Interview with John Seigenthaler
QUESTION 1
INTERVIEWER:

OKAY UH, THE CONTEXT OF THE NEXT FEW QUESTIONS IS MAY '61 AND THE FREEDOM RIDES HAVE JUST BEGUN. UM, BEGINNING WITH TELLING US UH YOUR JOB IN THE KENNEDY ADMINISTRATION, JUST, WHAT YOU WERE, WHY WERE YOU SENT DOWN TO ALABAMA TO SPEAK TO GOV. PATTERSON

John Seigenthaler:

I was the –uh- Administrative Assistant to the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, and uh, that first wave of Freedom Riders went into –uh- Alabama and uh, they were thrown in jail. We'd better start over… That first wave of Freedom Riders went down through the South, came to Anniston, Alabama. The bus was bombed, they were brutalized, they were taken back to Birmingham given hospitalization and then had difficulty getting out of Birmingham. They were stymied in the airport surrounded by uh, an angry mob uh, there were bomb threats every time an airplane would take off. Uh, the um, the Attorney General heard from uh some of them by telephone uh, Symion Booker, the reporter who was with them called in, and you could tell from his voice that, uh, things were desperate. I think he had doubts that they would ever get out of there. And so, the Attorney General after talking to the President decided to send me down to try to negotiate uh, to get them from Birmingham by air onto New Orleans. And that's why I was sent down. Um, when I arrived in Birmingham, uh, I don't ever remember being, uh, felt more welcomed by a group of people that I was made to feel by those people, I mean it was, I mean, almost reaching out to touch me, uh, it was a simple matter to work out with the airlines –uh- a procedure whereby we got them on the airplanes, got em out, we simply cut off telephone calls for period of several minutes prior to the announcement of the flight, um, managed to get them on and get them out of there and get them to New Orleans um, where they were met by friends uh, who took them into their care and uh… And then, uh, I went to went to uh, sleep that night, woke up about. - 2 o'clock in the morning, the Attorney General was calling and said another wave is coming down, can you get back to Birmingham? And so I went back to Birmingham, and uh, by the time I got there the next day, um, the new group of Freedom Riders had been put in jail. Bull Connor had arrested them and thrown them into the slammer and then the efforts began to negotiate for their release. Uh, Gov. Patterson had been incommunicado from the outset, um the Attorney General couldn't get him, the President couldn't get him, and certainly I couldn't get him. Finally it was worked out for me to talk to the Governor. Um, and I did that.