Interview with John Lewis


John Lewis:

In Anniston, Alabama, the Greyhound bus carried a group of the Freedom Riders was burned. The tires was deflated and the bus just couldn't, couldn't roll, and hoodlums, members of the Klan, came on the bus pulling people out, beating people, and all of the people had to leave the burning bus. And people were left lying on the highway from being beaten by members of the Klan. And in Birmingham when the Trailway group arrived, they were beaten and one gentleman needed something like fifty-three stitches to close up the wound on his head from the beating that occurred there. After the Birmingham incident Senator, well then Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, "There must be a cooling off period." And he tried to discourage any more so-called Freedom Rides into the South. Well, as one of the participants in the original effort and as someone who had been involved in the Nashville student movement I felt, and others felt, that the rides should continue. We got the necessary resources to continue the ride from Nashville. We went from Nashville to, to Birmingham, and outside of Birmingham two other riders that were sitting near the front of the bus, I think on, maybe the, the very first seat behind the bus driver, were arrested and taken to jail. The other riders, we were taken into the city and later into a waiting room, and later the Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, told us, at least informed us that we were being taken to jail. We were not being arrested, but we were being placed in protective custody, for our own safety, for our own well-being. We went to jail that Wednesday night, May 17th, 1961—we stayed in jail. Thursday night we went on a hunger strike, fast. We refused to eat anything, refused to drink any water. And early Friday morning, I would say about two o'clock Friday morning, Bull Connor, several members of the Birmingham police force, came to our cell, took us out of the jail and said in effect that they were taking us back to the college campuses in Nashville. And we got in the car. We didn't go in a, in a voluntary way. We went limp, so they literally picked us up and put us in the car, and we started back up the highway to, toward the Tennessee state line. It was about 120 miles from Birmingham and maybe about the same distance from, from Nashville, that they literally dropped us out on the highway near a railroad crossing and said a bus will be coming along, or a train will be coming along, and you can make your way back to the city of Nashville. We were frightened. We didn't know anyone in Alabama, or Tennessee, and we went across the railroad tracks with our baggage and came upon the house of an elderly black couple. They had to be at least 70s, in their early 70s. And they were afraid to let us in, but they did. And they, when daylight came the man went and bought food from several different places because he didn't want—indicate in any way that he had some unwanted guests in this small town. And the people had heard on the radio about the Freedom Riders from Nashville going to Birmingham. In the meantime, we made a telephone call to the headquarters of the Nashville student movement and spoke to Diane Nash, who was the leader of the effort there, and told her what had happened, and she said what do you want to do? Do you want to come back to Nashville or do you want to go back to Birmingham and continue the ride? And we told her that we wanted to continue the ride. She sent a car to pick us up and she informed us that ten other packages had been shipped by other means—she was suggesting or telling us through a code that ten other Freedom Riders had left by train to join us in Birmingham. See, the people in Nashville and around the country thought we were still in jail. And other people were going to come to Birmingham and go from Birmingham to continue the ride. We got in this car, when the car arrived, seven of us and the driver, got back to Birmingham, and met with Fred Shuttlesworth and some local people, and student—particularly one student—Ruby Doris Smith, who made it from Atlanta and Spellman College to join the ride. And we attempted to get on the bus about 5:30 PM and this bus driver said, "I cannot, I will not drive." And he said something like, I will never forget what this bus driver said, he said, "I have only one life to give." It was a classic statement. "I have only one life to give, and I'm not going to give it to the NAACP, not to CORE." This was a white bus driver in Birmingham, Alabama. Didn't have any black bus drivers at that time. In the meantime, we understood from some of the reporters, that Robert Kennedy was negotiating with the officials of Greyhound to get the bus, at least to get us out of Birmingham during that night. And Robert Kennedy kept asking Greyhound officials, "Did they have any then Negro bus drivers?" And they kept saying, "No." We tried at 8:30 throughout the night to get a bus, and we, we didn't get a bus. No bus driver would drive, because the bus drivers were literally afraid of what could happen, because the Klan had surrounded the, the bus station. They were throwing stink bombs. There were police officials there trying to keep the Klan from getting to us inside of this so-called white waiting room. They had the police dogs. But it was not until 8:30 Saturday morning, May 21st that we understood that an arrangement had been worked out where between the Justice Department and the officials of Greyhound and the officials of the state of Alabama, where we would board the bus with other customers or passengers, and there would be two officials of Greyhound. A private plane would fly over the bus. There would be a state patrol car every fifteen or twenty miles along the highway between Birmingham and Montgomery, about ninety miles. We got on the bus and a great many of the riders really, literally took a nap. They went to sleep I took a seat on the front, seat right behind the driver, with a young man by the name of Jim Spur, a young white guy. I was a spokesman for this particular group of riders, and we did see the plane. But I would say about forty miles or less, from the city of Montgomery, all sign of protection disappeared. There was no plane, no patrol car, and when we arrived at the bus station, it was just like eerie, just a strange feeling. It was so quiet, so peaceful, nothing **. And the moment, literally, the moment we started down the steps off of that bus, an angry mob, they grew into about two to three thousand people, came out of nowhere. Men, women, children with baseball bats, clubs, chains, and they literally—there was no police official around. They just started beating people. And we tried to get all of the women on the ride into a taxi cab. There was one cab there, and this driver said he couldn't, he couldn't take the group because it was an interracial group. We had black and white women in this particular group. And one of the Freedom Riders was a young black female student, said something like, "Well, I will drive myself. I will drive the cab." And the driver said, "No," but finally the driver did drive off with all of the black women and the white women start running down the street, and then the mob literally turned on the media, on members of the press. There was one cameraman, I believe from NBC, had one of these heavy old pieces of camera equipment on his shoulder. This member of the mob took this equipment, bashed this guy, literally knocked him down, bashed his face in. So they beat up all of the reporters. Then they turned on the, the black male members and, and white male members of, of the group. I was beaten. I think I was hit with a, a sort of crate thing that hold soda bottles, and left lying in the street, unconscious there in the streets of Montgomery. And I, I literally thought it was the last march. It was the last Freedom Ride. It was a, it was a very bloody event. It was a very nasty mob. There were other people that was beaten—an aide to President Kennedy who tried to intervene, or get between the—