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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Freedom Rides of 1961

Lewis offers an extensive description of his role in the Freedom Rides of 1961. It was in 1961 that Lewis graduated from seminary and was ordained; however, rather than becoming a minister, Lewis chose to work exclusively in the civil rights movement because he saw the movement "as an extension of the Church." Lewis traces the beginning of the Freedom Rides in Nashville to the first major confrontation in Birmingham, Alabama. Describing how the riders were arrested in Birmingham, Lewis continues the story of the journey, outlining the violent opposition the Riders faced along the way, especially in Montgomery, Alabama, and in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition, Lewis explains how support came from civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, as well as from the White House.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

After Nashville what did you do?
JOHN LEWIS:
After Nashville?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Did you graduate?
JOHN LEWIS:
I did in '61. But during '61 . . . .
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Were you ordained?
JOHN LEWIS:
I was ordained, licensed and ordained. I never pastored a church or anything like that. I guess youmay calle me a backslider, not really. I saw the Civil Rights movement as an extension of the Church in a sense, I guess as a real attempt to make organized religion relevant. The black church has a strong influence on the black community by using the church. The people in S.N.C.C. that went to organize people in some of the small towns and rural areas many times worked through local church groups, community organizations and the minister. When I left the Seminary in '61, I went on the Freedom Rides and this was my first time going into the state of Mississippi, late May, June of '61. It was a terrible experience to come through Birmingham and Montgomery. I'll never forget, a group of us seven blacks and three whites from the university, colleges and universities in Nashville. After the C.O.R.E. sponsored Freedom Rides, a group of us left on May 17th, 1961, and took a Greyhound bus, a regular bus, to Birmingham. Before we arrived in the city of Birmingham the bus was stopped outside the city and a member of the Birmingham Police Department got on the bus and said where are the Freedom Riders. No one said anything. This member of the Police Department literally took over the bus by asking for the tickets and he looked at the tickets and saw that we all had tickets from Nashville, making a stop in Birmingham, Montgomery, Jackson then on to New Orleans. He just literally identified us as being the Freedom Riders and he was really correct. When we arrived at the Birmingham bus station they took us off, placed us in protective custody and and other members of the Birmingham Police Department and took us to the Birmingham City Jail. It was on a Wednesday. We stayed there Wednesday. We went on a hunger strike. We refused to eat anything, Thursday and Friday morning about three o'clock in the morning Conner and other members of the Birmingham Police Department and a reporter from the Birmingham News came up to the cell and said, we are taking you back to the college campuses in Nashville. But they took us to the Alabama-Tennessee state line, a little town called Alabama or Tennessee and left us there. Then we made a call back to Nashville and spoke to Diane Nash in the general office and told her what had happened. They would send cars to pick us up, but in the meantime we tried to find a house or someone in the black community. We did find a place where a black family lived and stayed there until the car came to pick us up. We went back to Birmingham and stayed at the bus station from Friday night, all night, and tried to get a bus to go from Birmingham to Montgomery. In the meantime, Attorney General Kennedy was negotiating with the Grehound authorities, trying to get the bus moving. All of the drivers from the Grehound Bus Company were refusing to drive the bus. We went out several times Friday night, at 8:30, 12:00 and 8:30 Saturday morning. We finally got a bus through from Birmingham and to Montgomery. And over the bus there was a small plane and every fifteen miles we would see State Troopers from the state of Alabama. It was only about a hundred miles between Birmingham to Montgomery. And when we arrived about five or tem miles out, all signs of protection, plane, the State Troopers. I have gone this way many, many times before riding the bus between Troy to Montgomery, Montgomery to Birmingham, Birmingham to Nashville to school for four years. When you got near the station you had this eerie feeling. It must have been about ten or ten-thirty on a Saturday and you didn't see anything and all at once when the bus pulled up and we started out of the bus an angry mob of about a thousand people came toward the bus. And they first started reporters and then they started attacking us. Several of us were beaten and just left lying in the wtreet. And there was one guy, that must have been the chief officer for the Alabama State Troopers. This guy, I can't think of his name but Newsweek or Time did a big story on him, and he literally saved the day. He kept people from literally being killed. He fired a gun to disperse the mob. We went from there to different homes in the city of Montgomery. Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy happened to be out of the city, they were speaking some place, and they heard about what had happened and they came back to Montgomery and planned for a big mass meeting in Montgomery on that Sunday. Must have been May 22nd, but several hundred people from throughout the city came and several national Civil Rights types came into the city. We got into the church. The circuit judge, a judge named Walter B. Jones, had issued an order against inter-racial groups traveling in the state of Alabama and they had an order issued for us saying that we had violated the injuction and cited us for contempt of court. At the same time, state officials literally looking for us to serve the injunction. So all of the Freedom Riders went into the choir stand and we were like members of the choir. I had a patch on my head from the injury I received. Several people were left and didn't make it to the church. That night before the mass meeting started at eight o'clock was literally just filled. An angry mob came to the church. This was the First Baptist Church pastored by Rev. Abernathy and in the meantime, Dr. King got on the telephone and called Bobby Kennedy and told him of the atmosphere and the climate. The mob was coming closer to the church and then, I think, President Kennedy federalized the National Guards in Alabama-the only way we got away from the church that night. Hundreds of people, not just Freedom Riders, were literally taken to their homes in different parts of the community by the National Guards in jeeps. Some of the people wanted to call the riot off. We had a series of meetings Monday, Tuesday and finally on Tuesday we decided to continue the riot. On Wednesday . . . .
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Why did they decide to continue the riot?
JOHN LEWIS:
Well, we felt that it was important that the riot be continued and we decided that it was important to travel through Alabam, through Selma, Highway 80, on into Mississippi. The Freedom Ride served not only the purpose of desegregating or dramatizing the fact that segregation still existed in the area of public transportation, but also to arouse the black community in the South. It was like taking the gospel of the Civil Rights movement into different parts of the South and it was important that it go into a state like Mississippi. Could have been very little activity there, in terms of mass action in some around Jackson State and during the sit-in. At that time in Mississippi you had a situation we really didn't have in mind but the Freedom Ride played a role in it. You had four hundred and fifty thousand black folks of voting age and only about twenty-two thousand registered to vote. As a result of the Freedom Rides efforts into Mississippi in '61, later S.N.C.C. people and C.O.R.E. people went into the Delta area, particularly in the south-west and the McColm area and tried to organize people around the right to vote.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
So then you went on?
JOHN LEWIS:
We arrived in Jackson at the Trailway Bus Station there and we were arrested for refusing to move on and disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. When the city jail got too full, they transferred us to the jail and from jail we were transferred to . I will never forget the experience going from County jail in Jackson to Parchman, the State Penitentiary. The jailers came to the cell and they did all of this late at night . They had a large van truck and they took all of the male prisoners, black and white, into this van truck. We had been segregated in the city jail, the Hines County jail. Putting us together in this large van truck was the first integration, I guess. After we got off the bus, they thought of putting black and white people together to transport them to the State 'Pen. We arrived there and one of the guards said sing your Freedom songs now, we have niggers here who will eat you up; sing your Freedom songs. The moment we all started stepping off the van truck, walking to the gate through the gate that leads to maximum security, that's where we were being placed. We had to walk right in and you had to take off all of your clothes. So all of us-seventy-five guys black and white because during that period you had students, professors, ministers coming in from all parts of the country to continue the Freedom Ride. And we stood there for at least two hours without and clothes and I just felt that it was an attempt to belittle and de-hu manize you. Then they would take us in two's, two blacks and two whites- the segregation started all over again after we got inside the jail-to take a shower. While we were taking a shower, there was a guard standing there with a gun pointed on you while you showered. If you had a beard or a mustache, any hair, you had to shave your beard off, you had to shave your mustache off. After taking the showers in two's, you were placed in a cell and given a Mississippi undershirt and a pair of shorts. During our stay in Mississippi Penitentiary we didn't have any visitors. We were able to write on person a letter. The second day Governor came by with some state officials. We all got out within a forty day period in order to appeal the charges.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
You were there for how long?
JOHN LEWIS:
I was there for thirty-seven days.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
And what was the charge?
JOHN LEWIS:
Di sorderly conduct. We were fined and sentenced. You had the choice you could pay your fine, and I think the fine was something like two hundred dollars and the number of days must have been something like sixty-six days, but if you got out within forty days you had a right to appeal the case. And most of the people got out within the forty days. I left Mississippi after I got out and came back to Jackson and took a train to Jackson back to Nashville.