Interview with John Seigenthaler

[That was a rollout on roll 320, it was only 100 feet. We're going to Camera Roll 2—uh, 326. We're going to Camera Roll 226… 326. I'm sorry, 326.]

John Seigenthaler:

Well, Gov. Patterson said uh, attitude was that Federal Government absolutely no business in that uh, matter, that it was a matter of states rights that the Federal establishment should stay outside of it, it was none of my business none of the President's business none of the Attorney General's business - at one point he pounded on the table, told me how much more popular he was than Jack Kennedy, said he was sorry he ever supported Kennedy for President. He had a stack of letters from people all over the country who were telling him how popular he was, and how he should be President of the United States. It was really, a shocking uh, demonstration. Floyd Mann, his Commissioner of Safety at one point uh, interjected that he was certain that as Chief Law Enforcement Officer of that state that he could provide protection to those citizens if the Governor told him to do it and at that point, uh, I found myself looking to Floyd Mann first of all with some skepticism. He was part of this monolithic uh silent cabinet until that moment, at the same time, he was the one voice of reason in that room and so I leaned to him and we engaged in this colloquy, quickly worked out an arrangement whereby the Attorney General uh, would be notified that the Governor of Alabama said I can protect all the citizens uh, all the travelers in the state of Alabama; those who are citizens of this state and those from outside. And uh, Mann was told that the state police would uh, protect those travelers from city limits to city limits and the city police would protect them inside the city. I called the Attorney General from Patterson's desk, which was a few feet away from the conference table - Patterson would not speak to him personally - so I was sitting on the telephone with the Attorney General in Washington talking to me, uh, talking to Patterson through me and Patterson talking to the Attorney General through me, uh, it was a strange position to be in. The Attorney General was saying in effect, uh "Can we trust them? Uh, can we believe them?" Uh, and my answer to that was uh that I felt we had to. Uh, that we needed to move these people on their way and that I thought that, uh, my feeling was, and of course, I was talking in front of John Patterson, I had to convey the idea that I thought that uh, Patterson somewhere in his heart of hearts really wanted to get this thing over. Get the problem moved on to another state. And so, through that device, we worked out an arrangement, worked out a statement, agreed on the language, I walked out, read that statement to the press, within two hours Governor Patterson had given his own version in which he referred again to outside agitators and troublemakers and rabble rousers and attacked the Federal Government, but said that protection would be provided. John Doar and I uh left uh, Birmingham immediately behind the bus. The Freedom Riders had insisted they weren't going to ride this bus unless it was a local, they wanted to stop at every station, they wanted to test the bathroom facilities, the dining facilities at every little out of the way bus stop. Well, the driver was scared out of his wits, he knew what had happened in Anniston the week before, and he drove an express bus. Doar and I went ahead of that bus, uh, made a couple of stops for gas, I guess, maybe for a cup of coffee. We arrived at the Federal Building which adjoins the bus station about 2 or 3 minutes after the bus arrived. As John got out of the car, you could hear the shouts from across the way, the screams. I looked across the way and baggage was being hurled into the air, above the bus station shed. Doar ran for the Federal Building and I drove up the street and quickly through an alleyway on the backside of the bus station and as I came down the far side, I saw, uh, this almost anthill of activity. Uh, the Freedom Riders on, uh emerging from the bus were attacked uh, were being mauled. Uh, it looked like 2, 300 people just all over them. Uh, there were screams, shouts, uh, as I drove along, I saw uh, two young women who were Freedom Riders being pummeled to one side, ah, there was a woman who was walking behind one of these young women ah, she had a purse on a strap and she was beating her over the head and a young skinny blonde, uh, teenager in a t-shirt was sort of dancing her backward in front of her punching her in the face, uh, instinctively, I just bumped up onto the sidewalk, blew the horn, jumped out of the car, came around, grabbed the one who was being hit, took her back to the car, uh, the other young woman got into the back seat of the car and I opened the door, pushed this young woman, whose name I think was Susan Wilbur, uh, and said "get in the car." And she said, "Mister, this is not your fight, I'm non violent, don't get hurt because of me." I almost got away with it. If she had gotten into the car, I think I could have gotten away, but that moment of hesitation gave the mob a chance to collect their wits and one grabbed me by the arm, wheeled me around and said, "What the hell are you doing?" And I said, "Get back, I'm a Federal man." Turned back to her and the lights went out - I was hit with a pipe over this ear** and literally don't remember anything that happened, uh, they kicked me up under the car, I woke up half hour later. Uh, I was wearing John Doar's shirt, I'd been on the road a long time and I had borrowed his shirt from him. I remember waking up looking my - the shirt was drenched with blood and my first thought was, poor John. I've, I've ruined his shirt. Uh, the officer who was beside me was a lieutenant. He had my notebook which had all sorts of phone numbers in it, like uh, Fred Shuttlesworth, the black leader, Bull Connor, uh, the White House, the Justice Department, uh, John Patterson and he told me, he said "Well, you've had some trouble buddy, is there anybody I can call for you?" And I said, I had enough wits about me to say, "Yes, if you would call uh, Mr. Kennedy." Kennedy would that be? And I said, "Either the President, or the Attorney General" and he said "Who the hell are you buddy?" And I said, "Well, I'm the Attorney General's Administrative Assistant." He said, "We've got to get you to a hospital", got me out and I passed out again. And uh, the next thing I knew I was in the hospital on the operating table and uh, the doctor was talking on the telephone to Byron White who was Deputy Attorney General and a few minutes later, uh I woke up again in the room and the Attorney General was calling.