Interview with John Lewis


John Lewis:

Yeah, it, I think it was natural. It, it was part of—it was natural for me personally, because I had traveled almost, well, almost three-and-a-half years from Alabama, from southeast Alabama through Montgomery, through Birmingham, through to Nashville, to attend school, by bus. And I had seen the sign saying white only, colored only, waiting. In Troy we didn't have a bus station, but we had an area where colored people—where they had for colored people—were supposed to wait, where they had colored waiting. That people, black people had to stand in a line saying "Colored Waiting" to buy a ticket. And then come back around and get in at the front of the bus and go to the back of the bus. That was on the Greyhound bus. So the Freedom Ride was an attempt to end segregation, to end racial discrimination on the buses, throughout the South. It was CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, that had issued a call for the Freedom Ride, and I was one of the person, as a member of the Nashville student movement, to volunteer to become a participant on the Freedom Ride. And I remember very well this was my, well, early spring of 1961, but in the meantime, we were involved in another effort in Nashville to desegregate the lunch counters, not the lunch counter, but the theatres. See, all of the theatres in Nashville was segregated, still segregated in, in ‘61. We had thirteen stand-in, thirteen consecutive days of stand-in, where we literally stood in, kept other people, kept white people, from going into the theatres because black people had to buy their ticket in a separate window, go in a separate door, and go upstairs, and sit in something we refer to as "the buzzard roost." We couldn't sit on the main floor, so we had these stand-in, and after thirteen days of stand-in, these, the theatres in Nashville desegregated. But while that was all going on, while the stand-in was taking place there was this appeal to go on the Freedom Ride. And I believe the Freedom Rides started in the first week in May 1961 in Washington D.C.. As a matter of fact, on the night of May 3rd, 1961, this group of thirteen Freedom Riders—seven whites and six black—had a dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Washington D.C.. It was my first time having Chinese food you know, for someone growing up in the south and going to school in Nashville never had Chinese food. ** But we had attended a few days of workshops, had some discussion with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. We met at something called the Fellowship House in Washington. And this meal was like the, to me it was like the Last Supper because you didn't know what to expect going on the Freedom Ride. ** We had been told to expect same things in parts of Georgia, same things in parts of Alabama, in Mississippi, in Louisiana. And I remember getting on a bus coming to Washington, I guess by plane, and getting on, on the bus at the Greyhound bus station in Washington D.C. on May 4th, and I had a, for my seat mate, was a elderly white gentleman named Albert Bigelow. Albert Bigelow was from Cos Cob, Connecticut. He was a pacifist. He had been the skipper on a little ship called the Golden Rule out in the South Pacific protesting against the testing atomic bomb. He was a very committed guy to the philosophy and, and the discipline of nonviolence. So we got on this ride through the South, and we went into parts of Virginia, to Lynchburg, Petersburg, and other places and, without any problems, and through North Carolina. One of the riders attempted to get a shoe shine and a hair cut in a so-called white barber shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was arrested and went to court the next day, and the judge threw the case out. We went over to Rockhill, South Carolina, and Albert Bigelow and myself got off the bus and we started in a so-called white waiting room—the doors of the waiting room was marked, "White Waiting." And we started in the door, and we were met by a group of white young men that beat us and hit us, knocked us out, left us lying on the sidewalk there in front of the entrance to the, the waiting room. And in a matter of a few minutes, a group of Rockhill police officials came up and wanted to know whether we wanted, wanted to press charges and we said, "No." I left a ride the next day and I had to fly to Philadelphia for an interview with the American Friends Service Committee cause I had applied to go abroad as a, a volunteer in an international program in what then was Tanganyika, Tanzania now, and I had planned to rejoin the ride in Birmingham on Mothers Day. I don't remember the date but it was the second Sunday in May. But the riders never really made it to Birmingham because one of the bus [sic] that I would have been on, after it made it through Georgia, it arrived in Anniston, Alabama and on the outside of Anniston, Alabama this bus was burned. The tires were deflated, and the riders were beaten, and other riders that made it to Birmingham on a Trailway bus were beaten there in Birmingham. And so I went back to Nashville and CORE decided to drop the Freedom Ride, to end the ride in, in Birmingham. And it was Bobby Kennedy, as the Attorney General of the United States, who said that there should be a cooling off period and the rides shouldn't continue. Those of us in Nashville as, as a student from Nashville, who had been a participant in the early ride, felt that the ride should continue, that—