiana. However, upon their arrival in Birmingham, they were immediately arrested – “protective custody,” according to police. Later that night, in the early a.m. hours, this group was transported by Birmingham police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor to Ardmore, Alabama near the Tennessee line, and dropped off in a rural area – an area reportedly known for Klan activity. They were told to take a train back to Nashville. After finding refuge with a local black family, they reached Diane Nash who sent a car for them, returning them to Birmingham, where they intended to resume the Freedom Ride.

“John Meets Diane”
May 1961

John Seigenthaler, in later years, would recall his activities during the 1961 Freedom Rides in the 2011 PBS documentary, “Freedom Riders.”

John Seigenthaler, a former reporter for The Nashville Tennessean newspaper, had worked with Robert Kennedy in Congress. In 1961, then 32, Seigenthaler became a special assistant in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department.

Dispatched by Kennedy to the south to help diffuse the Freedom Rider tensions, his first task in that crisis was to get the CORE Riders safely on airplanes to New Orleans. When the Riders – after some harassment and verbal abuse along the way – arrived safely in New Orleans, Seigenthaler thought both the Freedom Rides and the crisis were over. Instead, he learned that someone named Diane Nash and others from the Nashville Student Movement planned on continuing what the CORE Riders had started. In the PBS film Freedom Riders, Seigenthaler appears on camera offering his remembrance of that pivotal moment:

. . . I went to a motel to spend the night. And you know, I thought, “What a great hero I am. . . . How easy this was. . . I just took care of everything the president and the attorney general wanted done. Mission accomplished.” My phone in the hotel room rings and it’s the attorney general. “Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left…”
– Diane Nash, 1961 And he opened the conversation, “Who the hell is Diane Nash? Call her and let her know what is waiting for the Freedom Riders.” So I called her. I said, “I understand that there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can.”

Her response was, “They’re not gonna turn back. They’re on their way to Birmingham and they’ll be there shortly.” You know that spiritual [song]—“Like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved”? She would not be moved. And . . . I felt my voice go up another decibel and another and soon I was shouting, “Young woman, do you understand what you’re doing? You’re gonna get somebody . . . Do you understand you’re gonna get somebody killed?”

Diane Nash, of Fisk University, let John Seigenthaler know there was no turning back.

And there’s a pause, and she said, “Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.”

That’s virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child’s mouth.

Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the president and the attorney general, talking to a student at Fisk University. And she, in a very quiet but strong way, gave me a lecture.

James Peck (right) and Hank Thomas march in a picket line outside the Port Authority Terminal in New York City.

Civil rights leaders at the national level, meanwhile, were spreading word of what had happened to the Freedom Riders in the south. In several U.S. cities, CORE chapters used the May 17th anniversary date of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to protest the violence in Alabama. They set up picket lines in front of bus terminals in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. More than two thousand people came out for the New York City demonstration, with hundreds picketing the Port Authority terminals of the Greyhound and Trailways bus lines in protest over the segregated bus stations in the South. Some marchers carried signs that read, “segregation is morally wrong.” At least two of the Freedom Riders – Hank Thomas, who had been attacked in Anniston, and James Peck, who was beaten in Birmingham and was still bandaged – joined the demonstration in New York City. Peck carried a large placard that identified him as “a victim of an attempt at lynching by hoodlums,” and Thomas a sign that indicated he was arrested on a Freedom Ride in South Carolina. Following the New York demonstration, Peck and Thomas also answered questions and at a press conference held at the offices of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Lillian Smith, a well-known author and southern liberal unafraid to criticize segregation and who worked to dismantle the Jim Crow laws, was also at the press conference. Other national figures began voicing their opinions as well. On Thursday morning, May 18th, the New York Times and other newspapers reported a story citing the Southern Baptist evangelist, Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, who said that the Southerners who had attacked and beaten the “Freedom Riders” should be prosecuted for their actions.

Rev. Shuttlesworth during “CBS Reports” TV show.

May 18,1961: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, talks with several Freedom Riders waiting in the Birmingham bus station to go to Montgomery. AP photo.

Beatings in Montgomery

May 20, 1961: Jim Zwerg, one of the Freedom Riders beaten at Montgomery, Alabama bus terminal.

One of those on the arriving bus was Jim Zwerg, a 21-year-old white college from Beloit College in Wisconsin who became an exchange student at Fisk University an was also active in the Nashville sit-in movement. Zwerg was one of those selected for the “new troops” initiative for replacement Riders begun by Diane Nash and others. He was one of the group that left Birmingham earlier that day on May 20th. As Zwerg, stepped off the bus in Montgomery, someone shouted, “kill the nigger-loving son of a bitch!” With clubs and fists they attacked Zwerg brutally, beating him several times. He lost teeth in the beatings and was eventually hospitalized.

The mob also brutally attacked John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and William Barbee. Barbee was beaten unconscious and left on the sidewalk, suffering injuries that would later shorten his life. Three others escaped the violence by jumping over the retaining wall and running to the adjacent post office. Five black female Freedom Riders escaped in a cab driven by a black cab driver. Two white women were pulled from another cab and beaten by the mob.

May 20, 1961: Montgomery, AL mob member, later identified as a Klan leader, attacking news photographer.

Also on the scene that day in Montgomery to observe was Justice Department emissary John Seigenthaler, who was beaten as well. Seigenthaler, who saw the unfolding melee at the bus terminal from a distance, tried at one point from his car to help one of the female Freedom Riders being pursued in the street. But Seigenthaler was pulled from his car, beaten with a tire iron, his head fractured and left unconscious in the street.

In the aftermath, ambulances, manned by white attendants, refused to take the wounded to the hospital. Local blacks finally rescued the wounded, with some of the Freedom Riders eventually hospitalized.

Freedom Rider Jim Swerg in his hospital bed after beating with a copy of the “Montgomery Advertiser” newspaper, with his bloody photo on its front page.

The Montgomery melee was front-page news the next day all across the country. The Montgomery Advertiser, for its part, ran a large photo of a beaten and bloody Jim Swerg on its front page (see photo at right).

In Washington, D.C., the melee was front-page news as well. Along with the bloody Zwerg photo, The Washington Post headlines that day also announced the actions of the federal government in response to the violence: “Kennedy Orders Marshals to Alabama After New Freedom-Rider Mobbing.”

Attorney General Robert Kennedy had been on the phone with Justice Department lawyer John Doar who was relaying a nearly blow-by-blow account to Kennedy of the mob violence as the fists and clubs began flying that day.

May 21, 1961: Washington Post runs “marshals-to-Alabama” front-page story on violence in Montgomery, along with photo of bloodied Freedom Rider, Jim Swerg

May 21, 1961: A contingent of Federal marshals gather to watch over civil rights activists and Freedom Riders coming to rally at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. AP photo.

Part of the 1,500 supporters who came out to learn about the Freedom Rides and hear from civil rights leaders – on what became a long night. Joseph Scherschel /Time Life

May 21, 1961: U.S. Marshals stand guard in front of Baptist Church as an automobile burns in the distance after being overturned by the mob. Photo, AP/Horace Cort

May 21-22,1961: Rev. Ralph Abernathy & Rev. Martin Luther King during stand-off with white mob outside Abernathy’s Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. King had been on the phone with Attorney General Robert Kennedy seeking help. Photo, Paul Schutzer/ Time Life.

May 21-22, 1961: Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on the phone at his Justice Dept office during the night of the church attack in Birmingham, Alabama. Bob Schutz/AP.

A detachment of National Guardsmen at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama after martial law was declared. AP photo/Horace Cort.

May 22, 1961: National Guard troops in front of the First Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL. AP/Horace Cort.

In response to the violence, civil rights leaders called for a gathering of supporters in Montgomery for Sunday evening, May 21, 1961. They convened at Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church and organized a program of hymns and speakers. About 1,500 community members attended along with civil rights leaders, including, Martin Luther King, Jim Farmer, Joseph Lowery, and Rev. Shuttlesworth.

The purpose of the gathering was to show support for the Freedom Rivers – of which more than a dozen attended. Diane Nash was also listed on the program, possibly to introduce the Freedom Riders. The First Baptist Church was located just a few blocks from the state capitol. Federal marshals, now on the scene in Montgomery, stood watch from a park near the church as evening services began on May 21st.

As those inside the church that night listened to testimonials about courage and commitment and sang hymns and freedom songs, a white mob began gathering outside. By nightfall the mob had grown larger, and had begun yelling racial epithets and hurling rocks at the church windows.

Inside, Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd that Gov. Patterson was responsible for allowing the violence to happen. King also called for legislation to end desegregation and stop the violence. “We hear the familiar cry that morals cannot be legislated. This may be true, but behavior can be regulated,” King said. “The law may not be able make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.”

During the evening, the mob grew, overturned a U.S. marshal’s car, and set a couple of small fires. The mob threatened to overwhelm the federal marshals who feared the church would be set on fire. According to one account of that evening by a U.S. Marshals historian, “a fiery projectile nearly burned the roof of the church.” At one point during the evening, some 75 marshals charged the angry mob and were pelted with rocks. The marshals were later bolstered by local and state police. Still, the mob persisted.

From inside the church that night, at around 3 a.m., King called Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department for help. Kennedy then called Governor Patterson and also had his Deputy Attorney General, Byron White, later a Supreme Court Justice, meet with Patterson and his staff.

Back at the mob scene, meanwhile, it became obvious that the civilian federal marshals were overmatched by the mob’s larger numbers. It was at that point that Patterson, under federal pressure, declared martial law and authorized a National Guard battalion to disperse the crowd. The Alabama National Guard took control of the scene and the U.S. marshals were placed under Guard command.

One wire story of the church attack by United Press International that appeared in newspapers on Monday, May 22nd, reported: “Tear gas and fire hoses were needed to beat off the angry mob of about 200 whites who converged on the church [other accounts had that number much larger]. It took 100 U.S. Marshals and more than that number of city police and a National Guard contingent to hold back the rock-hurling, club-swinging mob.”

But it was early morning before the surrounding streets were secure enough for the Freedom Riders and their supporters to leave the church. Before dawn on May 22, 1961, the Guard moved the congregation out, using military trucks to transport some of the church attendees back to their communities,

Back in Washington, there had been early a.m. meetings at the Justice Department on the crisis, and Robert Kennedy, up all night, called President Kennedy at 7 a.m. to update him on what had happened.

On May 23, 1961, martial law was in place in Montgomery, Alabama, and national guard soldiers were present in front of the First Baptist Church and elsewhere in the city, including the Montgomery bus terminal.

Still, Patterson called the Freedom Riders “agitators” and said, “they were to blame for the race rioting because of their insistence on testing bus station racial barriers.”

The church attack and martial law were front-page news across the country. In Rome, Georgia, the News-Tribune story covering the church attack included reaction from state and local politicians, including some who blamed the Kennedys for encouraging “these people to come into the South to change traditions and the way of life.”

That story also quoted the Alabama Ku Klux Klan “grand wizard,” Robert Shelton, who said the klans of the nation would amalgamate in an effort to prevent further integration attempts in the South. He also added: “It is regrettable that the President of the United States would used the power of his office to condone the unlawful activities of these integrationist groups by attempting to enjoin the Alabama klans from aiding in the preservation of our laws and customs.” Shelton said that while the klan did not condone violence, it would “take all measures necessary” to preserve Alabama customs.

Back in Montgomery, on May 23, 1961, civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy and James Farmer, and student leader John Lewis, held a news conference announcing that the Freedom Rides would continue.

The National Guard remained a presence in Montgomery following the mob activity at the First Baptist Church. Soldiers also lined the streets near the Montgomery bus terminals.

May 22, 1961: Alabama National Guardsman are also stationed at Montgomery bus station. AP photo.

May 23, 1961: Civil rights leaders John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy and James Farmer announcing that Freedom Rides would continue.

May 24, 1961: National Guard troops line sidewalk at at bus station in Montgomery, AL as Freedom Riders plan to resume bus trips. Photo, AP / Horace Cort.

May 1961: Photo from inside bus departing from Mont-gomery for Jackson with police & Nat’l Guard escort.

May 24, 1961: Wm.Sloan Coffin (glasses) and Yale group of Riders arriving in Montgomery, AL. Perry Aycock/AP

May 24, 1961: Alabama National Guard protecting Freedom Ride bus at stop near Mississippi handover, at state border.

Jackson, Mississippi police line city streets near the bus station as Freedom Riders arrive there in May 1961.

More Riders

On the morning of May 24, 1961, the Freedom Riders in Montgomery resumed their travels with two buses departing at different times for Jackson, Mississippi. The two buses carried 27 Freedom Riders between them and also some 20 members of the press. The buses were escorted by 16 highway patrol cars, each carrying three National Guardsmen and two highway patrolmen. A few national guardsmen were also on the buses. The ride from Montgomery to Jackson, a distance of about 140 miles, would take about six hours.

More Freedom Riders were also converging on Montgomery to fill more buses for additional trips into Mississippi. On the same day as the first buses departed for Jackson, for example, two white college students, David Fankhauser and David Myers, students at Central State College in Ohio, arrived in Montgomery. They were among those responding to the earlier call of Diane Nash seeking new recruits. On their arrival, these prospective riders and others would stay at local homes for a few days awaiting additional Freedom Riders sufficient to fill more buses.

Another bus arriving in Montgomery that afternoon from Atlanta brought a group of Riders from Connecticut, including four white college professors and three black students. Leading this group was white clergyman Rev. William S. Coffin, Chaplin at Yale University. Coffin, 35, and a WWII veteran, was also a member of President Kennedy’s Peace Corps Advisory Council. A day or so earlier on the Yale University campus, at a pre-Freedom Ride ally, Coffin had criticized southern ministers for not supporting the Rides. And in a Life magazine article a week or so later, Coffin also stated: “Many people in the South have criticized the Freedom Riders as ‘outsiders’ who want to stir up trouble. But if you’re an American and a Christian you can’t be an outsider on racial discrimination, whether practiced in the North or the South…”

Rev. Coffin also explained that by joining the Freedom Rides with his group “we hoped to dramatize the fact that this is not just a student movement. We felt that our being university educators might help encourage the sea of silent moderates in the South to raise their voices…”

Arriving at the Montgomery bus terminal on May 24th with Coffin that day were Dr. David E. Swift, Dr. John D. Maguire, and a contingent of Yale divinity students. The terminal was then patrolled by the National Guard. Still, a throng of angry whites had gathered there, but Sloan and others were able to make it to cars that carried them to meet with civil rights leaders at a local home. The next day, Coffin and his group were slated to board a bus for Jackson. However, while at the bus terminal that morning before departure, Coffin and others joined Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and others at a terminal lunch counter, testing a “whites only” restriction. Most of this group, including Coffin, were arrested in the Montgomery terminal for “breach of peace and unlawful assembly,” and did not make the trip to Jackson. They were later released after posting $1,000 bond.

“Fill The Jails”

As Freedom Riders and civil rights leaders gathered at Ralph Abernathy’s home in Montgomery, including Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, and student leaders, a new strategy was devised for the Freedom Rides heading into Mississippi. They decided that as more and more riders came to participate – then converging on Jackson, Mississippi where all incoming riders would likely be arrested – they would seek to “fill the jails” in Mississippi as part of the protest.

Back in Washington, meanwhile, the Kennedy Administration, was suffering some bad press overseas as new reports of the Freedom Ride violence spread around the globe. As one attempted counter to those reports, Robert F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, delivered a radio broadcast over Voice of America, defending America’s record on race relations, and adding, “there is no reason that in the near or the foreseeable future, a Negro could [not] become President of the United States.”

Back in Alabama, the two buses that had left Montgomery on May 24 were traveling on the road to Jackson with their convoy of police cars, National Guardsmen, and overhead helicopter. They were only making limited stops en route, during which National Guardsmen would array themselves around the bus in a protective manner. As they approached the Mississippi border, there would be a changing of the guard as the Mississippi Guard would take over from the Alabama Guard, and that transfer went smoothly. However, there had been one report of a phoned-in dynamite threat in Mississippi, so the Guardsmen at the state-line border exchange were especially attentive to their surroundings.

In Washington, Robert Kennedy had been negotiating with Mississippi officials over the safety of the Freedom Riders who were heading to Jackson. He struck a deal with Mississippi’s Democratic Senator, James O. Eastland, allowing the Riders to be jailed in exchange for their safety. Kennedy would not interfere in Mississippi’s affairs by sending in federal marshals as long as Eastland would guarantee there would be no mob violence. Kennedy explained that the Federal Government’s “primary interest was that they [Freedom Riders] weren’t beaten up.”

There were no incidents en route to Jackson, with the exception of some hecklers and a thrown bottle or two. The first two buses of Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson safely on May 24th, with no rabid white mobs awaiting them. As the Riders exited the buses and tested the whites-only or colored waiting areas, they were immediately ushered by police into a waiting paddy wagon which drove them to jail. The riders were typically charged with “breach of peace,” rather than breaking segregation laws. Freedom Riders responded with a “jail, no bail” strategy —part of the effort to fill the jails. Back in Montgomery, more Riders were preparing for the trip to Jackson. On May 28th, and in the days thereafter, additional buses with more Freedom Riders made the trip to Jackson.

Among those departing from Montgomery on May 28th for Jackson was Pauline Knight, a 20-year-old Tennessee State student, who would be arrested in Jackson and would later lead a brief hunger strike among female Rider-inmates. Describing the motivation that led Knight to participate in the Freedom Rides, she said: “It was like a wave or a wind, and you didn’t know where it was coming from but you knew you were supposed to be there. Nobody asked me, nobody told me.”

June 1961: A police paddy wagon in Jackson, Mississippi with arrested Freedom Riders aboard. Photo from “Breach of Peace” book, Eric Etheridge.

In fact, like Pauline Knight, the same kind of motivation was true for many who came to the Freedom Rides that summer – they just came, in the hundreds, unselfishly, out of personal conviction, finding it was the right thing to do. It was a spontaneous movement of individuals, each coming from separate locations, but each making a similar decision to become personally involved. It was a simple but powerful statement of democratic action – one that augured well for America’s future, and a proud moment for all of its citizens.

Back in Washington, meanwhile, on May 29th, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy formally petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to adopt “stringent regulations” prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel. The proposed order would not be issued for several months, but the process was set in motion. Kennedy was also trying to dissuade the Freedom Riders from continuing their protest, asking for “cooling off” period that went nowhere. In fact, if anything, the movement only grew larger in the months ahead as individuals all around the country responded.

Ray Cooper
Freedom Rider

Mug shot of Ray Cooper, 19, arrested in Jackson, MS.

…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…

I had read about Gandhi in high school. “I had read about Gandhi in high school. He stood against the British Empire. People listened to him and won. I admired that. . . .” 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”…

[Ray Cooper later boarded his Greyhound Bus in New Orleans, headed for Jackson, Mississippi].

…We arrived in Jackson in [July]. 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. . . . 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 . . . All summer long the buses kept arriving with more Freedom Riders…

Headline from ‘The Morning Herald’ newspaper of Hagerstown, MD, May 25, 1961 announcing jailing of Freedom Riders in Mississippi with photo of Riders being loaded into paddy wagon.

Mississippi’s governor, meanwhile, Ross Barnett, had the Freedom Riders in his sights, and set out “to teach ‘em a lesson” and “break the back” of their movement. By doing “real time in a real prison” like Parchman, Barnett believed his Mississippi jailers would give the Riders an education they would remember, helping to end the Freedom Rides. But Barnett’s jailers would underestimate the resolve and ingenuity of their charges. Among other measures to maintain their spirits while jailed, the Riders sang freedom and folk songs – among them, “Buses Are A’Comin, Oh Yeah,” which surely made their jailers boil. When the Riders refused to stop singing, prison officials took away their mattresses and toothbrushes. But the Riders kept singing, and also devised other strategies to survive their jail time. Most would endure a sentence of about 45 days.

PBS “Freedom Riders” map showing routes traveled as of July 1961, when some 367 Riders had participated.

Freedom Riders would also test train and plane routes and their related facilities — waiting areas, restrooms, and restaurants — at train stations and airports. Riders also went to Arkansas, Florida and Texas some came from New York and Los Angeles. In fact, they came from all regions of the U.S., and some from Canada as well. (see PBS Freedom Riders website for full list of rides, riders, and routes traveled).

Media Coverage

Newsweek’s June 5, 1961 featured three of the contending major players in the Freedom Rider controversy that continued throughout the summer.

By early June, the Freedom Riders story was front-page national news almost everywhere. Magazines such as Time and Newsweek had cover stories devoted to the latest developments. Life magazine in early June also chose the Freedom Riders and the unrest in Montgomery as its “story of the week.”

Time magazine featured the Freedom Riders as its cover story, using a cover photo of 39 year-old Governor John Patterson and focusing on the governor’s segregationist career, the incidents that had occurred in his state, and the fight between he and Robert Kennedy over enforcing the law.

Newsweek also had a photo of Patterson on its cover that week, along with those of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – featuring the three contending players in that week’s news with quotes from each displayed with their photos. “We stand for human Liberty,” ran beside RFK’s photo. “We must be prepared to suffer…even die,” was attributed to Rev. King. And in the third frame, Gov. Patterson was quoted saying: “The Federal government encourages these agitators.”

Life magazine ran several pages of photos and narrative for its story of the week – “The Ride for Rights: Negroes Go by Bus Though the South Asking for Trouble and Getting It. Among Life’s photos in that issue was a sequence from the siege of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery.

More news reporters and photographers were drawn to the story by this time as well. A number of the media had already witnessed the early mob violence visited on the Freedom Riders in Montgomery. More reporters joined on the bus rides in late May 1961 during the National Guard escort from Alabama to Mississippi and others came to Jackson, Mississippi as the “breach of peace” arrests were made throughout that summer. As a result, Freedom Rider stories continued to appear in the news media through the summer and fall of 1961. The media coverage of the Rides kept the issue on the nation’s front burner. Yet it was the rising up of individuals all across the country that kept the Rides going – much to the dismay of the Kennedy Administration which tried to dissuade the Riders from continuing.

By November 1, 1961, the ICC rule that Robert Kennedy had initiated began to be enforced. With the new rule, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains and related facilities. All the “white” and “colored” signs came down at all terminals. There would be no more segregated drinking fountains, toilets, or waiting rooms. Lunch counters would serve all customers, regardless of race. However, there were still pockets of resistance in some locations. Black riders encountered stiff resistance in December 1961 when they attempted to desegregate a white waiting room in Albany, Georgia. Other locations also offered resistance. But eventually, the rule took hold everywhere, and segregated interstate travel and accommodation ended.

The Freedom Rides and Freedom Riders of 1961 provided an important boost to the civil rights movement. The Rides brought new momentum, new energy, and a broadening constituency to the movement. The grass roots nature of its participants also empowered the cause in a new way, directly influencing, and helping inspire, other activities that followed – from the March on Washington in August 1963 and the Freedom Summer movement in Mississippi in 1964, to landmark federal legislation culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the voting Rights Act of 1965.

May 1961: Scene from Montgomery, Alabama after National Guard arrived to protect Freedom Riders from local mobs. / Bruce Davidson

And for the nation as a whole – the nation watching the horrors on television and reading the news accounts of what was happening, and seeing more and more people step forward willing to risk bodily harm and/or imprisonment – the Freedom Riders helped change minds and stiffen the national backbone for confronting Jim Crow. As the PBS Freedom Riders website has put it: “The courage and stoicism of the Freedom Riders, in the face of the most vicious hatred and racism and physical beatings, left a deep impression on the nation and the world.”

The Freedom Rides also became established in popular literature and American history practically from the beginning. In 1962, James Peck, a veteran CORE member and Freedom Rider who was badly beaten in Anniston and Birmingham, published his account of the Rides in a book first published by Simon and Schuster, titled Freedom Ride. Later editions of Peck’s book included a forward by African American author James Baldwin. Other books on the Freedom Rides followed in the 1980s and 1990s, some of which are listed in “Sources” below, as well as more comprehensive books on the overall civil rights movement, which typically incorporate special sections on the Freedom Rides.

In recent years, the Freedom Rides have received more in-depth treatment in volumes such as the January 2006 book by Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and The Struggle for Racial Justice, published by Oxford University Press. This volume, at 704 pages, is regarded by many as the definitive treatment of the 1961 Freedom Rides and their impact. One review of the book appearing in the New York Times Book Review by Eric Foner notes, for example:

“Drawing on personal papers, F.B.I. files, and interviews with more than 200 participants in the rides, Arsenault brings vividly to life a defining moment in modern American history…. Rescues from obscurity the men and women who, at great personal risk, rode public buses into the South in order to challenge segregation in interstate travel…. Relates the story of the first Freedom Ride and the more than 60 that followed in dramatic, often moving detail.”

Aresnault’s book became a primary source for a the PBS/American Experience documentary, Freedom Riders – an excellent two-hour show that first aired in mid-May 2011 and has since won numerous awards. 2011 was also the 50th anniversary year of the Freedom Rides, during which a number of other books, short films, museum specials, and other commemorations were produced – including a special May 2011 edition of The Oprah Winfrey Show. A number of these are also referenced in “Sources” below, many with links. However, one volume that came out in 2008 deserves special mention for the imagery and personal stories it brought forth, providing a whole new perspective on the Freedom Rides.

Eric Etheridge discovered the archive of Freedom Rider mug shots in 2003.

In 2003, Eric Etheridge, a native of Carthage, Mississippi, had lived and worked in New York City. He had done some work for Rolling Stone and Harper’s, but was then looking for a new photography project.

During a visit to Jackson, Mississippi in 2003 to see his parents, he was reminded that a lawsuit had forced the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission – an agency created in 1956 to resist desegregation – to open its archives. The agency files, put online in 2002, included more than 320 police mug shots of Freedom Riders arrested for “breach of peace” in Jackson, Mississippi. The photos cover those incarcerated from late May to mid-September 1961.

The trove of photos, Eteridge concluded, was a pot of gold, and important history that should have wider circulation. “The police camera caught something special,” Etheridge would later say. The segregationist Sovereignty Commission had unintentionally created and preserved an important visual record of the Freedom Rides and civil rights history.

Eric Etheridge’s 2008 book, using Freedom Rider mug shots for “then- and-now” profiles of 80 Riders. Click for book.

The result of Eteridge’s sleuthing was the book, Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, published in May 2008. It features 80 of the Freedom Riders, each shown in their 1961 mug shots alongside a more current photo that Etheridge took, plus interviews he did with the activists reflecting on their Freedom Ride experiences. More than two dozen of the riders Etheridge interviewed went on to become teachers or professors. There are also eight ministers as well as lawyers, Peace Corps workers, journalists and politicians.

Of the 320 or so Freedom Riders arrested in Mississippi, nearly 75 percent were between 18 and 30 years old. About half were black a quarter, women. And as many who have examined these photos have concluded, the mug-shot expressions displayed by the riders in that famous summer of 1961 not only offer a look at the collective face of democracy in action, but also a measure of each Rider’s composure and determination at the time – and in some cases, their defiance, pride, vulnerability and/or fear as well. Yet above all, at least in the collective, there is an overwhelming optimism that seems to come through – and for the observer, faith in one’s “fellow man.”

A small cross-section of the 328 Freedom Riders who were arrested in Mississippi during the summer of 1961 – most of whom were processed in Jackson, MS and likely served time in Parchman State Prison for their “crime.”

The Mississippi Freedom Rider mug shots helped bring a new dimension to the Freedom Rider story, and many are now circulating on the web with personal histories attached, including “where-are-they-now” details. This visual record also helped enliven the 2011 PBS documentary mentioned earlier, and in some cases the photos have also been used on more recent book covers, magazine specials, websites, and DVDs exploring Freedom Rider history. They have also been used in special exhibits and in displays at some museums. A dozen or so are also offered below in “Sources,” only as a sampling, with very brief sketches.

For additional civil rights history at this website please visit “Civil Rights Stories,” a topics page, which includes thumbnail sketches and links to 14 additional story choices. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 24 June 2014
Last Update: 18 July 2020
Comments to: [email protected]

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Buses Are A’Comin’- Freedom Riders: 1961,”, June 24, 2014.

Sources, Links & Additional Information

Catherine Burks Brooks helped integrate restaurants in Nashville, TN before becoming a Freedom Rider. She was among the first group from Nashville who came to Birmingham to keep the Rides going in May of 1961, and also among those Birmingham Police Chief Bull Conner dropped off in rural Alabama in the middle of the night and told not to return. But she and her group did return to Birmingham to continue the Rides.

Bill Svanoe heard Dr. King speak in his last year at Oberlin College and realized that “this was not the country I thought it was." He signed up with CORE and during his July 16th, 1961 bus ride was threatened with a gun by another traveler, but made it to Jackson where he was sent to Parchman prison. Later, his Rooftop Singers folk-rock group scored a No. 1 hit with 1963's “Walk Right In.” Play writing & teaching followed.

Hank Thomas was a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C. when he joined the first May 4, 1961 CORE Freedom Ride – the one that was firebombed in Anniston, AL. He was also beaten with a baseball bat there, but persisted in service with CORE as a field secretary in the South during 1962. In 1965-66 he served a tour of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. Today he & his wife own restaurants & hotels in Georgia.

Margaret Leonard, a 19 year-old student at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, LA in June 1961, was the first white Southerner to participate in the Freedom Rides, joining 8 others on June 21 on a bus ride from Montgomery, Al to Jackson, MS where she was arrested. Her mother, a progressive columnist for the Atlanta Journal, was fired after Margaret’s arrest. Margaret, now retired, had a long career as a reporter in Florida.

Clarence Melvin Wright, one of ten children, was born in Mason, TN and was a 19 year-old student at Tennessee State University when he rode a Greyhound bus from Nashville, via Memphis, to Jackson, MS. Clarence was one of 14 Tennessee State students expelled from school for joining the Rides. He also became active in voter registration drives and urban community work, settling in Detroit as a Conrail worker and security contractor.

Winonah Myers was a white student at the historically black Central State University in Ohio when she joined the Rides after the first group was attacked. She would later explain one key tactic of the Rides, in counter to those who thought mass arrests would stop the Rides: "Our feeling at the time was, 'We're going to keep coming and we're going to flood your jails, cram your dockets, and break you financially,' "

Jean Thompson was born and grew up in Louisiana, and along with her sisters, became active in New Orleans CORE. She was arrested in Jackson on a June 1961 Freedom Ride. After bailing out of jail, she returned to New Orleans to train other Riders. She also did civil rights work elsewhere in the South in the `60s and also with CORE in NY City. By the late ླྀs, she became involved in anti-war and feminist causes in California.

James Farmer was co-founder and National Director of CORE, chief architect of the original 1961 Freedom Ride. Farmer joined the Montgomery-to-Jackson ride on May 24th, 1961, was arrested in Jackson and sent to Parchman prison. Farmer, who devoted his career to civil rights and social justice causes, served as an Assist. Secretary in Richard Nixon’s Dept. of HEW, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 by Bill Clinton. Click for his book, “Lay Bare the Heart”.

Jorgia Siegel was attending UC Berkeley when she heard a speaker describe the Freedom Ride violence in the South. She joined a training group in New Orleans to help “fill-the-jails.” On June 20th, 1961, she and 13 others took a train to Jackson where they were arrested and sent to Parchman. Growing up in a Jewish family, she remembered a cross burning in her neighborhood and a sign that read: “No Jews or Colored After Dark.”

Rev. Grant Harland Muse, Jr. was a 35 year-old priest at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, CA when he joined the Freedom Rides. Rev. Muse was a graduate of the University of New Mexico and had studied theology at Mirfield, England, and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. On June 20th, 1961, he and 12 others rode the Illinois Central Railroad from New Orleans to Jackson where they were arrested.

Helen Singleton and her husband, Bob Singleton were among the few people to join the Freedom Rides as a married couple. Inspired by the courage and commitment of earlier Freedom Riders, they helped recruit students from UCLA and Santa Monica College and other activists in Southern California to join the “fill-the-jails” strategy in Mississippi. They were both arrested after a July 30, 1961 train ride from New Orleans to Jackson.

Ellen Lee Ziskind was volunteering at the CORE offices in NY City the summer before her last year at Columbia University. She heard first-hand accounts from Freedom Riders who’d been beaten and jailed. “I think they kind of took my breath away,” she would later recall. “. [I]t was kind of like a story from another country. And I was so. struck by, swept away by their working to have a democracy.” She later volunteered, rode a bus to Jackson and served six weeks in Parchman.

Stokely Carmichael was a 19-year-old student at Howard Univ. when he arrived in Jackson on June 4, 1961 by train from New Orleans with 8 other Riders. He would go on to become one of the leading voices of the Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party. He moved to West Africa in 1969, changed his name to honor African leaders, and was a proponent of the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party. He died in Guinea at the age of 57.

Eugene Levine, a 34 year-old English instructor at Oklahoma State Univ. and WWII vet, became a one-man Freedom Ride. Later explaining to Eric Etheridge that he hated joining groups, Levine drove to Jackson on his own. “The police saw I was alone. and older than the usual Freedom Rider.” They tried to send him back home without an arrest, but he persisted in joining the protest and was finally arrested on June 21, 1961 and put in jail.

John Lewis, at age 19, was on the first CORE Freedom Ride and had already been arrested in Nashville sit-ins. He later rode to Birmingham, was beaten in Montgomery, and also rode to Jackson, serving time at Parchman. He was chairman of SNCC, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and played a key role in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis has served his Georgia district for 27 years.

A 19-year-old Duke University student, Joan Trumpauer arrived in Jackson, MS by train from New Orleans, LA as part of a June 4, 1961 Freedom Ride. Arrested that day, she was later transferred to Parchman Prison, where among other things, she was subject to a forced vaginal examination. In 1964, she became a Freedom Summer organizer, later worked at various jobs in Washington, DC, and taught English as a second language.

Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner (left-center) and Rabbi Martin Freedman of New York – who rode a bus on the June 1961 Washington-to-Tallahassee, FL Freedom Ride – were also arrested in Tallahassee, shown above, for attempting to eat at a segregated airport restaurant.

John Lewis w/ Michael D’orso, “Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” Simon & Schuster, 2015 paperback, 560pp. Click for copy.

Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and The Struggle for Racial Justice, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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Elsie Carper, “Pilgrimage Off on Racial Test,” Washington Post, May 5, 1961, p. B-4.

United Press International ( Rock Hill, S.C., May 10), “Biracial Unit Tells of Beating in South,” New York Times, May 11, 1961.

“Newsfilm Clip of a Burned out Greyhound Bus and Injured Freedom Riders in the Hospital in Anniston, Alabama,” WSB-TV (Atlanta, GA), May 14, 1961, Civil Rights Digital Library.

Associated Press (Anniston, Ala., May 15), “Bi-Racial Buses Attacked, Riders Beaten in Alabama Alabama Whites Fire Bi-Racial Bus, New York Times, May 15, 1961, p. 1.

“Darkest Alabama,” Editorial, Washington Post, May 16, 1961.

United Press International (UPI), “Bi-Racial Group Cancels Bus Trip Alabama Rejects Appeal by Robert Kennedy for Guard Bus Drivers Balk at Bi-racial Trip State Inspector Aids Passengers in Bus Burning,” New York Times, May 16, 1961.

“Pickets March Here,” New York Times, May 18, 1961.

Jack Gould, “TV: ‘C.B.S. Reports’ Turns Camera on Birmingham Negroes and Whites State Their Views Program Sheds Light on Conflicting Forces,” New York Times, May 19, 1961, Business, p. 63.

Associated Press, “Judge Issues Writ Alabama Judge Bars Attempts At ‘Freedom Rides’ in the State,” New York Times, May 20, 1961, p. 1.

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“Negroes, Whites Try to Renew Freedom Ride,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1961, p. 3.

U.S. Sends 400 Officers to Alabama After Riot,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1961, p. F1-F2

Montgomery Baptist Church Program, “The Montgomery Improvement Association Salutes The Freedom Riders,” May 21, 1961, Montgomery, Alabama.

Anthony Lewis, “400 U.S. Marshals Sent to Alabama as Montgomery Bus Riots Hurt 20 President Bids State Keep Order Force Due Today Agents to Bear Arms — Injunction Sought Against the Klan,” New York Times, Sunday, May 21, 1961, p. 1.

“Kennedy Orders Marshals to Alabama After New Freedom-Rider Mobbing,” Washington Post, May 21, 1961, p. 1.

“Russians Scornful Refer to Alabama Violence as ‘Bestial’ U.S. Custom,” New York Times, May 22, 1961.

“Martial Law Declared in Alabama’s Capital National Guard Troops Put Down New Riot Wild Mob Trying to Overthrow U.S. Marshals Scattered Troops Quell New Riots in Alabama’s Capital,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1961, pp. 1-3.

Susan Herrmann, “Southland Coed Caught in Rioting Coed’s Story,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1961, p. 1

UPI, “Patterson Declares Martial Law As Alabama Negro Church is Attacked New Violence Explodes in Montgomery Sunday,” Rome News-Journal (Rome, Georgia), May 22, 1961, pp. 1-2.

Dave Turk, “An Emergency Call to Montgomery,” U.S. Marshals Service.

Alison Shay, “On This Day: First Baptist Church Under Siege,” This Day in Civil Rights History, May 21, 2012.

“27 on Freedom Busses Arrested in Mississippi,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1961, p. 1-3.

“Days of Violence in the South,” Newsweek, May 29, 1961, p. 22.

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“The South: Crisis in Civil Rights,” Time, Friday, June 2, 1961, pp. 14-15.

“The Ride for Rights: Negroes Go by Bus Though the South, Asking for Trouble and Getting It,” Life, June 2, 1961, pp. 46-53

William Sloan Coffin (as told to Life correspondent Ronald Baily) “Why Yale Chaplin Rode: Christians Can’t Be Outside,” Life, June 2, 1961, pp. 54-55.

“Freedom Riders Force a Test… State Laws or U.S. Law in Segregated South?,” Newsweek, June 5, 1961, pp. 18-20.

“A New Breed – The Militant Negro in the South,” Newsweek, June 5, 1961, p. 21.

“How the World Press Viewed the Days of Tension,” Newsweek, June 5, 1961, p.22.

“Is the South Headed for A Race War?,” U.S. News & World Report, June 5, 1961, p. 43.

“Ten Riders Hit City 8 Jailed,” State Times (Jackson, MS), July 30, 1961.

James Clayton, “ICC Forbids Bus Station Segregation,” Washington Post, September 23, 1961, p. A-1.

Val Adams, “Howard K. Smith and CBS End Tie,” New York Times, October 31, 1961.

James Kates, “Kicking Nixon: Howard K. Smith and the Commentator’s Imperative,” ARNet, March 6, 2014.

Sid Moody, Associated Press, “Freedom Rides Brought More than Violence,” February 8, 1962.

James Peck, Freedom Ride, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962.

David Halberstam, The Children, New York: Random House, March 1998, 783 pp.

John Lewis, Walking With the Wind, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Jon Wiener, “Southern Explosure,” The Nation, June 11, 2001.

David J. Mussatt, “Journey for Justice: A Religious Analysis of the Ethics of the 1961 Albany Freedom Ride,” Ph.D. Thesis, Temple University, 2001

David Niven, The Politics of Injustice: The Kennedys, The Freedom Rides, and The Electoral Consequences of a Moral Compromise, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

PBS-WGBH, “1961: The Freedom Rides,” Eyes on The Prize/American Experience, 2005 (page created, August 23, 2006).

Joan Mulholland, “Why We Became Freedom Riders,” Washington Post, May 17, 2007.

Dale Anderson, Freedom Rides: Campaign for Equality, Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2007.

Jennifer Balderama, Arts Beat, “Disturbing the Peace,” New York Times, July 3, 2008.

Bob Minzesheimer, Books, “Freedom Riders Again Ride in ‘Breach of Peace’ They Put Up a Segregation Fight in 1961,” USA Today, Tuesday, July 15, 2008, p. 3-D.

Mississippi Department of Archives & History, Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, Files, 1956–1973.

Thomas Forrest, “Freedom Riders / Free At Last: 47 Years Later It’s A Different Story,” Jackson Free Press (Jackson,MS), July 30, 2008.

Marian Smith Holmes, “The Freedom Riders, Then and Now,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2009.

“The Freedom Riders: New Documentary Recounts Historic 1961 Effort to Challenge Segregated Bus System in the Deep South,” Democracy Now, February 1, 2010.

Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford University Press, 1st abridged edition, March 2010 (and companion book to the 2011 PBS documentary).

“Memories of a Freedom Rider, by Ray Cooper,”

“Freedom Rides: Recollections by David Fankhauser,” U.C. Clermont College, Batavia, Ohio.

David Fankhauser, “I Was a Teenage Freedom Rider: Ride for Freedom Ride for Justice 50 Years Later,” Lecture & Slide Show, Presented to UC Blue Ash College, October 24, 2013.

Dr. Fankhauser is Professor of Biology and Chemistry, UC Clermont College, YouTube. com.

Michael T. Martin, “‘Buses Are a Comin’. Oh Yeah!’: Stanley Nelson on Freedom Riders,”
Black Camera, Volume 3, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 96-122.

Jess Bidgood, “From Lowell to Jackson, One Freedom Rider’s Story,”, April 27, 2011.

“50 Years Ago Today Freedom Rides Began,” Birmingham Public Library, Wednesday, May 4, 2011.

“Oprah Honors Freedom Riders,” Oprah .com, May 4, 2011.

Colleen O’Connor, “50 Years Ago, Freedom Riders Blazed a Trail for Civil Rights,” The Denver Post, May 6, 2011.

Freedom Riders Photo Gallery, Commercial, May 20, 2011.

“May 20, 1961: Riders in the Storm,”, Posted by RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, Uploaded, May 24, 2011,

“May 1961: Freedom Rides,” The 󈨀s at 50, May 24, 2011.

“Photos: The 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders,”, Posted May 31, 2011.

Amy Lifson, “Freedom Riders,” Humanities, May/June 2011, Vol. 32, No. 3.

Photo Gallery, “50 years After the Freedom Riders,”, 2011.

“Mug Shot: A Freedom Rider’s Arrest Photo,” Yale Alumni Magazine, Nov/Dec 2011.

EJ Dickson, “Memories of a Movement: Oberlin Alumni Reflect on Their Time in the Civil Rights Movement of the Early 1960s,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Summer 2012, Vol. 107, No. 3.

“The Road to Civil Rights: Freedom Riders,” Federal Highway Administration, Updated, October 17, 2013.

“Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders: Rare and Classic Photos,” Life.Time .com.

Freedom Rides of 1961, from “History & Timeline of the Southern Freedom Movement, 1951-1968,” Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Civil Rights in America: Connections to A Movement,” USA Today.

Civil Rights Series, “A Movement Emerges in Nashville,” The Tennessean.

Olga Hajishengallis, “Portraits of Civil Rights Pioneers,” USA Today, February 6, 2014.

“Singleton Freedom Riders,” Website of Helen & Bob Singleton (with video), 2014.

“Freedom Riders,” PBS Film, Online Viewing,

Rhonda Colvin, “‘We Were Soldiers’: The Flesh and Blood Behind the New Civil Rights Monument,”, January 15, 2017.

Civil Rights History

Thomas Rose, Black Leaders, Then and Now: A Personal History of Students Who Led the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s – And What Happened to Them (Julian Bond, Senator, Atlanta, Georgia Marion Barry, Mayor, Washington, DC Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Television Correspondent, MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour), Youth Project, Garrett Park, MD: Distributed by Garrett Park Press, 1984.

David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, New York: W. Morrow, 1986.

Bobby M. Wilson, Race and Place in Birm-ingham: The Civil Rights and Neighborhood Movements, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.

S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed are the Peace-makers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

John Blake, Children of the Movement: The Sons and Daughters of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, George Wallace, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, James Chaney, Elaine Brown, and Others Reveal How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Transformed Their Families, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2004.

Juan Williams, My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience, New York: AARP/Sterling, 2004.

Vanessa Murphree, The Selling of Civil Rights: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Use of Public Relations, New York: Routledge, 2006.

Linda Barrett Osborne, Women of the Civil Rights Movement, San Francisco: Pome-granate Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2006.

Renee C. Romano, ed., The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.


In 1967, the majority of legislative program supporting the United States government's "War on Poverty" was due to expire. In an attempt to generate national interest in renewing funding for the effort, the United States Senate Committee on Labor's Subcommittee on Poverty held a series of hearings related to hunger, starting March 15. One of first the testifying witnesses was Marian Wright, a 27-year-old Yale Law School graduate working with the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi. [1] She told the subcommittee that increased mechanization and requirements that cotton fields lie fallow under federal subsidy stipulations had put thousands of black sharecroppers out of work in the Mississippi Delta. [2] In addition to this, two-parent families were ineligible for many welfare benefits, and most counties in Mississippi had switched welfare programs from one that distributed surplus food to an alternative that required a monthly purchase of food stamps. [3] With little to no income, most households could not produce the necessary funds. As a result, Wright argued, Mississippians were "starving. They're starving, and those who can get the bus fare to go north are trying to go north. I wish that [the senators] would have a chance to go and just look at the empty cupboards in the Delta and the number of people who are going around and begging just to feed their children." [4]

Chairman Joseph S. Clark suggested that the subcommittee travel to Mississippi to verify Wright's testimony. Of the subcommittee's nine members, Senators Robert F. Kennedy, Jacob Javits, George Murphy agreed to the idea and accompanied him. Kennedy dispatched his aide, Peter Edelman, to get an advanced view on the situation. Edelman spoke extensively with Wright, whom he would marry 15 months later. [3]

The subcommittee members flew into Jackson on April 9. That evening the senators dined with prominent Mississippians, including Oscar Carr and Charles Evers. Carr later described Kennedy as "a very shy man" who "continuously asked questions." Evers said "We talked and talked and he listened." [3] Local civil rights activist Amzie Moore acted as Kennedy's host. [5]

Hearing in Jackson Edit

A field hearing was scheduled for April 10. Mississippi Senator John Stennis, a staunch segregationist, was scheduled to be interviewed. He disapproved of the federal efforts to improve the economic situation of black people and sought to discredit them by attacking the Head Start program's parent agency, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM). The Head Start project provided services to impoverished children and was funded with grants from the federal government, thereby preventing state authorities from interfering with its activities. [6] By potentially improving the socioeconomic status of black Mississippians, Head Start threatened the white political power base that dominated the state. Just days after money for the program had been appropriated, Stennis and state officials began scrutinizing it and requesting financial records. [7] In the days before Stennis' scheduled testimony Jackson's two newspapers, both supportive of segregation, ran several stories about the senator's planned critique. Upon the poverty subcommittee's arrival in the city, Clark announced that he considered questions concerning Head Start and funding irregularities to already be answered and that the hearing would not spend significant time discussing the issue. Stennis responded by leaking his draft testimony to the press. [7]

The subcommittee hearing took place in the Olympic Ballroom of Hotel Heidelberg in Jackson. It was originally supposed to take place in a room meant to accommodate 300 persons, but the subcommittee relocated after local media attention stirred enough interest to bring the crowd to about 1,000 people. In his opening remarks, Clark stated that the hearing intended to be "neither a witch hunt or a whitewash. We are here to find out the basic facts." [8] Stennis was called as the first witness. He admitted that there was poverty in his state, but posited that federal anti-poverty programs were overrunning expected costs and that he wished to support taxpayers. He then declared that the federal government had bypassed "responsible, honest, capable local leadership" and in favor of northerners and as a result its offices had become "a stake hold of beatniks and immorality". He requested that the governor be empowered to suspend "any project he determines not in the public interest" and finished by highlighting the fact that $500,000–$650,000 dollars worth of CDGM's funds were proclaimed by a government audit to be unaccounted for. [9]

Clark then allowed members of the subcommittee to question Stennis. Kennedy presented a private report conducted by a New York-based firm at the behest of the college that hosted CDGM. According to the new audit, the amount of wasted funds was deemed to be "relatively minor" and no evidence was found to substantiate the government's allegation. Stennis was flustered and declared that the Senate Committee on Appropriations—of which he was a member—should have been informed of the conflicting calculations. He concluded, "It's another illustration of the mysterious way in which this independent agency operates," thanked the committee for their time, and left the hotel. [10] Testimony was then given about conditions in the Delta from both public officials and local impoverished inhabitants. [1] A black doctor stated that the state suffered from a high infant mortality rate, and that the rate was twice as high for black babies. He added that the mortality rate of black babies from early childhood illnesses was five times greater than that for white infants. Head Start workers testified that older children they had examined displayed symptoms of anemia and other nutritional deficiencies. It was also stated that the decline in demand for agriculture labor increased unemployment, and that many of the adults were unskilled, did not have access to adequate transportation or training programs, or faced racial discrimination in their work. Robert Ezelle, former chairman of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, asserted that the greatest problem afflicting Mississippi was its dysfunctional education system. He stated that 200,000 adults (out of the total 2 million) had not received schooling beyond the fourth grade and that a further 40,000 had never had any education. [11]

Civil rights activist Unita Blackwell defended the Head Start program, saying it was the only anti-poverty initiative that addressed the locals' problems. When questioned by Kennedy about hunger, she stated that there was a problem with hunger in her county and that the shift from surplus food aid to the stamp program had worsened the situation. [12] Wright spoke once more, asserting, "After two civil rights bills and the third year of the poverty bill, the. Negro in Mississippi is poorer than he was, he has less housing, he is badly educated he is almost in despair." [1] Kennedy took his greatest interest in the locals' statements. Afterwards, he told Evers, "I want to see it." [3]

Kennedy's and Clark's tour Edit

The following day Kennedy and Clark drove into the Delta area, while the other senators flew back to Washington D.C. They were accompanied by Evers, Wright, Moore, Edelman, Carr, a dozen or so reporters from state and national newspapers and the Big Three television networks, and an assortment of U.S. Marshals, state highway patrolmen, and local police. [13] [14] [15] That morning the senators reviewed anti-poverty programs underway in Greenville and a nearby tent city that had been established by striking farm workers. After lunch, Kennedy's and Clark's motorcade traveled at speeds over 80 mph down U.S. Route 61 to visit locations specifically selected by Wright and Moore. [15]

Their first stop was a dilapidated shotgun house in Cleveland, in which 15 people resided. Holes were present in the flooring and roofing, and the only food in the refrigerator was a jar of peanut butter. One boy told Kennedy that all he had for breakfast and dinner was molasses, and that he didn't eat any lunch. Walking to the next house, Kennedy whispered to Edelman, "I've been to third-world countries and I've never seen anything like this." [16]

The following home belonged to a mother of seven. There were no tables or cutlery in the house, and the toilet operated without plumbing. Roaches and rats ran across the floor. Kennedy's attention was drawn to a 20-month-old boy who was playing with rice grains on the floor. The child was covered in sores and bloated from hunger. [17] Kennedy knelt down and stroked his cheek. He said, "My God, I didn't know this kind of thing existed. How can a country like this allow it? Maybe they just don't know." [14] Clark labeled what lay before them a "national disgrace." Kennedy caressed the child and talked to him, but elicited no response. The senator began to cry. [16] Kennedy stepped outside and quietly remarked, "We spend $75 billion a year on armaments and $3 billion a year on dogs. We have to do more for these children that didn't ask to be born into this." Local newspaper editor Cliff Langford, who strongly disliked Kennedy, shouted back that the two senators were being brainwashed. Clark retorted, "Don't worry. We've been brainwashed from the other side." [15] Langford added, "I don't know of anybody starving down here." Kennedy responded, "Step over here and I'll introduce you to some." [13] Clark reassured the reporters that he and Kennedy were not observing conditions in the Delta to "find fault," but rather "just to see if we can do anything about it." [15]

The senators' motorcade continued on towards Clarksdale, but Kennedy asked that they stop in the small town of Mound Bayou. With no advanced notice, Kennedy, his aides, and half a dozen reporters walked into the home of a 39-year-old man named Andrew Jackson, his wife, and their six kids. [5] [15] There was no electricity, running water, or toilet. There were two pictures in the house one of the Glorybound Singers (a Clarksdale-based Gospel group) and another of John F. Kennedy. [13] Jackson was incredulous that he was meeting the brother of the late president and asked, "Is you really Mr. Bobby Kennedy?" Kennedy smiled and shook his hand, replying, "Yes. And are you really Mr. Andrew Jackson?" [15]

A thousand people—mostly black school children—awaited the senators outside the Clarksdale Neighborhood Center. The two stayed in the city for only 20 minutes Clark climbed on top of a car to announce that their planned press conference was canceled, as their flight in Memphis was due to take off in two hours for the capital and he was "going to catch that plane." Meanwhile, Kennedy had mounted another vehicle and gave a short speech to the crowd. He said he was glad to have made the trip, and told them, "The problems of poverty are problems of all United States citizens." He was shortly thereafter engulfed by people wanting handshakes and autographs, though police soon cleared the way and the motorcade continued onto the highway. [15]

Government response Edit

Kennedy returned to Washington D.C. on the evening of April 10. He walked in on his family having dinner at Hickory Hill, highly agitated and, in the words of his daughter Kathleen, "ashen faced." He announced to his children, "In Mississippi a whole family lives in a shack the size of this room. The children are covered with sores and their tummies stick out because they have no food. Do you know how lucky you are? Do you know how lucky you are? Do something for your country." [17]

The following morning Kennedy and Edelman met with Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, and angrily criticized the food stamp program for charging families that had no income. [17] Though Freeman was keen on avoiding a political dispute with Kennedy, he feared that by concurring with the senator he would anger the Southern bloc in Congress that held great influence over his department's budget. [18] He deflected, "Bob, there isn't anyone in America who has no income." Kennedy replied, "I'll tell you what. I'll send Peter [Edelman] here back down there with some of your people. Will you agree that you'll change the regulations if your people are convinced there really are people in Mississippi who have no income?" Freeman agreed, and was eventually persuaded by incoming evidence to open up access to food stamps. [19] Returning to New York on April 12, Kennedy exclaimed to the wife of one of his aides, "You don't know what I saw! I have done nothing in my life! Everything I have done was a waste! Everything I have done was worthless!" [20] When asked about the Poverty Subcommittee's findings, Clark said that more resources needed to be allocated to the War on Poverty. He also said that the United States needed a "reawakening of a conscience." [15] The entire subcommittee sent a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson about their discoveries and the findings of the Department of Agriculture officials who had been dispatched to the Delta, writing about "conditions of malnutrition and widespread hunger. that can only be described as shocking" and imploring federal government to declare an emergency. Johnson never responded. [18] [21]

Several Johnson administration officials, in addition to Freeman, were skeptical of the reports of starvation in the Delta. Johnson had seen the news coverage of the event and on April 17 he ordered that his top domestic aide, Joseph Califano, give him a "quick report." Califano replied 20 minutes later, writing that Freeman was hesitant to make major changes to the administration's food stamp program until the original system was sanctioned by Congress. [22] When his aides unanimously approved of an extensive relief plan, Johnson, already uneasy about the food stamp program, rejected the proposal. Kennedy made a direct appeal to Johnson involving increased subsidization of food stamps and the supplement of emergency food rations for 40,000–60,000 of the most impoverished Mississippians. Johnson ignored it, a decision an editorial in The Nation claimed was due to the fact that he was "incapable of rising above personal politics." [22] Once news of the situation in the Delta went public, Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson Jr. dismissed the report as the product of "Socialist-minded senators." He also told journalist Bill Minor, "all the Negroes I've seen around here are so fat they shine." Following the publication in June of a particularly severe report compiled by the Field Foundation of New York, Governor Johnson quietly commissioned a statewide study about children's nutrition. Its findings concurred with those of the Field Foundation. [23]

On July 11 and July 12, Clark held another set of congressional hearings on hunger in the Delta to pressure Freeman, attracting widespread media coverage. [18] [24] The hearings were tense with Clark, Kennedy, Javits, and testifying medical observers frequently clashing with Mississippi Senators Stennis and James Eastland (also a staunch segregationist), and Mississippi Board of Health officer A. L. Gray. [25] Kennedy called child psychologist Robert Coles to testify on poverty's effect on children in the Mississippi Delta. [17] One North Carolina doctor described "an unwritten policy on the part of those who control the State to eliminate the Negro Mississippian either by driving him out of the State or starving him to death." When Stennis and Eastland accused the doctor of committing libel against the welfare workers of their state, he invited them and other state officials to go see conditions for themselves, to which none accepted. On the second day of proceedings Secretary Freeman and Senator Javits got into a shouting match, with the senator arguing that the secretary should disregard local authorities' opinions, declare an emergency, and immediately supply food to the region. He remarked, "We seem to be able to send airplanes to the Congo in a terrible hurry. We first heard of the desperation point of poor Mississippi Negroes 18 months ago[. ]and we are still hearing that there is starvation in Mississippi." [25] Kennedy openly expressed his frustration with Johnson administration officials' perceived inability to understand the extent of the Delta's problems and other bureaucratic complications, saying, "It seems to me we are floundering around a great deal." [26]

In the end, Kennedy managed to amend the renewal of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to include provisions for a national survey on nutrition. Stennis was so embarrassed by the hearings that he proposed a $10 million emergency fund be established for food and medical services. [19] Despite resistance from other Southern legislators and a lack of support from President Johnson, Stennis' bill passed. [26] The Senate also voted unanimously to create a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. [27] Kennedy subsequently embarked on more "poverty tours" to investigate and publicize impoverished conditions across the United States. He frequently invoked the Delta tour in legislative discussions and during his 1968 presidential campaign. [28]

Public reaction Edit

The media coverage from the event brought national attention to the food insecurity issues in the Delta. Most Americans were shocked by the conditions described in the area. Almost immediately, the Field Foundation of New York dispatched a team of doctors to Mississippi to examine children and verify the senators' findings. [27] They labeled the conditions they observed a "national disaster," documenting cases of Kwashiorkor, Rickets, and other signs of malnutrition and starvation. [19] One doctor likened state of affairs to the worst he had seen in eastern Kenya. [25] This countered initial public reactions of disbelief at the severity of the situation. The Citizens Crusade Against Poverty, an advocacy group already studying the problems in the Delta, quickly created a "Citizens' Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States." In April 1968, the board published a report of its findings, entitled Hunger U.S.A.. This was shortly followed by a critique of the National School Lunch Program by a coalition of women's organizations. [27]

In conversation with Wright and Edelemen, Kennedy remarked, "The only way there's going to be change is if it's more uncomfortable for Congress not to act than it is for them to act. You've got to get a whole lot of poor people who just come to Washington and stay here until[. ]Congress gets really embarrassed and they have to act." The following week Wright proposed the idea to Martin Luther King Jr., who subsequently organized the Poor People's March on Washington. [29] Around the same time CBS broadcast a major documentary, Hunger in America, which had been made on the suggestion of Kennedy to television executive Don Hewitt. [30]

The trip to the Mississippi Delta made hunger a public issue of interest in the United States. [27] [31] Following the revelations of food insecurity, a powerful anti-hunger movement emerged in the country and worked to reform food assistance programs while proposing new ones. Federal expenditures on food assistance grew by 500 percent over the next decade. [32] Marian Wright would later say that the episode "set in motion a chain of events that culminated in years later in the virtual elimination of hunger in America during the Nixon years." [19]

The Mississippi Delta tour was featured in the 1980s American civil rights documentary series, Eyes on the Prize. [28] In May 1997, Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone, inspired by the original trip, visited the Delta to bring attention to "race and gender and poverty and children in America." [33] From July 11 until July 12, 2017, Wright led local activists and politicians on a bus tour of the region to observe the 50th anniversary of the event. It was followed by a panel discussion on poverty, hunger, and healthcare in the Mississippi. [34]

Executive Order 11053—Providing Assistance for the Removal of Unlawful Obstructions of Justice in the State of Mississippi

WHEREAS on September 30, 1962, I issued Proclamation No. 3497 reading in part as follows:

"WHEREAS the Governor of the State of Mississippi and certain law enforcement officers and other officials of that State, and other persons, individually and in unlawful assemblies, combinations and conspiracies, have been and are willfully opposing and obstructing the enforcement of orders entered by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and

"WHEREAS such unlawful assemblies, combinations and conspiracies oppose and obstruct the execution of the laws of the United States, impede the course of justice under those laws and make it impracticable to enforce those laws in the State of Mississippi by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings and

"WHEREAS I have expressly called the attention of the Governor of Mississippi to the perilous situation that exists and to his duties in the premises, and have requested but have not received from him adequate assurances that the orders of the courts of the United States will be obeyed and that law and order will be maintained:

'"NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOHN F. KENNEDY, President of the United States, under and by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, including Chapter 15 of Title 10 of the United States Code, particularly sections 332, 333 and 334 thereof, do command all persons engaged in such obstructions of justice to cease and desist therefrom and to disperse and retire peaceably forthwith" and

WHEREAS the commands contained in that proclamation have not been obeyed and obstruction of enforcement of those court orders still exists and threatens to continue:

NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, including Chapter 15 of Title 10, particularly Sections 332, 333 and 334 thereof, and Section 301 of Title 3 of the United States Code, it is hereby ordered as follows:

SECTION 1. The Secretary of Defense is authorized and directed to take all appropriate steps to enforce all orders of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and to remove all obstructions of justice in the State of Mississippi.

SEC. 9. In furtherance of the enforcement of the aforementioned orders of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the Secretary of Defense is authorized to use such of the armed forces of the United States as he may deem necessary.

SEC. 3. I hereby authorize the Secretary of Defense to call into the active military service of the United States, as he may deem appropriate to carry out the purposes of this order, any or all of the units of the Army National Guard and of the Air National Guard of the State of Mississippi to serve in the active military service of the United States for an indefinite period and until relieved by appropriate orders. In carrying out the provisions of Section 1, the Secretary of Defense is authorized to use the units, and members thereof, ordered into the active military service of the United States pursuant to this section.

SEC. 4. The Secretary of Defense is authorized to delegate to the Secretary of the Army or the Secretary of the Air Force, or both, any of the authority conferred upon him by this order.