Interview with James Farmer


James Farmer:

No, that ride from Montgomery to Jackson was like a military operation. The Kennedys had moved. Our theory had been right that once we made a crisis, or in other words allowed the racists to create the crisis by bloodying us, then the federal government would have to move. It would have to provide protection, and it did. Bobby Kennedy had persuaded Governor [John] Patterson of Alabama to declare martial law, and bring in the National Guard. Kennedy had also sent in US Marshals. Now, as we rode on the bus, there were Alabama National Guardsmen on the bus with us, about six of them with bayonets fixed on their rifles. There were helicopters chopping around overhead, there were police cars screaming up and down the highway with their sirens blaring, there were federal, state and county police—so this was a military operation.** And that did not ease our fear; if anything, it increased it. We didn't know which way the National Guardsmen would point their guns in the event of a showdown, a confrontation. We got to the border between Alabama and Mississippi and saw that famous sign, "Welcome to the Magnolia State," and our hearts jumped into our mouths.** The bus pulled off the road, stopped, the driver left the bus, another driver got on. The Alabama guardsmen left the bus, the Mississippi guardsmen replaced them. The Alabama director of public safety came onto the bus and whispered something to one of the reporters. By the way, reporters were there too, because this was the big story of the day and they wouldn't miss it, even though they were risking their lives. The director of public safety whispered a message to him, and he then passed that message to other reporters on the bus. All but one of the reporters left the bus then. I asked the remaining reporter what the message had been. He said the director of public safety of Alabama has told us that he has received word from usually reliable sources that this bus is going to be ambushed and destroyed inside the Mississippi border. Well, the bus moved on across the Mississippi line and shortly we passed through a heavily wooded area, like forests in both sides with great oak trees growing up out of the swamp, moss hanging from he branches, and we could practically see Harriet Tubman more than a century ago tramping through the swamps with runaway slaves as they ran from bloodhounds. You could hear the baying bloodhounds. But I shook my head; I came back to reality and there were Mississippi National Guardsmen flanking the highway at this point with their guns pointed towards the forest on both sides of the road.** And as the bus barreled along, an official of the National Guard shouted, through a bullhorn, "Look behind every tree." Apparently this is where they expected the ambush, but the ambush did not materialize and the bus proceeded on into the environs of Jackson, and then, Jackson. Now, as we got to the suburbs of Jackson, one of the Freedom Riders broke into song, and this was as it had to be. I can't sing; I wish I could. But his words went something like this: "I'm taking a ride on the Greyhound bus line / I'm a-riding the front seat to Jackson this time / Hallelujah, I'm a-travelin' / Hallelujah, ain't it fine? / Hallelujah, I'm a-travelin' down freedom's main line."** Then we pulled into Jackson itself and there was almost a deathly quiet. Nobody was on the streets. We pulled up to the bus terminal and there was a crowd of men, white men, standing there and we, of course, thought this was it. I said to myself, "Well, this is what we came for. We can't sit in here and hide. Let's go." So I began the procession down the steps of the bus to the ground. One SNCC girl from Nashville followed me once we stepped to the ground, she latched arms with me and we faced the crowd. The crowd did not attack. They just stood there looking at us. I couldn't read their faces. I said to her, "Lucretia, let's march. Let's walk." So we walked towards the crowd and instead of attacking, they parted and made a passageway for us. They knew where we were going, into the white waiting room and the passageway led right into that waiting room. Once we were in the waiting room, I learned that the crowd was not a mob, that it was plainclothes policemen; it was federal agents; FBI, state police, and county police and so on, and newspapermen, media persons. In the waiting room, there were very few people, no passengers, a few newsmen, with cameras, I said to my companion, "Are you thirsty?" "Now that you mention it," she said, "yes." "How about some white water?" And she and I walked over to the water fountain with a sign over it, "White Only," and both of us sipped white water. Then we headed toward the little dining room, or restaurant, I asked if she would join me for dinner. "It would be a pleasure." Blocking the door leading into the little restaurant was the police chief of Jackson, Captain [J.L] Ray. He said, "Where do you think you're going?" I said, "My friend and I are going in here for dinner." "Move on." "Where?" I asked. "Out" he said, I refused on grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case. And that decision had of course banned racial segregation in terminal facilities used by interstate passengers. He told me again, "Move on," I refused again. He asked if I understood his order. I told him I understood it perfectly. [He] said, "Well, I'll tell you one more time, move on." One more time I refused, same reason. He said, "Well, you're under arrest. Follow that police officer and get into that patrol wagon." I asked what the grounds were, what the charges were, he said, "Disobeying an officer, disturbing the peace, and inciting to riot." Lucretia and I turned and followed the officer, got into the patrol wagon, and the other Freedom Riders who were on the bus did the same. Being pointed in that direction by Captain Ray's darking forefinger, "You're under arrest."