Production Team: NA
Interview Date: October 26, 1979
Camera Roll: 1
Sound Roll: 1
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with James Peck, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 26, 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
[Ok, today is the 26th of October 1979, this is Blackside, we're gonna call this Sound Roll number 1 this is an interview with Mr. James Peck, and we're going to begin with a Picture Roll number 1, of course ok the first pass is going to be some wild sound. Voice over.]
You see uh, the forty-seven ride was based on the Supreme Court decision in the Irene Morgan case, which ruled that segregation is a burden on interstate travel. It dealt right with the buses. But the uh, 61, was based on the Supreme Court decision of that year, that rules that the terminals also had to desegregate.
JIM, I'M INTERESTED IN A NUMBER OF THINGS, BUT WHAT I WANT TO DO IS, I WANT TO TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT GETTING READY TO GO INTO BIRMINGHAM AND THEN I WANT…[unintelligible] NOT MANY PEOPLE KNOW THIS STORY.
YEAH. NOW WE CAN GO.
When we left uh, Atlanta for Birmingham on May 14th, 1961, I'll tell you later how come I know the date, we knew that we were in for a very rough reception upon arrival. Because we had telephoned to Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who was to be our host in Birmingham, and he told us that the Klansmen had been preparing this reception for a full week…
STOP RIGHT THERE. I'M IN THE WRONG PLACE[unintelligible]
THEY BEING WHO?
They being Marvin Ritz. I mean he, you could call him the General Manager. And he is a person of integrity and, and… uh, a very good fundraiser. There are very few good fundraisers in the movement. He's now uh, fundraising for the New School.
UH, LET ME GET GOING, AND UH, WE'LL PICK IT UP AT THE BUS… . [unintelligible].
Yes, but we did not anticipate that uh, the violence would start uh, two hours before we would get to Birmingham at Aneston. When our bus pulled into Aneston, uh, I was on the Trailways bus, the other people were on the Greyhound bus… we learned that the uh… Greyhound bus had been waylaid just outside of town and bombed. Uh… shortly after we learned that, as we were waiting in the station, a group of six Klansmen boarded our bus and bodily uh, threw uh the black riders into the back seat. Uh, Walter Bergman and I were sitting the back seat so we decided to go up front and intercept uh, with our bodies. Uh… we got uh, clobbered on the head. I didn't get it so bad. But Bergman got it so bad that uh… he later had a stroke and has been paralyzed ever since. Uh… as, he has been in a wheelchair ever since. And uh, so uh, Walter and I, are both suing the F.B.I. Bergman for a million dollars and me for a half a million dollars.
WERE YOU FUNCTIONING WITH NON-VIOLENCE AT THAT POINT WAS IT A CLEAR PHILOSOPHY…
We always function with non-violence. Uh, and in fact a person can't go on a project like that without training in non-violence and an agreement that he can adhere to non-violence.
DID EVERYBODY ON THE BUS REACT WITH NON-VIOLENCE WHEN THEY WERE ATTACKED?
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER BIRMINGHAM… THE RIOT DIDN'T CONTINUE BEYOND BIRMINGHAM, DID IT?
It didn't continue beyond Birmingham for the reason that the bus drivers refused to drive us onto Montgomery. We were supposed to go on to Montgomery, Jackson, and then New Orleans. Uh, but we had a big rally staged for New Orleans so after we found it clear that the bus drivers weren't going to change their minds, we flew to New Orleans. And that was quite a production too because the first two planes we were on got bomb threats after we boarded them.
JIM… IF YOU COULD LOOK AT ME IF YOU WILL. AND, IT'S ONLY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, BUT THE WORLD IN THE DEEP SOUTH THEN, WAS A DIFFERENT PLACE. SOUTH AFRICA IS PROBABLY THE ONLY EQUIVALENT. DO YOU REMEMBER DISCOVERING THINGS AS YOU WENT INTO THE DEEP SOUTH EVEN THOUGH YOU…
Well, you know, a couple of years ago a Chicago Tribune reporter told me, this nonviolence is alright, but what has it ever accomplished? I replied, I'm going to give you a big example. In five short years, from '60 to '65, it changed the face of the South. The South used to be a complete apartheid, like in South Africa. Now there is…uh, it's uh, like the North. Not that that's so perfect. But this is a tremendous change. There's no more uh, segregation. There's no more white and colored signs, there are no more two drinking fountains and four toilets.
WHEN YOU WERE GOING INTO ANESTON, AGAIN, OR COMING OUT, RIGHT BEFORE YOUR BUS WAS ATTACKED… WHERE WERE YOU SITTING AND WHEN THEY CAME…
well we were sitting the way we had a habit of sitting. The uh… Walter and I were on the back seat, uh… where the blacks are supposed to be segregated, and the other blacks were in the forward seats.
WHAT HAPPENED….THE…YOU CAN'T GET IT, YOU KNOW, PUT TEN PEOPLE ON A BUS AT A TIME, SO ONE OF TWO GUYS MUST HAVE COME UP, DID THEY WALK RIGHT UP TO YOU? DID THEY WALK RIGHT UP TO THE BLACK RIDERS?
Yeah. And and they seized them physically and threw them into the back seat. So… to, to carry on the story these Klansmen boarded the bus and told the driver to drive on. Now we thought that maybe they were going to have him go up some side road and have a little party. But apparently that didn't happen. He went on into Birmingham. When we arrived in… Birmingham, uh… we saw along the sidewalk uh… about… twenty men with pipes, uh… we saw no uh, cop in sight. And now I'll tell you what, how I remember the date. The next day, Bull Connor, the notorious police chief was asked why there were no police on hand. He said, he replied, it was Mother's Day and they were all visiting their mothers. Uh, well we got out of the bus and Charles Person, the black student from Atlanta and I, had been designated to try to enter the lunch counter. So we… of course we didn't there. This mob seized us and uh… well part of it seized me and the other seized uh… Person, and uh… I was unconscious, I'd say, within a minute. Uh… I woke up, I came to in an alley way. Nobody was there. A big pool of blood. I looked at that pool of blood, I said, I wonder whether I'm going to live or die. But I was too tired to care. I lay down again. Finally I uh, came too again, and uh, I looked and uh, a white G.I. who had come up and said, you look in a bad way. Do you need help? And I looked the other way and Bergman was coming so I said, no my friend is coming, he'll help me out. So, uh, Bergman took me in a cab to Shuttesworth's home, and when Shuttlesworth saw me, he said, man you need to go to a hospital. And so he called the ambulance and they took me to the hospital and uh… they took me to the hospital and put fifty-three stitches into my head.
WHERE DO YOU THINK THAT KIND OF STRENGTH CAME FROM. BECAUSE THEY HAD…
Well I'd say… I think one thing. I think these people when they signed up, were committed. And, or they wouldn't have signed up. They weren't going on some little pleasure trip. They knew it was dangerous… they didn't know it… they had no idea that it would be as dangerous as it turned out to be, they knew it would… they knew what the South is, the Deep South.
IT'S REMARKABLE THAT NOBODY WAS KILLED, RIGHT? WAS IT…?
Isn't it. I could have been killed. Just chance. I mean all that blood. Suppose, I lay in that alley way a few more hours, I'd be dead.
Swerge too. He was pretty near killed.
I KNOW. THERE'S SOME NEWS FROM… JIM DO YOU THINK YOU'VE GOTTEN FAIR CREDIT FOR THAT, FOR THE ROLE THAT YOU PLAYED THEN? UH, WHAT THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS DID?
Credit from whom?
Well, uh… I think, I think uh… I think we did. And I mean uh, in my book The Freedom Ride is in many of the libraries. And since then there's been a really scholarly book written, do you know the one by Augie Meyer?
LOOK… THE F.B.I. WAS CLEARLY AWARE OF WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU…
They'd reached this agreement, of course they were. And I didn't tell this in the story… uh, the day after this happened, the FBI wanted to talk with me. My attitude was what's the use? But the other riders wanted me to go, so I went. And dig this. I told them my story, like I'm telling it to you now, when I was finished, he didn't have any questions. Shows how interested he was, you know. He didn't have a single question. Wouldn't you think that he would have at least asked a question like, would you recognize any of the people who beat you? You know? Any question. Just for form, but no question I mean…
ARE YOU AWARE NOW THERE WAS A KLAN INFORMANT IN THE FBI?
Well it was Rowe.
ALSO IN THE BIRMINGHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT, TO WHOM…
Yes, I know. There was a cop in the Klan. Probably more than one.
LAST QUESTION ABOUT THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. WHAT, WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK THEY PLAYED DURING THAT…THREE DAY PERIOD?
Uh… well, I didn't uh, see that they played any, uh and furthermore, I think that it was pretty uh disgusting that Robert Kennedy tried to get us to call the rides off… I think that really best summarizes the attitude of the Justice Department. I mean he's, he's the attorney general.
He worked this organization for ten years.
I GUESS THE LAST QUESTION I WANT TO ASK IS… THERE WAS A PARTICULAR KIND OF UNITY… AT THAT POINT WHICH ALLOWED A LOT OF PEOPLE TO GET TOGETHER AND GO TOWARD A COMMON GOAL.
Yes. Well, also you gotta understand that this unity was made possible because the… uh, uh… CORE and SNCC were not political organizations. You didn't have the usual fights between the C.P. and the S.W.P. and the factionalism. They were… people were united on nonviolence and united on the goals.
WE SEEMED TO HAVE COME A LONG WAY FROM THAT NOW.
Oh now. Now, it's pathetic. There isn't a, there isn't a black organization that is really carrying on the struggle. The NAACP was so disgusting. They endorsed nuclear energy. Twice. Not only nuclear energy, but the entire energy program of the oil monopoly. Awful. And you see, I think the situation is, you see, is that like with the whites and the blacks all the action came from the middle class. So now the middle class has virtually won its part of the struggle and so the poor blacks are left holding the bag. With no leadership. With no organization.
IS THAT TRUE OF THE PEACE AND ANTI-NUCLEAR MOVEMENTS THAT THE MIDDLE CLASS IS MOVING OUT OF THEM NOW AND LEAVING THEM TO…
Oh no. I mean, because they, because we haven't won our goals yet. You see the black middle class has more or less won their goals. They can get… housing, uh, non-menial jobs, they can move into a white neighborhood, I mean…
BEFORE WE GO INTO THAT CONTEMPORARY ARGUMENT… THE MOVEMENT ITSELF. IF YOU GO BACK AND LOOK AT THE PERIOD FROM 54 TO 65. 1965. THAT'S THE PERIOD.
You mean the civil rights movement. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
WAS IT AS MAGNIFICENT AND HISTORICAL A MOMENT AS IT SEEMS TO BE WHEN YOU LOOK BACK AT IT?
To me it was, yes. To me it was. And uh, of course I in addition had the sense, that uh… though I never was a leader that I was one of the pioneers in this movement. That CORE would have gone under in the McCarthy era had it not been for uh Farmer's wife, myself and a guy called Jim Robinson. And uh, so I feel… like an affirmative answer to that question.
I'D LIKE TO DO A LITTLE BIT MORE SOUND, BUT WE CAN START CAMERA NOW …THE WORLD OUGHTA KNOW ABOUT THAT PERIOD? IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE JUST THE FREEDOM RIDES BECAUSE I'M…
Well I… I think that uh, they should know that little anecdote about the Jim Crow Bibles. And… uh generally now I follow up with the anecdote about… shittin' on the court house lawn. I mean to make sure they see that this kind of mentality still is around.
DO YOU HAVE KIDS OR YOUNG PEOPLE. LOOK AT YOU AND NOT, WITH DISBELIEF WHEN YOU TRY TO EXPLAIN WHAT WAS GOING ON?
Uh… well, you see, since there is no more Civil Rights Movement, all the kids are in the peace movement. So they don't talk about that much. I mean… they… they are all against bigotry and they never talk about it. (CAR NOISE) . Did you say you had talked with Marvin Rich.
I HAVE NOT TALKED TO MARVIN RICH.
I think it would be productive. I told you he's at the New School, every day.
IS… THERE WERE ALOT OF PEOPLE LIKE THAT WHO WERE… WHO WAS THE UH, ONE OF THE GUYS THAT JUST DIED, WORKED WITH KING?
I can't think right off who you mean…
A FUNDRAISER, STANLEY HAGENSON?
Oh, did he die? I didn't know he died.
I THINK HE DID BUT…
I would never know, I wasn't in contact with him. But I was uh, my latest trip to the South, you probably heard about it was because uh… Dick Gregory and sixty others were busted. Reedsville, Georgia. I was uh…
WHAT DID YOU DO AFTER '61? DID YOU STAY INVOLVED?
Oh yes. I was with CORE until '65, when they kicked me out because of skin color. You remember, they cleaned out all the whites. And since then, I've been full-time with this outfit. But I've continued to… join up with major demonstrations like the March on Boston, which I mentioned.
DO YOU THINK THE MOVEMENT ENDED IN '65 IN A CERTAIN WAY, JIM?
Yes. I'm afraid so. And then, you see… SNCC collapsed, uh CORE became a black fascist group, headed by a man who I call the "American Idi Amin"
ROY, ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT ROY?
That's what I'm talking about. You know, Amin did make him an honorary citizen. But you know what is the most ridiculous display now… Roy is uh… saying that he is about to get a big sum of money from the Arabs. And so right away, Farmer and McKissica are trying to put their claws on it. They didn't give a shit about CORE before. But now do you believe they're going into court. And the biggest joke of all is that uh… Roy is bullshit. He's not going to get any big money from the Arabs. He, he, he had said that he was going to get money from Amin. It never came. Well that guy he was in, on the national action committee. And he was so filled with hate. He hates whitey as much as any uh… Klansman hates the black.
JIM WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK THE LEFT PLAYED IN THE, EARLY PART OF THE MOVEMENT…COULD THE MOVEMENT HAVE OCCURED WITHOUT, WITHOUT THE LEFT?
Oh uh… I know… they didn't even participate in it. I mean the uh, CORE was founded by a group of pacifists, who were non-political. The C.P.L.S., W.P., none of those were in the picture.
[Now this is room tone, uh, for the interview with Mr. Peck. Room tone.]