AmeriKKKa

Thomas Sugrue

  • Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault
    Oxford, 690 pp, £19.99, March 2006, ISBN 0 19 513674 8

It is canonical in the American classroom, on television and in popular culture to celebrate the black civil rights movement as the triumph of American universalism, the vindication of the ‘American creed’ of egalitarianism, colour blindness and individual liberty against the forces of oppression that long held blacks in a subservient status. Americans remember the struggle for racial equality as a morality play, pitting nonviolence against racist violence, love against hatred. It is a Christian story of redemptive suffering and even martyrdom, as activists sacrificed their bodies to save the soul of America.

The classic narrative begins with the court battles and grassroots protests against Jim Crow. By the end of the 19th century, the Southern states had implemented a system of nearly complete racial separation in the public sphere. Blacks and whites attended segregated schools. On streetcars, buses and trains, ‘coloured’ travellers sat separately and were required to stand if a white person demanded a seat. Restrooms and drinking fountains were designated by race. Restaurants that catered to whites refused to serve African Americans, or relegated them to tables in the kitchen or out-of-doors. Those theatres that admitted non-white patrons confined them to the balconies (deprecatingly called ‘buzzards’ roosts’) or along the walls. In most parts of the South, blacks were denied the basic prerogatives of citizenship, including the franchise and jury service.

As the story is customarily told, the victory against Jim Crow began with the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools were constitutionally impermissible. The grassroots movement for civil rights became visible in 1955, when blacks in Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the city’s public transport system after Rosa Parks defied Jim Crow laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Leading the protests was Martin Luther King. In the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott, King established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, using black churches as the base for organising protests. During the 1955-65 period, what historians call the ‘classic phase’ of the civil rights movement, King led a nonviolent crusade for racial equality that culminated in the passage of federal civil rights legislation in 1964 and the enactment of voting rights laws in 1965.

King’s life – the focus of a vast body of scholarly and journalistic works – serves as a metaphor for the entire civil rights movement. His career as orator and ‘prophet of nonviolence’, ending with his assassination in 1968, embodied the themes of suffering, martyrdom and redemption that continue to shape the American telling of the black freedom struggle. The uplifting story – Martin Luther King died for our sins – effaces the radical, even revolutionary politics of civil rights activists (including King himself), the contradictions at the movement’s heart, and the troubling persistence of racial inequality in modern America.

Raymond Arsenault’s compelling history of one of the most important battles of the struggle focuses on eight months in 1961 – a moment when Jim Crow seemed to be as entrenched as ever. In the five years following Montgomery, the civil rights movement accomplished little in the South. The call for black equality spurred massive white resistance to court-ordered school desegregation. Southern elected officials openly defied demands for integration. Even in ostensibly enlightened Southern cities like Atlanta and Greensboro, North Carolina, public officials adopted a tokenistic approach to integration, maintaining the racial status quo while giving an impression of change.

In spring 1961, a small band of activists, influenced by a distinctively American variant of Gandhianism, inflected by perfectionist Protestantism, decided to challenge one of the most visible symbols of racial inequality: segregated interstate transport. Led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), they were committed to undermining segregation as the first step towards creating a ‘beloved community’ of blacks and whites. Under a 1946 Supreme Court decision, Morgan v. Virginia, the racial separation of passengers on interstate buses and trains was illegal. Like many high court rulings that contravened social norms, Morgan was honoured in the breach. Fifteen years after the judgment, black travellers in the South were still confined to Jim Crow coaches and the rear seats of buses. They were cordoned off in separate, inferior waiting rooms in bus terminals and train stations.

On 4 May, a group of 18 activists, black and white, men and women, all members of CORE, ventured south from Washington, heading to New Orleans. Their journey, dubbed the ‘Freedom Ride’, took them through the upper South, where their affront to Jim Crow was mostly greeted with harsh stares, to the Carolinas, where some were arrested, through Georgia, and into Alabama – the heart of the Deep South. On 14 May, just outside Anniston, Alabama, a group of white supremacists forced the bus off the road, set it on fire, and brutally beat the Freedom Riders. The photograph of the burning bus – on the front pages of newspapers worldwide – became an icon of Southern intransigence.

Regrouping, the Riders proceeded under police escort to Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham. As the bus arrived at the city’s main terminal, the police disappeared. Hundreds of whites ambushed the Riders, beating them with bats, fists and lead pipes. The mob violence had been encouraged by some of Alabama’s leading public officials, including the Birmingham public safety commissioner, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, who ordered the police to withdraw from the station minutes before the Riders arrived. A few days later, when the Riders, bandaged and nervous, moved on to Montgomery, Alabama’s capitol, they once again faced violence. At the Montgomery bus terminal, white vigilantes pummelled them, beat several reporters, and left John Seigenthaler, a high-ranking Kennedy administration official sent to monitor the protests, unconscious. The Alabama State Police stood inert just blocks from the depot while the mob rampaged.

The whites who defended Jim Crow in Alabama were not social outsiders. Their actions had the approval of law enforcement officials. Few faced arrest or prosecution for their role. All-white juries regularly acquitted those who used violence in defence of segregation. By contrast, the Freedom Riders were arrested, convicted and harshly punished, usually on grounds of incitement to riot or disturbing the peace. Throughout the spring and summer of 1961, hundreds of them – ranging from prominent white ministers from the North to black high-school students from Nashville, Tennessee – descended on North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas. But they directed most of their energies towards Mississippi, the Deep South bastion of white supremacy. Local police and judges denounced them as un-American agitators and sent most of them to the gulag of the South, the infamous Parchman State Penitentiary, where inmates were subject to torture and relentless harassment by sadistic guards. The protesters pledged to fill the jails as part of their strategy to disrupt segregationism, but the horrific conditions in Mississippi jails tested the resolve of both the Freedom Riders and their supporters. Many bailed out, but had to return to Mississippi for what were uniformly unfair trials. The cost of posting bail, transporting Riders to court, and paying fines and legal fees nearly drove CORE – never a well-financed organisation – into insolvency.

The spectacle of the brutality directed towards nonviolent protesters did not, however, have the effects that the protesters had intended. Arsenault argues that the Freedom Riders sought to melt the hardened hearts of America’s whites through their courageous, nonviolent tactics, but with the exception of ‘a few maverick politicians and left-leaning commentators’, the Riders gained little outside support. Southern editorialists denounced them as ‘crackpots’, ‘juvenile delinquents’, ‘mixers’ or miscegenationists, and ‘beatniks’. That some Riders were members of left-leaning political organisations led the press and leading Southern politicians to assert that they were ‘pawns in the hands of Communist powers that be’. It was a charge that carried real punch in the atmosphere of the Cold War.

The deprecation of the Riders’ motives and efficacy was not just a Southern conceit. New York-based Westbrook Pegler, the country’s leading conservative columnist, denounced them as ‘bands of insipid futilities of the type called bleeding hearts’ and ‘negative weaklings’. Even mainstream liberal opinion aligned against the Rides. The respected TV journalist David Brinkley commented on the NBC evening news that the Freedom Riders ‘are accomplishing nothing whatsoever and, on the contrary, doing positive harm’. Public opinion surveys showed that most whites – North and South – viewed them negatively. In a Gallup poll taken in June 1961, 64 per cent of white respondents nationwide disapproved, a sharp contrast to the 96 per cent of blacks surveyed by Jet magazine (a popular African-American periodical) who approved of them.

Enter the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He may have been hailed as a forward-looking liberal in the 1960s, but Kennedy’s reputation has since been shattered by a generation of historians who have chronicled his administration’s reluctance to confront the problem of civil rights. Arsenault shares their scepticism. After a breathtakingly close election, Kennedy was beholden to the Democratic Party’s Southern wing. The region was still dominated by one party, and he could not afford to alienate Southern voters. A gradualist with little interest in civil rights, Kennedy feared that the protests would taint America’s carefully manufactured international image in the midst of the Cold War. (His fears were not unfounded – in the struggle to win the allegiance of the Third World, the Soviets used images of beaten protesters and burning buses to bolster their claim that America was a sham democracy.) Administration officials tried to persuade the Freedom Riders to call off their journey and worked behind the scenes to pressure Southern officials to curb the violent counterprotests. Both efforts were in vain. Still, the negative publicity softened the Kennedy administration. Preoccupied with the crisis in Berlin – which happened simultaneously – Kennedy saw the protests as a harmful diversion. By late 1961, Cold War pressures led the administration to capitulate to the Freedom Riders’ demands. The White House supported federal regulations that would, for the first time, enforce laws forbidding segregation on interstate transport. Over the next few years, Jim Crow on buses and in terminals throughout the South gradually fell – largely as the result of the coercive power of the federal government.

Arsenault has written a gripping narrative that sometimes sacrifices hard analysis for good storytelling. Still, his detailed account greatly complicates the conventional history of the black freedom movement. For one thing, he begins his story in the 1940s, not in 1954 or in 1961, an astute starting point that allows him to explore the little-known phase during the Great Depression and World War Two when radical labour politics and civil rights activism converged. CORE, created in Chicago in 1943, drew from three currents: radical internationalism (that linked black equality with anti-Fascism and anti-imperialism), the Social Gospel tradition (that infused Christianity with an anti-capitalist, egalitarian zeal), and Socialist Party politics (that formed the left flank of Roosevelt’s New Deal). In 1947, CORE activists staged the first Freedom Ride – called the Journey of Reconciliation – to test the Supreme Court’s Morgan decision. Several ministers and members of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation went on the journey, as well as activists in the Workers’ Defense League, a socialist organisation that linked economic and civil rights. All were inspired by Gandhi. But the 1947 challenge to segregated transport was unsuccessful – in large part because it was ignored by the mainstream news media, covered only by African American weeklies and the radical press. The most important difference between the Journey of Reconciliation and the later Freedom Rides was the remarkable transformation of journalism in the intervening 14 years.

Arsenault spends relatively little time discussing this evolution, but it is crucial to his story. The 1950s witnessed the rise of television, a medium perfectly suited for performative protests like the Freedom Rides. The confrontations between protesters and their opponents contained all the ingredients of good television: clearly defined antagonists, dramatic conflict and a compelling moral storyline. It is impossible to underestimate the role that news outlets played in publicising the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, bringing what had been largely local protests to a global audience. Media accounts gave the impression that small cells of activists – like CORE’s Freedom Riders – were larger, better organised and more powerful than they were. The black freedom struggle in the 1940s was every bit as large (or small) as it was in the early 1960s. The difference was magnification through the camera lens.

Arsenault’s subjects have a heroic quality and, as such, the book can be read as part of the conventional uplifting, moralistic narrative of the struggle. The Freedom Riders would certainly have encouraged such a reading. His book powerfully portrays the emotions that propelled them: their sense that they could change the world, their fear when confronting raw violence and their courage in remaining nonviolent. The narrative is populated by villains, from Birmingham’s calculating ‘Bull’ Connor to Alabama’s incorrigible racist governor, John Patterson. But Arsenault is too good a historian to truck in the simple binaries of good versus evil – and particularly of non-violence versus violence.

No dualism has shaped the history of the American civil rights movement more than civil rights v. black power. In clichéd, but still pervasive accounts, the nonviolent movement was supplanted by a chiliastic, testosterone-charged black power movement, one that jettisoned peaceful Gandhian protest for faux revolutionary bravado. The civil rights movement, it is argued, called for America to be true to its ‘tradition’ of equality. In this view, CORE and King demanded nothing more than integration into a capacious democratic society. Black power, by contrast, was supposedly un-American in its embrace of Third World Marxism, its call for armed black self-defence, its celebration of a separate, distinctive black culture, and its call for ‘offing the pigs’ and overthrowing white supremacist ‘AmeriKKKa’. In this version of civil rights history, angry black militants alienated the very whites who they needed if they were to sustain the tenuous gains of racial equality. Black power has borne much of the blame for the parlous state of race relations in America since the 1960s.

Arsenault subtly puts to rest the conventional arguments about the relationship of civil rights and black power. American Gandhians were aghast to learn that at nearly every ostensibly nonviolent Southern rally in the 1950s, black ministers and local activists were packing guns, ready to shoot if their lives were threatened. When the long-time pacifists Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley arrived in Montgomery, they were shocked to find that Martin Luther King’s aides left their firearms lying around his living-room. Civil rights activists may have practised nonviolence on the picket line, but had no compunctions about arming themselves against white vigilantes.

Not surprisingly, a number of the Freedom Riders later became important advocates of black power. William Worthy and Conrad Lynn – two of the members of the original Journey of Reconciliation – created the all-black Freedom Now Party less than two years after the Rides ended. By 1965, CORE had jettisoned its integrationism for an emphasis on black-led community development. Its 1966 convention openly adopted revolutionary black nationalism. One Freedom Rider, Stokely Carmichael, argued intensely with his nonviolent comrades about the effectiveness of Gandhian protest. Five years later, Carmichael led the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) into an increasingly militant stance (critics scoffed that it had become the Non-Student Violent Co-ordinating Committee). In the summer of 1966, Carmichael became an international celebrity when he popularised the term ‘Black Power’.

The tangled connections between black power and civil rights emerge most clearly in the events surrounding the Freedom Ride to Monroe, North Carolina during the last two weeks of August 1961. The Monroe Riders included James Farmer, a socialist and pacifist who had been one of CORE’s founders, and James Forman, SNCC’s chair, who would just a few years later become a self-proclaimed black revolutionary and author of the ‘Black Manifesto’, a demand for massive reparation payments to black Americans. The Monroe Ride was hosted by Robert Franklin Williams. Nicknamed ‘Chairman Rob’ by his supporters, Williams was second only to the Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X as an outspoken advocate of ‘armed self-reliance’. The head of the Monroe branch of the NAACP in the 1950s, he assembled a well-armed militia to defend blacks from white supremacist violence. For Williams (as for many black activists in the early 1960s), nonviolence was just one tactic in a spectrum. His advocacy of self-defence led the NAACP to expel him in 1959. Williams became a hero to grassroots blacks – North and South – who were impatient with the gradual change of the civil rights era. ‘It is better to live just thirty seconds, walking upright in human dignity,’ he proclaimed in May 1961, ‘than to live a thousand years crawling at the feet of our oppressors.’

When the Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, they faced the usual white resistance. Several of them, including the young British anti-apartheid activist Constance Lever, were severely beaten. As they marched from Monroe’s downtown into its black neighbourhood, carloads of white supremacists shouted insults, hurled bricks and stones, and brandished shotguns. Black Monrovians fought back, stone for stone. The following day, hundreds of Ku Klux Klansmen descended on Monroe, attacking Freedom Riders, firing at blacks, and rioting in the streets. But this time – under Williams’s direction – Monroe’s blacks took up arms, fired at the white raiders and sealed off the black neighbourhood. When a white couple mistakenly drove into it, Williams’s supporters (realising that they were not a threat) whisked them into his house for their own protection. The event led to charges of kidnapping.

Under the cover of darkness, Williams evaded arrest and became the subject of a nationwide manhunt. He finally turned up in Cuba, where he wrote the incendiary tract ‘Negroes with Guns’, an instant classic among black radicals, and launched Radio Free Dixie, whose broadcasts, advocating black self-determination and revolution, could be heard throughout the South. From Cuba – and then China – Williams became the godfather of many black radical organisations, among them the Revolutionary Action Movement, an underground, all-black Maoist cell, and the Republic of New Africa, which advocated the creation of an all-black nation in the Deep South.

Arsenault has written the definitive history of the Freedom Rides. That is a valuable achievement. But the book’s most important contribution is its attention to the complexities of a movement that was never as peaceful as its most vocal proponents had wished. By situating the quintessential example of the nonviolent struggle in the broader context of 20th-century black radicalism – from the interracial socialists of the 1940s to the nascent black nationalism of the early 1960s – Arsenault reminds us that the civil rights struggle was both American and un-American, both integrationist and subversive. The America that the Freedom Riders challenged was not the land of equality and opportunity. Even those Americans who professed a belief in the ‘American creed’ of colourblindness and racial equality did not put it into practice. At the outset of the civil rights movement, Reinhold Niebuhr expressed his scepticism about moral suasion. ‘However large the number of individual white men who . . . will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so.’ The Freedom Riders did not ultimately change the hearts and minds of white Americans as they had hoped. But by embarrassing the Kennedy administration, they forced political change. That is the ultimate lesson the Freedom Rides hold for America’s still unfinished struggle for racial justice.