Interview with James Farmer
QUESTION 38
INTERVIEWER:

[unintelligible] SO, GIVE ME A LITTLE IDEA OF WHAT IT WAS LIKE IN PARCHMAN IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE OF THE WORST JAILS IN MISSISSIPPI.

James Farmer:

Yes, well, in Parchman, the male Freedom Riders were in one cell block—horseshoe shaped cell block—very large one. This is [the] maximum security unit. And we sang--this was a way of keeping our spirits up--we sang the freedom song and they wanted us to stop singing. They wanted us to stop singing because they were afraid our spirit would become contagious and the other prisoners would become Freedom Riders as a result of our singing. So they threatened to remove our mattresses. Now the mattresses were the only convenience we had in those little cells. They were our link to civilization, so to speak. Everything else was cold and hard and there was a mattress which was no more than an inch and a half thick and straw, but it least it was something. And they said, "If you don't stop singing, we'll take away your mattresses." Well, that was a real threat, you know; you have nothing left to sleep on then. People were quiet for awhile, until finally Jim Bevel, who was a Bible student at the time and a Freedom Rider made a little speech pointing out what they're trying to do is take your soul away. It's not the mattress, it's your soul. Then everybody said, "Yes, yes we'll keep our soul." One Freedom Rider then yelled, "Guards, guards, guards," and the guards came dashing but to the cell block to see what was wrong, he said, "Come get my mattress. I'll keep my soul." And everybody started singing "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, turn me 'round, turn me 'round, gonna keep on a-walkin', gonna keep on a-talkin', keep on walkin' to the promised land." And they came in and took the mattresses away and people sang as they had never sung before. We thought that we were winning the battle. They were on the run. And many of the Freedom Riders then, had never been active in the movement before, but they had read about the Freedom Ride, seen it on television, and decided they had to do something so they'd come down there. They'll never be the same again.