A portion of the DVD cover for the 2011 PBS / American Experience film, “Freedom Riders,” by Stanley Nelson.
Extraordinary courage stepped up to bigotry in America during the summer of 1961. The acts of bravery came not from soldiers in battle or politicians taking a stand. No, in this case, the valor came from everyday Americans – civilians concerned about the state of their country. Eventually, there would be hundreds of them, acting over a five month period. They came from all over the U.S. They were black and white; liberal and conservative; Jew, Catholic, and Protestant. Many were college students; some from the seminary. They came to lend their presence and put their bodies on the line. Their actions were innocent and non-violent. All they set out to do was ride on a bus – or rather, insure that a person of any color could ride on a bus from one state to another. Before it was all over more than 60 “Freedom Rides,” as they were called, would criss-cross the South between May and November of 1961. At least 436 individuals would ride buses and trains to make their point. However, a number of these “freedom riders” were physically assaulted, chased, and/or threatened by white mobs, some beaten with pipes, chains and baseball bats. Many of the riders were also arrested and jailed, especially in Mississippi. Yet these arrests became part of the protest – and in this case, a badge of honor.
Mug shots of some of the more than 300 “freedom riders” who were arrested in Mississippi during the summer of 1961. More on this part of the story follows later.
For those arrested were not criminals. Far from it. They were among America’s finest heroes. Yes, America has a long line of heroes, and none more honorable than those who fought and died in military conflicts – from the Revolutionary War through WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Those heroes occupy a special and honored place. Yet few heroes stand taller on the domestic front than those who came from the civilian population during the 1961 civil rights “freedom rides.” What follows here is part of their story, offered with photos and sidebars, culled from a much more detailed record that is referenced in “Sources” at the bottom of this story. This piece also adds a few more recent events and parts of the story that have not generally appeared together in the same profile.
The freedom rides of 1961, mostly bus rides, had a legal as well as a moral objective. They were testing two U.S. Supreme Court rulings – Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960) – rulings that found that segregated public buses and related facilities on interstate transportation routes were unconstitutional and illegal. That meant trains, buses, planes, ferries, and related terminals and waiting rooms. The first case dates to July 1944, when Irene Morgan was arrested in Virginia after refusing to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus while traveling home from Baltimore, Maryland.
Freedom Ride button issued by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took up Morgan’s case, with the Supreme Court ruling in her favor in June 1946, striking down racial segregation on interstate buses. The 1960, Boynton v. Virginia ruling expanded on the Morgan case, outlawing segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters, and restroom facilities for interstate passengers. However, both rulings were largely ignored in the Deep South; the status quo prevailed and black patrons had to use separate facilities. As Diane Nash, a young student activist and one of the Freedom Rider organizers would explain in a later interview: “Traveling the segregated South, for black people, was humiliating. The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to black people and white people that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use public facilities that white people used…”
In 1961, segregated waiting rooms, fountains & restrooms were common in Southern bus & train terminals, despite Supreme Court rulings striking them down.
In early 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), headed by James Farmer, set about organizing interracial groups to ride interstate buses through the South to test the Supreme Court rulings.
Farmer and CORE were also testing the newly-elected Kennedy Administration in Washington – President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy – to see if they would enforce laws banning segregation.
The plan for the first ride was to send volunteers on two buses – one group on a Trailways bus and another on a Greyhound bus – both departing from Washington, D.C. bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. Along the route, there would be stops at bus terminals throughout the south, with the passengers selectively testing the “white only” or designated “negro waiting” areas.
May 4, 1961 First Departure
May 5, 1961: Washington Post story (p. B-4) covers the Freedom Riders’ plan and departure for the first 13 riders.
The first group of 1961’s Freedom Riders consisted of 13 individuals – black, white, male and female. They boarded the two buses in Washington, D.C. and departed on May 4th.
TheWashington Post ran a story on the group’s intentions the following day, May 5th, 1961 on p. B-4 by reporter Elsie Carper. The story, headlined “Pilgrimage Off on Racial Test,” described the group’s trip along with an Associated Press photo of five of the participants looking over a map of their planned route of travel over the next two weeks.
Shown in the photo, from left, were: Edward Blankenheim from Tucson, Arizona; James Farmer, of New York city and director of CORE; Genevieve Hughes of Chevy Chase, Maryland; Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox of High Point, North Carolina; and Henry Thomas of St. Augustine, Florida.
The first leg of the Freedom Ride from Washington made stops in Virginia and North Carolina. Source: PBS / American Experience.
Among others in the first group of 13 – black and white, male and female – were: John Lewis, son of Georgia sharecroppers and student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (and later member of the U.S. Congress); Albert Bigalow, 55, of Cos Cob, Connecticut, a former naval officer who had commanded battle ships in WWII; husband and wife, Walter and Frances Bergman; Robert G. Griffin, Herman K. Harris, Jimmy McDonald, Ivor (Jerry) Moore, Mae Frances Moultrie, Joseph Perkins, Charles Person, Isaac (Ike) Reynolds, and James Peck, a white veteran at CORE.
The first leg of their trip included stops at Richmond, Petersburg, Farmville, Lynchburg and Danville in Virginia. Stops in North Carolina included Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Charlotte. There were no confrontations with riders at most of these stops. Should trouble occur, however, the Freedom Riders were trained in non-violent tactics and would not fight back. In Charlotte, North Carolina, there was an arrest.
Genevieve Hughes and John Lewis, Rock Hill, S.C.
In Charlotte, when black rider Joseph Perkins tried to get a shoe shine at a “white only” shoe shine station, he was arrested for trespassing, refused bail, and spent two nights in jail. He later rejoined the group as the journey continued south. Violence did occur in Rock Hill, SC at the Greyhound Bus terminal on May 10th when black rider John Lewis and white rider Albert Bigelow attempted to enter a white-only waiting area. Several white men attacked the pair. In the skirmish, another Freedom Rider, Genevieve Hughes, also sustained injuries. The attack was broken up by local police. But more violence lay ahead.
The second leg of the trip through South Carolina and Georgia included dinner with Martin Luther King in Atlanta. Source: PBS/American Experience.
The Freedom Riders left Rock Hill and continued through South Carolina, with stops at Winnsboro, Columbia, and Sumter. They then crossed into Georgia, with stops at Augusta, Athens and Atlanta. Arriving in Atlanta on May 13th, the Freedom Riders had dinner with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. They were hopeful that King would join them on the buses — perhaps becoming a Freedom Rider himself. Instead, King questioned the wisdom of proceeding into Alabama, where the probability of violent resistance was high. Sources told him at the time that the Ku Klux Klan has “quite a welcome” planned for them in Alabama. King urged the Riders to reconsider traveling through the Deep South. In fact, King flatly stated that night that the Riders would never make it to New Orleans. Still, the Freedom Riders left Atlanta on Mothers’ Day, May 14th, bound for Alabama.
May 14,1961 Anniston
In Anniston, at the Greyhound station, a white mob had gathered waiting for the first bus with its Freedom Riders. As it arrived, the mob attacked the bus with iron pipes and baseball bats, breaking some windows and slashing its tires. By the time Anniston police arrived, the bus had taken a fair beating, but no arrests were made. The passengers had remained inside the bus. The Anniston police car escorted the bus out of the station to just beyond the Anniston city limit on a rural stretch of road. There, because of the punctured tires, the bus was forced to pull off the road near the Forsyth & Son grocery store. This was about five miles west of Anniston.
Mothers’ Day, May 14, 1961, as Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders and other passengers burns after being fire-bombed by white mob that attacked the bus and some riders near Anniston, Alabama.
The fire-bombed bus at Anniston, Alabama produced thick smoke that filled the cabin, choking escaping riders.
The fire on the mob-burned bus at Anniston, Alabama was eventually put out, but the bus was totally destroyed.
Freedom Riders Jimmy McDonald, center, Hank Thomas, foreground, and regular passenger Roberta Holmes, right, behind Thomas, after bus burning melee, May 14, 1961.
Fireman going through remains of bus, following fire.
Map showing route of two Freedom Ride buses traveling from Atlanta, GA to Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama.
The white mob, meanwhile, had pursued the bus, with a line of some thirty cars and pickup trucks following behind – with at least one car later weaving back-and-forth in front of the bus to slow it down. After the one local police car disappeared, the mob resumed its assault on the bus and its occupants. One attacker hurled a firebomb into the bus. Some reports indicated that the bus door was held shut from the outside preventing riders from exiting, as some of the mob yelled, “burn them alive!” A few of the riders exited through windows.
The bus door was later forced opened, but only after one of the bus fuel tanks exploded, sending some of the mob into retreat. Riders exited gasping for their lives, choking on the thick smoke that had filled the bus.
Still, upon exiting the smoke-filled bus, some of the choking Freedom Riders were set upon and beaten by members of the mob. Rider Hank Thomas was one of those beaten with a baseball bat. Some of the mob remained, but a later-arriving state patrolman fired two warning shots into the air, and the mob gradually dispersed.
The Greyhound bus, meanwhile, became completely engulfed in flames and was totally destroyed. The riders on the second bus, the Trailways bus, were still on their way, unaware of what had happened in Anniston.
At the scene in Anniston, importantly was one lone photographer, Joe Postiglione of the Anniston Star, who had been tipped off by KKK members. Postiglione’s photos of the Anniston bus bombing – shown above and at left – were the only still photographs of the incident, and they soon made it over the newswires to newspapers all across the country – some running the photo on the front pages, thereby drawing the first national attention to the Freedom Rides.
Also in Anniston that day was a 12 year-old white girl, Janie Miller, who lived nearby, and after the violence subsided, defied the Klansmen and brought water to the bleeding and choking riders.
“It was the worst suffering I’d ever heard,” Miller would recall in the PBS / American Experience film, Freedom Riders. “I walked right out into the middle of that crowd. I picked me out one person. I washed her face. I held her, I gave her water to drink, and soon as I thought she was gonna be okay, I got up and picked out somebody else.” For daring to help the injured riders, she and her family were later ostracized by the community and could no longer live in the county.
A number of Freedom Riders that day were taken, eventually, to the Anniston Memorial Hospital where one attempt was made, unsuccessfully, by a group of Klansman trying to block the entrance to the emergency room.
Meanwhile, the second bus with Freedom Riders – the Trailways bus – made a brief stop in Anniston at another bus station. At the stop, that bus was infiltrated by some ticketed KKK members who proceeded to restore the “blacks-in-the-back” seating order on the bus by way of brutally beating up two of the Freedom Riders and installing them in the rear seats. These infiltrators stayed on the bus until it arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, slinging verbal abuse at the Freedom Riders en route and promising them a “special reception” at the bus station in Birmingham.
May 14,1961 Birmingham
Part of the attacking mob with KKK members at Birmingham, AL, as black bystander George Webb is beaten by several men in the foreground. Photo, Tommy Langston.
As was later learned, Birmingham Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Conner had agreed to keep his police away from the Trailways station for 15 minutes to give local whites and members of the Klan time to beat up the arriving Freedom Riders. Connor had reportedly cut a deal with the KKK giving them 15 minutes to “burn, bomb, kill, maim, I don’t give a god-damn what you do.”
The Trailways station had filled with Klansmen and some reporters. When the Freedom Riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob, some wielding baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. White Freedom Riders in the group were especially singled out by the mob, receiving ferocious beatings.
Jim Peck, a 46-year-old white CORE member from New York, and black Freedom Rider Charles Person, a student from Atlanta, both headed for the “whites only” lunch counter, according to plan, as they came off the bus. However, they never made it there.
Jim Peck in hospital after treatment for injuries sustained during mob beating at the Birmingham bus terminal.
A group of Klansmen pummeled Peck with fists, chains and clubs. He was knocked unconscious, his face and head ripped with wounds. “When I saw Peck, I was shocked,” Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a Birmingham civil rights leader would later says. “His head was split down to the skull. Somebody had cracked him with a lead pipe. Peck was a bloody mess. . . .” It took more than an hour for Shuttlesworth to find an ambulance willing to take Peck to the all-white Carraway Methodist Hospital. Once there, staff refused to treat him. Only at Jefferson Hillman Hospital did Peck finally receive treatment, including some 53 stitches for his head wounds.
Freedom Riders were not the only ones attacked in Birmingham. Innocent bystanders were beaten too, and so were members of the press. As soon as the flashbulb went off for the photo shown above right, the mob took after the photographer, Tommy Langston of the Birmingham Post-Herald. He was caught in the bus station parking lot and beaten and kicked and threatened with pipes. His camera was also smashed to the ground. He later staggered down the street to the Post-Herald building and was later treated at the hospital.
Headline from 'The Montgomery Advertiser' news-paper (Montgomery, AL) tells of Anniston bus burning & mob attacks in Birmingham.
A few of Langston’s colleagues at the Post-Herald returned to the bus station to retrieve his smashed camera to find, amazingly, that the film was still intact. The photo of the melee, shown above, ran the next day on the front page of the Birmingham Post-Herald, one of the few pieces of evidence documenting the mob attack and its participants.
Meanwhile, back in Anniston, hospitalized Freedom Riders were told to leave the hospital as the staff there became afraid of a growing mob. A group of churchmen and others led by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth headed off around 2 a.m. that night to rescue the hospitalized Freedom Riders in Anniston.
In addition to news reports about the Anniston bus bombing and mob attacks in Birmingham, Howard K. Smith, a national CBS News correspondent, was already in Birmingham at the time of the attacks. He was working on a television documentary investigating allegations of lawlessness and racial intimidation in the Southern city. Smith, a Southerner himself from Louisiana, was trying to determine if the claims he and his network were hearing about were exaggerated or true.
May 1961: CBS newsman, Howard K. Smith, reported on the mob attacks on Freedom Riders that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama.
On the night of May 13, Smith received a phone call tipping him off that the downtown bus station was the place to be the next day “if he wanted to see some real action.” Smith thus witnessed the May 14 “Mother’s Day” riot at the Birmingham Trailways Bus Station, as a vicious mob of Klansmen attacked the Freedom Riders and innocent bystanders alike with pipes and baseball bats. After the riot, Smith helped badly injured Riders Jim Peck and Walter Bergman to hail a cab. He also found three other injured black men after the melee, one of whom was Ike Reynolds. These men had agreed to do on camera interviews which Smith conducted with the men and was hopeful of airing that evening on CBS-TV. But “signal difficulties” from the local TV station – WAPI – prevented that from happening, though Smith suspected that the local owner there had vetoed such broadcast.
Smith did deliver news accounts of the bus station melee over the CBS radio network that went out nationally. He would make a series of live radio updates from his hotel room that day. “The riots have not been spontaneous outbursts of anger,” he reported in one broadcast, “but carefully planned and susceptible to having been easily prevented or stopped had there been a wish to do so.” In another he explained: “One passenger was knocked down at my feet by 12 of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp.”[i.e., the Jim Peck beating].The “rule of barbarism in Alabama,” said Smith in his commentary, must bow to the “rule of law and order – and justice – in America.” Smith reported the facts of the incident for CBS. “When the bus arrived,” he explained in one report, “the toughs grabbed the passengers into alleys and corridors, pounding them with pipes, with key rings, and with fists,” But he was outraged by what he had witnessed, and stated at one point that the “laws of the land and purposes of the nation badly need a basic restatement.” Smith at the time also did a Sunday radio commentary, during which he was more direct, “The script almost wrote itself,” he would later recall. “I had the strange, disembodied sense of being forced by conscience to write what I knew would be unacceptable.” In his commentary, Smith laid the blame squarely on Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose officers had looked the other way during the attack. During that commentary Smith also stated that the “rule of barbarism in Alabama” must bow to the “rule of law and order – and Justice – in America.”
According to historian Raymond Arsenault, author of the 2006 book, Freedom Riders, “Smith’s remarkable broadcast opened the floodgates of public reaction. By early Sunday evening, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Americans were aware of the violence that had descended upon Alabama only a few hours before.” At that point, few people had heard of CORE, and fewer still knew what the term ‘Freedom Rider’ meant. But with reports like the one Smith made, more and more of the general population would soon understand what was taking place in the southern part of their country.
By Monday, May 15th, photographs of the burning “Freedom Bus” in Anniston and Birmingham mob scene were reprinted in newspapers across the country. In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, on May 16th an editorial titled “Darkest Alabama” ran in the Washington Post newspaper.A Washington Post edito-rial of May 16, 1961 used the tagline, “Darkest Ala-bama.” The editors, noting the traditions of the old South such as chivalry, hospitality, and kindness, found them notably absent in Birmingham and Anniston, where the busses and Freedom Riders had been attacked. The Post also noted that “Alabama has a Governor who encourages contempt for the Constitution of the United States and who preaches incendiary racist nonsense.” The Post concluded that Americans traveling in Alabama could not be assured of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. “They are quite justified, therefore, in looking to the United States Department of Justice for the protection of their rights as American citizens.” That message was likely read at the U.S. Justice Department and in the White House.
…and Civil Rights
During the violence and unrest of the Freedom Rides in 1961, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy met frequently to deal with the crisis.
Although John F. Kennedy (JFK) won the 1960 presidential election by a slender margin, with the black vote playing a key role, he had not been quick to move on civil rights issues in the early months of his administration. Kennedy had been cautious on civil rights as he feared taking action would antagonize southern Democrats – “the Dixiecrats” – a group he needed for both his near-term legislative agenda in Congress, and looking ahead to 1964, for his re-election. (In time, the “Dixiecrat defection” JFK feared would occur, helping elect Richard Nixon in 1968). So the Freedom Rides were among the last thing that he and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy(RFK), wanted to see in 1961.
Just a month earlier, Kennedy had gone though the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. And in May, he was in the midst of preparing for a scheduled June 3, 1961 Vienna Summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the first such summit of his presidential term. So Kennedy’s focus was not on domestic issues, and civil rights, least among these. Journalist Evan Thomas explains in the PBS film Freedom Riders: “The Kennedys, when they came into office, were not worried about civil rights. They were worried about the Soviet Union. They were worried about the Cold War. They were worried about the nuclear threat. When civil rights did pop up, they regarded it as a bit of a nuisance, as something that was getting in the way of their agenda.”
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, center, conferring with Justice Department assistants, Nicholas B. Katzenbach, left, and Herbert J. Miller, during the May 1961 Freedom Rides.
As President Kennedy first learned of the escalating tension around the Freedom Rides, he was not pleased. When reports of the bus burning and beatings in Birmingham reached Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (RFK), he urged restraint on the part of Freedom Riders. The Kennedys, in fact, had condemned the Freedom Rides as unpatriotic because they embarrassed the nation on the world stage at the height of the Cold War. At one point later that summer, Robert Kennedy had called on the Freedom Riders for a “cooling off period.” James Farmer, head of CORE, responded saying, “We have been cooling off for 350 years, and if we cooled off any more, we’d be in a deep freeze.”
Although the Kennedys were initially angered by the Freedom Riders, and thought the bus rides should end, they soon became quite concerned with the incidents and the safety of the riders. Throughout the summer, Robert Kennedy especially, would become heavily involved in federal-state negotiations to protect the Riders – amid repeated attempts to dissuade them from continuing. However, the Administration was in a bit of quandary on just how much the federal government should get involved and what level of force might be needed. JFK, meanwhile, had some political alliances that would prove awkward.
JFK and Alabama Governor, Democrat John Patterson, during a 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign rally.
During his 1960 presidential bid, JFK had made some political alliances that would come back to haunt him. Alabama’s governor, Democrat John Patterson, was one of these. Patterson had been one of the few southern politicians to endorse JFK for president, doing so early in 1959. Yet, when it came to the Freedom Riders, Patterson was squarely on the side of the segregationists and “states rights,” and he and the Kennedys would spar on the matter through May of 1961.
Given the Anniston and Birmingham incidents, the Kennedys worried that there might be more violence in Alabama, and they wanted protection for the Freedom Riders. Governor Patterson had refused to guarantee the Freedom Riders safety. JFK thought at one point he would be able to persuade his old political ally to come around on the matter, diffuse the tensions at the state level, and keep Washington out of the picture. Kennedy had White House telephone operators place a call to Governor Patterson. The governor’s secretary responded that the governor was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and could not be reached. It was then that Kennedy realized what he was up against, and gave the go-ahead to begin preparing for the possible use of federal marshals.
Alabama Gov. John Patterson, left, confers with Robert Kennedy and two unidentified aides. Photo undated.
Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, at the Justice Department, had conferred with a number of assistants on the matter, including Nicholas B. Katzenbach and Herbert J. Miller, shown in the photo above. Kennedy urged all citizens and travelers in Alabama to refrain from actions “which will cause increased tension or provoke violence” in troubled Montgomery. RFK had also sent his longtime friend, Justice Department representative John Seigenthaler, to mediate between the Freedom Riders and southern politicians. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Seigenthaler had local southern roots that Robert Kennedy hoped would help ease tensions with southern politicians. Seigenthaler went to Birmingham to monitor the situation and ensure that the Freedom Riders would get off safely to their next destination. Other RFK aides and DOJ officials, including John Doar and Deputy Attorney General Byron White, later a Supreme Court justice, would also become involved with the Freedom Rides.
May 15, 1961: Freedom Rider James Peck, talks with a Dept of Justice official and Ben Cox on plane to New Orleans. Photo, T. Gaffney.
Back in Birmingham, meanwhile, when the CORE Freedom Riders sought to continue their ride on May 15th to their next stop, Montgomery, Alabama, bus drivers refused to leave the station for fear of their lives. Behind the scenes in Washington, some calls were made to union officials to try to bring in willing bus drivers, but that effort failed. Robert Kennedy also tried to organize protection for the riders, but was unable to reach a compromise with Alabama officials. Finally, John Seigenthaler, one of the Robert Kennedy’s team sent to Alabama, convinced the Freedom Riders to fly to New Orleans instead of going by bus. They agreed to the plan, and CORE leaders at that point also chose to halt the Freedom Ride, their ranks diminished by injuries. Seigenthaler secured a flight for the Riders to New Orleans, which departed from the Birmingham airport late on May 15th. Still, in this departure, and on the plane’s arrival in New Orleans, the Freedom Riders faced threats and jeers. In Birmingham, a mob had gathered at the airport, making for a tense waiting period. When they first boarded the plane, all passengers had to exit because of a bomb threat. On arriving in New Orleans, the state police formed a “protective” corridor of troopers from the arriving plane’s door to the airport terminal. Yet these state troopers, to the astonishment of John Seigenthaler, engaged in vicious jeers and taunts as the Freedom Riders made their ways to the terminal. In New Orleans, the Riders attended a May 17th rally to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education.
April 1960: Diane Nash, as Fisk University junior with the Rev. Kelly Smith, president of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. Photo: Gerald Holly, Nashville Tennessean.
Meanwhile, other civil rights activists, realizing the importance of the Freedom Ride, and also seeing the national attention the Anniston and Birmingham incidents had brought to the civil rights movement, began planning to continue the bus rides. The Nashville Student Movement, lead by Diane Nash, decided to send “fresh troops” to Birmingham – replacement riders – to continue what CORE had started. Nash and other civil rights activists began to see that what CORE had put in motion could not be allowed to fail, and should not stop because of violence.
Raised in middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Nash attended Howard University in Washington, D.C, before transferring to Nashville’s Fisk University in the fall of 1959. Shocked by the extent of segregation she encountered in Tennessee, she became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. In February 1961 she served jail time in solidarity with the “Rock Hill Nine” — nine students imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in.
Nash felt that if violence was allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years. She pushed to resume the ride and began calling black colleges in nearby states to find replacements for the injured Freedom Riders. On May 17, 1961, a group of eight blacks and two whites – students from Fisk University, Tennessee State University and the American Baptist Theological Seminary – traveled by bus from Nashville to Birmingham, where they would then resume the Freedom Ride from there to Montgomery, Alabama, and then on to Mississippi and Louisiana. However, upon their arrival in Birmingham, they were immediately arrested – “protective custody,” according to police. Later that night, in the early a.m. hours, this group was transported by Birmingham police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor to Ardmore, Alabama near the Tennessee line, and dropped off in a rural area – an area reportedly known for Klan activity. They were told to take a train back to Nashville. After finding refuge with a local black family, they reached Diane Nash who sent a car for them, returning them to Birmingham, where they intended to resume the Freedom Ride.
“John Meets Diane”
John Seigenthaler, in later years, would recall his activities during the 1961 Freedom Rides in the 2011 PBS documentary, “Freedom Riders.”
John Seigenthaler, a former reporter for The Nashville Tennessean newspaper, had worked with Robert Kennedy in Congress. In 1961, then 32, Seigenthaler became a special assistant in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department.
Dispatched by Kennedy to the south to help diffuse the Freedom Rider tensions, his first task in that crisis was to get the CORE Riders safely on airplanes to New Orleans. When the Riders – after some harassment and verbal abuse along the way – arrived safely in New Orleans, Seigenthaler thought both the Freedom Rides and the crisis were over. Instead, he learned that someone named Diane Nash and others from the Nashville Student Movement planned on continuing what the CORE Riders had started. In the PBS film Freedom Riders, Seigenthaler appears on camera offering his remembrance of that pivotal moment:
. . . I went to a motel to spend the night. And you know, I thought, “What a great hero I am. . . . How easy this was. . . I just took care of everything the president and the attorney general wanted done. Mission accomplished.” My phone in the hotel room rings and it’s the attorney general.“Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left…” - Diane Nash, 1961 And he opened the conversation, “Who the hell is Diane Nash? Call her and let her know what is waiting for the Freedom Riders.” So I called her. I said, “I understand that there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can.”
Her response was, “They’re not gonna turn back. They’re on their way to Birmingham and they’ll be there shortly.” You know that spiritual [song]—“Like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved”? She would not be moved. And . . . I felt my voice go up another decibel and another and soon I was shouting, “Young woman, do you understand what you’re doing? You’re gonna get somebody . . . Do you understand you’re gonna get somebody killed?”
Diane Nash, of Fisk University, let John Seigenthaler know there was no turning back.
And there’s a pause, and she said, “Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.”
That’s virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child’s mouth.
Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the president and the attorney general, talking to a student at Fisk University. And she, in a very quiet but strong way, gave me a lecture.
James Peck (right) and Hank Thomas march in a picket line outside the Port Authority Terminal in New York City.
Civil rights leaders at the national level, meanwhile, were spreading word of what had happened to the Freedom Riders in the south. In several U.S. cities, CORE chapters used the May 17th anniversary date of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to protest the violence in Alabama. They set up picket lines in front of bus terminals in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. More than two thousand people came out for the New York City demonstration, with hundreds picketing the Port Authority terminals of the Greyhound and Trailways bus lines in protest over the segregated bus stations in the South. Some marchers carried signs that read, “segregation is morally wrong.” At least two of the Freedom Riders – Hank Thomas, who had been attacked in Anniston, and James Peck, who was beaten in Birmingham and was still bandaged – joined the demonstration in New York City. Peck carried a large placard that identified him as “a victim of an attempt at lynching by hoodlums,” and Thomas a sign that indicated he was arrested on a Freedom Ride in South Carolina. Following the New York demonstration, Peck and Thomas also answered questions and at a press conference held at the offices of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Lillian Smith, a well-known author and southern liberal unafraid to criticize segregation and who worked to dismantle the Jim Crow laws, was also at the press conference. Other national figures began voicing their opinions as well. On Thursday morning, May 18th, the New York Times and other newspapers reported a story citing the Southern Baptist evangelist, Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, who said that the Southerners who had attacked and beaten the “Freedom Riders” should be prosecuted for their actions.
Rev. Shuttlesworth during “CBS Reports” TV show.
That evening on television, a documentary about Birmingham that CBS reporter Howard K. Smith had been working on, was aired as a CBS Reports special. Titled, “Who Speaks for Birmingham?,” the hour-long show featured a series of interviews with several black and white citizens, including one with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader from Birmingham, and another with Temple Graves, a columnist for the Birmingham News. The documentary ran accounts of cultural and educational progress in Birmingham, alternating with stories of Klan violence and local segregationist resistance. On the whole, the show was not a flattering portrayal of Birmingham or Alabama. In the segment with Shuttlesworth, he recounted several beatings, two attempted bombings of his church, and a constant fear for his family’s safety and need to hire someone to guard his home at night. During the show, Howard K. Smith also re-aired his radio account of the May 14th bus terminal melee. Near the end of the broadcast, Smith, standing in front of an enlarged photo of Bull Connor, said that “fear and hatred” had stalked the streets of Birmingham in the preceding days.
May 18,1961: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, talks with several Freedom Riders waiting in the Birmingham bus station to go to Montgomery. AP photo.
Meanwhile, the contingent of student riders from Nashville who had come to Birmingham to resume the Freedom Ride to Montgomery, were in a kind of limbo at the bus station; still trying to make their trip. An Associated Press news story filed from Birmingham reported that on May 19 a crowd (i.e., a mob) had gathered outside the bus terminal that evening. Civil rights leader, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, was quoted in the story saying more riders from other areas outside Alabama were ready to come join the Freedom Rides – “wave after wave, if necessary,” he said. On May 20th, the group of replacement riders sent from Nashville boarded a Greyhound bus in Birmingham and finally headed for Montgomery. The Kennedy Administration had intervened on two counts: pressuring Greyhound to provide a bus driver, and secondly, securing a commitment from Alabama Governor John Patterson to protect the riders and the bus from Klan mobs and snipers on the road to Montgomery. Patterson’s director of public safety, Floyd Mann, had arranged for the safe passage to Montgomery. The situation in Montgomery, however, was another story.
May 20, 1961 Beatings in Montgomery
May 20, 1961: Jim Zwerg, one of the Freedom Riders beaten at Montgomery, Alabama bus terminal.
The trip to Montgomery was made at high speed along with a contingent of the Alabama State Highway Patrol. At the Montgomery city limits, however, the troopers disbursed. The Freedom Riders then were on their own, and at the Greyhound bus terminal they were met by a mob of more than 200, many of whom were Klansmen, armed with baseball bats and iron pipes. The mob attacked not just the Riders, but reporters and other bystanders, leaving more than twenty people seriously injured. The local police did not show up for 20 minutes.
One of those on the arriving bus was Jim Zwerg, a 21-year-old white college from Beloit College in Wisconsin who became an exchange student at Fisk University an was also active in the Nashville sit-in movement. Zwerg was one of those selected for the “new troops” initiative for replacement Riders begun by Diane Nash and others. He was one of the group that left Birmingham earlier that day on May 20th. As Zwerg, stepped off the bus in Montgomery, someone shouted, “kill the nigger-loving son of a bitch!” With clubs and fists they attacked Zwerg brutally, beating him several times. He lost teeth in the beatings and was eventually hospitalized.
The mob also brutally attacked John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and William Barbee. Barbee was beaten unconscious and left on the sidewalk, suffering injuries that would later shorten his life. Three others escaped the violence by jumping over the retaining wall and running to the adjacent post office. Five black female Freedom Riders escaped in a cab driven by a black cab driver. Two white women were pulled from another cab and beaten by the mob.
May 20, 1961: Montgomery, AL mob member, later identified as a Klan leader, attacking news photographer.
Floyd Mann, Alabama’s director of public safety, arrived on the scene and attempted to stop the violence, finally pulling out his pistol and firing two shots in the air. Mann succeeded in dispersing the crowd in one part of the bus station, but other areas of the station were still in turmoil. News reporters, camermen and photographers had been set upon by the mob even before the riders were attacked – their cameras and filming gear smashed to the ground.
Also on the scene that day in Montgomery to observe was Justice Department emissary John Seigenthaler, who was beaten as well. Seigenthaler, who saw the unfolding melee at the bus terminal from a distance, tried at one point from his car to help one of the female Freedom Riders being pursued in the street. But Seigenthaler was pulled from his car, beaten with a tire iron, his head fractured and left unconscious in the street.
In the aftermath, ambulances, manned by white attendants, refused to take the wounded to the hospital. Local blacks finally rescued the wounded, with some of the Freedom Riders eventually hospitalized.
Freedom Rider Jim Swerg in his hospital bed after beating with a copy of the “Montgomery Advertiser” newspaper, with his bloody photo on its front page.
Among the Freedom Riders on the bus into Montgomery that day was 18 year-old white girl, Susan Hermann of Los Angeles, CA, who said of her group’s arrival there, reported in the Los Angeles Times: “We were all prepared to die–and for a while Saturday I thought all 21 of us would die at the hands of that mob in Montgomery. We did not fight back. We do not believe in violence…” Hermann and another white girl, Susan Wilbur, 18, managed to outrun the mob, reaching a local police station.
The Montgomery melee was front-page news the next day all across the country. The Montgomery Advertiser, for its part, ran a large photo of a beaten and bloody Jim Swerg on its front page (see photo at right).
In Washington, D.C., the melee was front-page news as well. Along with the bloody Zwerg photo, The Washington Post headlines that day also announced the actions of the federal government in response to the violence: “Kennedy Orders Marshals to Alabama After New Freedom-Rider Mobbing.”
Attorney General Robert Kennedy had been on the phone with Justice Department lawyer John Doar who was relaying a nearly blow-by-blow account to Kennedy of the mob violence as the fists and clubs began flying that day.
May 21, 1961: Washington Post runs “marshals-to-Alabama” front-page story on violence in Montgomery, along with photo of bloodied Freedom Rider, Jim Swerg
“There are no cops present” Doar reported at one point, having already described to Kennedy the mob attacking people as they got off the bus. “It’s terrible. It’s terrible,” Doar relayed to Kennedy. “Not a cop in sight! People are yelling ‘Get ‘em. Get em!’ It’s awful.” Doar’s eye witness phone-in account of the melee reportedly angered Kennedy to the point where he heard enough and moved to send U.S. Marshals to the area. On May 21st, Kennedy ordered a task force of U.S. Marshals and Byron R. White, Deputy U.S. Attorney General, to go to Montgomery to safeguard federal rights. Initially, some 400 marshals were ordered. The marshals would be dressed in civilian attire wearing yellow arm bands. Governor Patterson, for his part, publicly objected to the marshals — as well as the civil rights leaders and activists who had come to Montgomery — telling them all to go home and mind their own business. He also threatened to arrest the marshals if they broke the law.
May 21, 1961: A contingent of Federal marshals gather to watch over civil rights activists and Freedom Riders coming to rally at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. AP photo.
Part of the 1,500 supporters who came out to learn about the Freedom Rides and hear from civil rights leaders – on what became a long night. Joseph Scherschel /Time Life
May 21, 1961: U.S. Marshals stand guard in front of Baptist Church as an automobile burns in the distance after being overturned by the mob. Photo, AP/Horace Cort
May 21-22,1961: Rev. Ralph Abernathy & Rev. Martin Luther King during stand-off with white mob outside Abernathy’s Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. King had been on the phone with Attorney General Robert Kennedy seeking help. Photo, Paul Schutzer/ Time Life.
May 21-22, 1961: Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on the phone at his Justice Dept office during the night of the church attack in Birmingham, Alabama. Bob Schutz/AP.
A detachment of National Guardsmen at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama after martial law was declared. AP photo/Horace Cort.
May 22, 1961: National Guard troops in front of the First Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL. AP/Horace Cort.
May 21, 1961 Church Mob
In response to the violence, civil rights leaders called for a gathering of supporters in Montgomery for Sunday evening, May 21, 1961. They convened at Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church and organized a program of hymns and speakers. About 1,500 community members attended along with civil rights leaders, including, Martin Luther King, Jim Farmer, Joseph Lowery, and Rev. Shuttlesworth.
The purpose of the gathering was to show support for the Freedom Rivers – of which more than a dozen attended. Diane Nash was also listed on the program, possibly to introduce the Freedom Riders. The First Baptist Church was located just a few blocks from the state capitol. Federal marshals, now on the scene in Montgomery, stood watch from a park near the church as evening services began on May 21st.
As those inside the church that night listened to testimonials about courage and commitment and sang hymns and freedom songs, a white mob began gathering outside. By nightfall the mob had grown larger, and had begun yelling racial epithets and hurling rocks at the church windows.
Inside, Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd that Gov. Patterson was responsible for allowing the violence to happen. King also called for legislation to end desegregation and stop the violence. “We hear the familiar cry that morals cannot be legislated. This may be true, but behavior can be regulated,” King said. “The law may not be able make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.”
During the evening, the mob grew, overturned a U.S. marshal’s car, and set a couple of small fires. The mob threatened to overwhelm the federal marshals who feared the church would be set on fire. According to one account of that evening by a U.S. Marshals historian, “a fiery projectile nearly burned the roof of the church.” At one point during the evening, some 75 marshals charged the angry mob and were pelted with rocks. The marshals were later bolstered by local and state police. Still, the mob persisted.
From inside the church that night, at around 3 a.m., King called Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department for help. Kennedy then called Governor Patterson and also had his Deputy Attorney General, Byron White, later a Supreme Court Justice, meet with Patterson and his staff.
Back at the mob scene, meanwhile, it became obvious that the civilian federal marshals were overmatched by the mob’s larger numbers. It was at that point that Patterson, under federal pressure, declared martial law and authorized a National Guard battalion to disperse the crowd. The Alabama National Guard took control of the scene and the U.S. marshals were placed under Guard command.
One wire story of the church attack by United Press International that appeared in newspapers on Monday, May 22nd, reported: “Tear gas and fire hoses were needed to beat off the angry mob of about 200 whites who converged on the church [other accounts had that number much larger]. It took 100 U.S. Marshals and more than that number of city police and a National Guard contingent to hold back the rock-hurling, club-swinging mob.”
But it was early morning before the surrounding streets were secure enough for the Freedom Riders and their supporters to leave the church. Before dawn on May 22, 1961, the Guard moved the congregation out, using military trucks to transport some of the church attendees back to their communities,
Back in Washington, there had been early a.m. meetings at the Justice Department on the crisis, and Robert Kennedy, up all night, called President Kennedy at 7 a.m. to update him on what had happened.
On May 23, 1961, martial law was in place in Montgomery, Alabama, and national guard soldiers were present in front of the First Baptist Church and elsewhere in the city, including the Montgomery bus terminal.
Still, Patterson called the Freedom Riders “agitators” and said, “they were to blame for the race rioting because of their insistence on testing bus station racial barriers.”
The church attack and martial law were front-page news across the country. In Rome, Georgia, the News-Tribune story covering the church attack included reaction from state and local politicians, including some who blamed the Kennedys for encouraging “these people to come into the South to change traditions and the way of life.”
That story also quoted the Alabama Ku Klux Klan “grand wizard,” Robert Shelton, who said the klans of the nation would amalgamate in an effort to prevent further integration attempts in the South. He also added: “It is regrettable that the President of the United States would used the power of his office to condone the unlawful activities of these integrationist groups by attempting to enjoin the Alabama klans from aiding in the preservation of our laws and customs.” Shelton said that while the klan did not condone violence, it would “take all measures necessary” to preserve Alabama customs.
Back in Montgomery, on May 23, 1961, civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy and James Farmer, and student leader John Lewis, held a news conference announcing that the Freedom Rides would continue.
The National Guard remained a presence in Montgomery following the mob activity at the First Baptist Church. Soldiers also lined the streets near the Montgomery bus terminals.
May 22, 1961: Alabama National Guardsman are also stationed at Montgomery bus station. AP photo.
May 23, 1961: Civil rights leaders John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy and James Farmer announcing that Freedom Rides would continue.
May 24, 1961: National Guard troops line sidewalk at at bus station in Montgomery, AL as Freedom Riders plan to resume bus trips. Photo, AP / Horace Cort.
May 1961: Photo from inside bus departing from Mont-gomery for Jackson with police & Nat’l Guard escort.
May 24, 1961: Wm.Sloan Coffin (glasses) and Yale group of Riders arriving in Montgomery, AL. Perry Aycock/AP
May 24, 1961: Alabama National Guard protecting Freedom Ride bus at stop near Mississippi handover, at state border.
Jackson, Mississippi police line city streets near the bus station as Freedom Riders arrive there in May 1961.
On the morning of May 24, 1961, the Freedom Riders in Montgomery resumed their travels with two buses departing at different times for Jackson, Mississippi. The two buses carried 27 Freedom Riders between them and also some 20 members of the press. The buses were escorted by 16 highway patrol cars, each carrying three National Guardsmen and two highway patrolmen. A few national guardsmen were also on the buses. The ride from Montgomery to Jackson, a distance of about 140 miles, would take about six hours.
More Freedom Riders were also converging on Montgomery to fill more buses for additional trips into Mississippi. On the same day as the first buses departed for Jackson, for example, two white college students, David Fankhauser and David Myers, students at Central State College in Ohio, arrived in Montgomery. They were among those responding to the earlier call of Diane Nash seeking new recruits. On their arrival, these prospective riders and others would stay at local homes for a few days awaiting additional Freedom Riders sufficient to fill more buses.
Another bus arriving in Montgomery that afternoon from Atlanta brought a group of Riders from Connecticut, including four white college professors and three black students. Leading this group was white clergyman Rev. William S. Coffin, Chaplin at Yale University. Coffin, 35, and a WWII veteran, was also a member of President Kennedy’s Peace Corps Advisory Council. A day or so earlier on the Yale University campus, at a pre-Freedom Ride ally, Coffin had criticized southern ministers for not supporting the Rides. And in a Life magazine article a week or so later, Coffin also stated: “Many people in the South have criticized the Freedom Riders as ‘outsiders’ who want to stir up trouble. But if you’re an American and a Christian you can’t be an outsider on racial discrimination, whether practiced in the North or the South…”
Rev. Coffin also explained that by joining the Freedom Rides with his group “we hoped to dramatize the fact that this is not just a student movement. We felt that our being university educators might help encourage the sea of silent moderates in the South to raise their voices…”
Arriving at the Montgomery bus terminal on May 24th with Coffin that day were Dr. David E. Swift, Dr. John D. Maguire, and a contingent of Yale divinity students. The terminal was then patrolled by the National Guard. Still, a throng of angry whites had gathered there, but Sloan and others were able to make it to cars that carried them to meet with civil rights leaders at a local home. The next day, Coffin and his group were slated to board a bus for Jackson. However, while at the bus terminal that morning before departure, Coffin and others joined Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and others at a terminal lunch counter, testing a “whites only” restriction. Most of this group, including Coffin, were arrested in the Montgomery terminal for “breach of peace and unlawful assembly,” and did not make the trip to Jackson. They were later released after posting $1,000 bond.
“Fill The Jails”
As Freedom Riders and civil rights leaders gathered at Ralph Abernathy’s home in Montgomery, including Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, and student leaders, a new strategy was devised for the Freedom Rides heading into Mississippi. They decided that as more and more riders came to participate – then converging on Jackson, Mississippi where all incoming riders would likely be arrested – they would seek to “fill the jails” in Mississippi as part of the protest.
Back in Washington, meanwhile, the Kennedy Administration, was suffering some bad press overseas as new reports of the Freedom Ride violence spread around the globe. As one attempted counter to those reports, Robert F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, delivered a radio broadcast over Voice of America, defending America’s record on race relations, and adding, “there is no reason that in the near or the foreseeable future, a Negro could [not] become President of the United States.”
Back in Alabama, the two buses that had left Montgomery on May 24 were traveling on the road to Jackson with their convoy of police cars, National Guardsmen, and overhead helicopter. They were only making limited stops en route, during which National Guardsmen would array themselves around the bus in a protective manner. As they approached the Mississippi border, there would be a changing of the guard as the Mississippi Guard would take over from the Alabama Guard, and that transfer went smoothly. However, there had been one report of a phoned-in dynamite threat in Mississippi, so the Guardsmen at the state-line border exchange were especially attentive to their surroundings.
In Washington, Robert Kennedy had been negotiating with Mississippi officials over the safety of the Freedom Riders who were heading to Jackson. He struck a deal with Mississippi’s Democratic Senator, James O. Eastland, allowing the Riders to be jailed in exchange for their safety. Kennedy would not interfere in Mississippi’s affairs by sending in federal marshals as long as Eastland would guarantee there would be no mob violence. Kennedy explained that the Federal Government’s “primary interest was that they [Freedom Riders] weren’t beaten up.”
There were no incidents en route to Jackson, with the exception of some hecklers and a thrown bottle or two. The first two buses of Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson safely on May 24th, with no rabid white mobs awaiting them. As the Riders exited the buses and tested the whites-only or colored waiting areas, they were immediately ushered by police into a waiting paddy wagon which drove them to jail. The riders were typically charged with “breach of peace,” rather than breaking segregation laws. Freedom Riders responded with a “jail, no bail” strategy —part of the effort to fill the jails. Back in Montgomery, more Riders were preparing for the trip to Jackson. On May 28th, and in the days thereafter, additional buses with more Freedom Riders made the trip to Jackson.
June 1961: A police paddy wagon in Jackson, Mississippi with arrested Freedom Riders aboard. Photo from “Breach of Peace” book, Eric Etheridge.
Among those departing from Montgomery on May 28th for Jackson was Pauline Knight, a 20-year-old Tennessee State student, who would be arrested in Jackson and would later lead a brief hunger strike among female Rider-inmates. Describing the motivation that led Knight to participate in the Freedom Rides, she said: “It was like a wave or a wind, and you didn’t know where it was coming from but you knew you were supposed to be there. Nobody asked me, nobody told me.” And that was true for many who came to the Freedom Rides that summer – they just came, in the hundreds, unselfishly, out of personal conviction, finding it was the right thing to do. It was a spontaneous movement of individuals, each coming from separate locations, but each making a similar decision to become personally involved. It was a simple but powerful statement of democratic action – one that augured well for America’s future, and a proud moment for all of its citizens.
Back in Washington, meanwhile, on May 29th, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy formally petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to adopt “stringent regulations” prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel. The proposed order would not be issued for several months, but the process was set in motion. Kennedy was also trying to dissuade the Freedom Riders from continuing their protest, asking for “cooling off” period that went nowhere. In fact, if anything, the movement only grew larger in the months ahead as individuals all around the country responded.
Mug shot of Ray Cooper, 19, arrested in Jackson, MS.
Within two weeks of the May 14th, 1961 bus bombing in Anniston, Alabama, Ray Cooper, a 19 year-old art student from Seattle, Washington, was on a bus bound for New Orleans. The CORE chapter in New Orleans was conducting training classes in the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience, preparing candidates for more Freedom Rides. Cooper recounts his experience there and some of his early thinking regarding what he was about to do:
…Gathering in New Orleans, we were getting to know one another, bonding to find the courage to act together. There was a wave of volunteers and we had the moral advantage. I could not have continued past New Orleans if there had been a meager turn out. Strength in numbers. Was I frightened? Yes. But like the others I was calm and focused. I was nineteen and was about to do something meaningful for the first time in my life. I had resolved not to participate with the U.S. military adventure in Vietnam. The battle at home was my choice. I was testing myself, challenging my country to actually “free the slaves” not just talk about it…
I had read about Gandhi in high school.“I had read about Gandhi in high school. He stood against the British Empire. People listened to him and won. I admired that. . . .” He stood against the British Empire. People listened to him and won. I admired that. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted him. I respected that. I believed that nonviolent resistance would also work in America where people professed belief in democracy. It was a gamble but was a rather “strong hand”…
[Ray Cooper later boarded his Greyhound Bus in New Orleans, headed for Jackson, Mississippi].
…We arrived in Jackson in [July]. Police and their vans surrounded the terminal. They watched passively as we walked into the whites only waiting room. Once inside we sat on available benches together with arms locked. The police ordered us out. We declined. Threatened with arrest we went limp and were dragged from the Greyhound station by our feet and were loaded into paddy wagons. . . . Arrested and booked for unlawful assembly, we entered the jails of Jackson City and County. We were, of course, segregated by race and sex. Our fear was not of police mistreatment, but of the uncertainty of being housed with criminal prisoners. At no point during the summer did this occur. The standard length of incarceration was forty-five days, first in Jackson and ultimately at Parchman . . . All summer long the buses kept arriving with more Freedom Riders…
Headline from ‘The Morning Herald’ newspaper of Hagerstown, MD, May 25, 1961 announcing jailing of Freedom Riders in Mississippi with photo of Riders being loaded into paddy wagon.
Throughout, the summer of 1961, the Freedom Riders kept coming to Jackson, most later ransferred to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, also known as Parchman Farm. A maximum security prison, Parchman had a reputation as a particularly inhospitable place. Basic jail cells had open toilets and were often rife with mice and insects, some with soiled mattresses. Abusive treatment of arriving female Freedom Riders included a Lysol-based vaginal examinations. Most Riders jailed there were issued only underwear, had no exercise, and received no mail. Some were placed in the maximum security unit on death row. Others were subject to solitary confinement or thrown in extremely crowded cells.
Mississippi’s governor, meanwhile, Ross Barnett, had the Freedom Riders in his sights, and set out “to teach ‘em a lesson” and “break the back” of their movement. By doing “real time in a real prison” like Parchman, Barnett believed his Mississippi jailers would give the Riders an education they would remember, helping to end the Freedom Rides. But Barnett’s jailers would underestimate the resolve and ingenuity of their charges. Among other measures to maintain their spirits while jailed, the Riders sang freedom and folk songs – among them, “Buses Are A’Comin, Oh Yeah,” which surely made their jailers boil. When the Riders refused to stop singing, prison officials took away their mattresses and toothbrushes. But the Riders kept singing, and also devised other strategies to survive their jail time. Most would endure a sentence of about 45 days.
PBS “Freedom Riders” map showing routes traveled as of July 1961, when some 367 Riders had participated.
Eventually there were more than 430 Freedom Riders that summer traveling various routes in the South, some 328 of whom would end up at Mississippi’s Parchman prison farm. The map at left shows some of the routes traveled through July 1961 – although additional Rides would continue into November and even December 1961.
Freedom Riders would also test train and plane routes and their related facilities — waiting areas, restrooms, and restaurants — at train stations and airports. Riders also went to Arkansas, Florida and Texas; some came from New York and Los Angeles. In fact, they came from all regions of the U.S., and some from Canada as well. (see PBS Freedom Riders website for full list of rides, riders, and routes traveled).
June 2, 1961: Alabama Gov. John Patterson on Time cover for Freedom Riders story.
Newsweek’s June 5, 1961 featured three of the contending major players in the Freedom Rider controversy that continued throughout the summer.
By early June, the Freedom Riders story was front-page national news almost everywhere. Magazines such as Time and Newsweek had cover stories devoted to the latest developments. Life magazine in early June also chose the Freedom Riders and the unrest in Montgomery as its “story of the week.”
Time magazine featured the Freedom Riders as its cover story, using a cover photo of 39 year-old Governor John Patterson and focusing on the governor’s segregationist career, the incidents that had occurred in his state, and the fight between he and Robert Kennedy over enforcing the law.
Newsweek also had a photo of Patterson on its cover that week, along with those of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – featuring the three contending players in that week’s news with quotes from each displayed with their photos. “We stand for human Liberty,” ran beside RFK’s photo. “We must be prepared to suffer…even die,” was attributed to Rev. King. And in the third frame, Gov. Patterson was quoted saying: “The Federal government encourages these agitators.”
Life magazine ran several pages of photos and narrative for its story of the week – “The Ride for Rights: Negroes Go by Bus Though the South Asking for Trouble and Getting It. Among Life’s photos in that issue was a sequence from the siege of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery.
More news reporters and photographers were drawn to the story by this time as well. A number of the media had already witnessed the early mob violence visited on the Freedom Riders in Montgomery. More reporters joined on the bus rides in late May 1961 during the National Guard escort from Alabama to Mississippi and others came to Jackson, Mississippi as the “breach of peace” arrests were made throughout that summer. As a result, Freedom Rider stories continued to appear in the news media through the summer and fall of 1961. The media coverage of the Rides kept the issue on the nation’s front burner. Yet it was the rising up of individuals all across the country that kept the Rides going – much to the dismay of the Kennedy Administration which tried to dissuade the Riders from continuing.
By November 1, 1961, the ICC rule that Robert Kennedy had initiated began to be enforced. With the new rule, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains and related facilities. All the “white” and “colored” signs came down at all terminals. There would be no more segregated drinking fountains, toilets, or waiting rooms. Lunch counters would serve all customers, regardless of race. However, there were still pockets of resistance in some locations. Black riders encountered stiff resistance in December 1961 when they attempted to desegregate a white waiting room in Albany, Georgia. Other locations also offered resistance. But eventually, the rule took hold everywhere, and segregated interstate travel and accommodation ended.
The Freedom Rides and Freedom Riders of 1961 provided an important boost to the civil rights movement. The Rides brought new momentum, new energy, and a broadening constituency to the movement. The grass roots nature of its participants also empowered the cause in a new way, directly influencing, and helping inspire, other activities that followed – from the March on Washington in August 1963 and the Freedom Summer movement in Mississippi in 1964, to landmark federal legislation culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the voting Rights Act of 1965.
May 1961: Scene from Montgomery, Alabama after National Guard arrived to protect Freedom Riders from local mobs. / Bruce Davidson
In 1961, the Freedom Rides shook up a complacent Washington, forcing a reluctant Kennedy Administration to act. Initially resistant to the Freedom Rider methodology, both President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were changed by the Rides, and both moved clearly to the side of quicker action in subsequent years. Robert Kennedy, acknowledging the impact of the Freedom Rides would later say, “I never recovered from it,” but thereafter became a champion of civil rights. And President Kennedy sent federal troops to the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963 to protect black students attempting to enroll. On June 11, 1963, JFK gave a nationally-televised speech calling upon Congress to pass a comprehensive Civil Rights bill, though adding that Americans were “confronted primarily with a moral issue, not a legislative or political one.” Journalist Evan Thomas states in the PBS documentary Freedom Riders, that there is “a direct line from the Freedom Riders to the speech that President Kennedy gave in June of 1963.”
James Peck’s 1962 book shown in one of its paperback editions.
Raymond Arsenault’s 2006 book on the 1961 Freedom Riders.
And for the nation as a whole – the nation watching the horrors on television and reading the news accounts of what was happening, and seeing more and more people step forward willing to risk bodily harm and/or imprisonment – the Freedom Riders helped change minds and stiffen the national backbone for confronting Jim Crow. As the PBS Freedom Riders website has put it: “The courage and stoicism of the Freedom Riders, in the face of the most vicious hatred and racism and physical beatings, left a deep impression on the nation and the world.”
The Freedom Rides also became established in popular literature and American history practically from the beginning. In 1962, James Peck, a veteran CORE member and Freedom Rider who was badly beaten in Anniston and Birmingham, published his account of the Rides in a book first published by Simon and Schuster, titled Freedom Ride. Later editions of Peck’s book included a forward by African American author James Baldwin. Other books on the Freedom Rides followed in the 1980s and 1990s, some of which are listed in “Sources” below, as well as more comprehensive books on the overall civil rights movement, which typically incorporate special sections on the Freedom Rides.
In recent years, the Freedom Rides have received more in-depth treatment in volumes such as the January 2006 book by Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and The Struggle for Racial Justice, published by Oxford University Press. This volume, at 704 pages, is regarded by many as the definitive treatment of the 1961 Freedom Rides and their impact. One review of the book appearing in the New York Times Book Review by Eric Foner notes, for example:
“Drawing on personal papers, F.B.I. files, and interviews with more than 200 participants in the rides, Arsenault brings vividly to life a defining moment in modern American history…. Rescues from obscurity the men and women who, at great personal risk, rode public buses into the South in order to challenge segregation in interstate travel…. Relates the story of the first Freedom Ride and the more than 60 that followed in dramatic, often moving detail.”
Aresnault’s book became a primary source for a the PBS/American Experience documentary, Freedom Riders – an excellent two-hour show that first aired in mid-May 2011 and has since won numerous awards. 2011 was also the 50th anniversary year of the Freedom Rides, during which a number of other books, short films, museum specials, and other commemorations were produced – including a special May 2011 edition of The Oprah Winfrey Show. A number of these are also referenced in “Sources” below, many with links. However, one volume that came out in 2008 deserves special mention for the imagery and personal stories it brought forth, providing a whole new perspective on the Freedom Rides.
Eric Etheridge discovered the archive of Freedom Rider mug shots in 2003.
Adding The Faces
In 2003, Eric Etheridge, a native of Carthage Mississippi, had lived and worked in New York City. He had done some work for Rolling Stone and Harper’s, but was then looking for a new photography project.
During a visit in 2003 with his parents in Jackson, Mississippi, he was reminded that a lawsuit had forced the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission – an agency created in 1956 to resist desegregation – to open its archives. The agency files, put online in 2002, included more than 320 police mug shots of Freedom Riders arrested for “breach of peace” in Jackson, Mississippi. The photos cover those incarcerated from late May to mid-September 1961.
The trove of photos, Eteridge concluded, was a pot of gold, and important history that should have wider circulation. “The police camera caught something special,” Etheridge would later say. The segregationist Sovereignty Commission had unintentionally created and preserved an important visual record of the Freedom Rides and civil rights history.
Eric Etheridge’s 2008 book, using Freedom Rider mug shots for “then- and-now” profiles of 80 Riders.
“I was captivated by these images and wanted to bring them to a wider audience,” Etheridge writes. “I wanted to find the riders today, to look into their faces and photograph them again.” Using the internet and information in the arrest files, he tracked a number of the riders down, then called them cold. “My best icebreaker was: ‘I have your mug shot from 1961. Have you ever seen it?’ Even people who are prone to be cautious were tickled to even think that it still existed.”
The result of Eteridge’s sleuthing was the book, Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, published in May 2008. It features 80 of the Freedom Riders, each shown in their 1961 mug shots alongside a more current photo that Etheridge took, plus interviews he did with the activists reflecting on their Freedom Ride experiences. More than two dozen of the riders Etheridge interviewed went on to become teachers or professors. There are also eight ministers as well as lawyers, Peace Corps workers, journalists and politicians.
Of the 320 or so Freedom Riders arrested in Mississippi, nearly 75 percent were between 18 and 30 years old. About half were black; a quarter, women. And as many who have examined these photos have concluded, the mug-shot expressions displayed by the riders in that famous summer of 1961 not only offer a look at the collective face of democracy in action, but also a measure of each Rider’s composure and determination at the time – and in some cases, their defiance, pride, vulnerability and/or fear as well. Yet above all, at least in the collective, there is an overwhelming optimism that seems to come through – and for the observer, faith in one’s “fellow man.”
A small cross-section of the 328 Freedom Riders who were arrested in Mississippi during the summer of 1961 – most of whom were processed in Jackson, MS and likely served time in Parchman State Prison for their “crime.”
The Mississippi Freedom Rider mug shots helped bring a new dimension to the Freedom Rider story, and many are now circulating on the web with personal histories attached, including “where-are-they-now” details. This visual record also helped enliven the 2011 PBS documentary mentioned earlier, and in some cases the photos have also been used on more recent book covers, magazine specials, websites, and DVDs exploring Freedom Rider history. They have also been used in special exhibits and in displays at some museums. A dozen or so are also offered below in “Sources,” only as a sampling, with very brief sketches.
For additional civil rights history at this website please visit “Civil Rights Stories,” a topics page, which includes thumbnail sketches and links to 14 additional story choices. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. - Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Buses Are A’Comin’- Freedom Riders: 1961,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 24, 2014.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Catherine Burks Brooks helped integrate restaurants in Nashville, TN before becoming a Freedom Rider. She was among the first group from Nashville who came to Birmingham to keep the Rides going in May of 1961, and also among those Birmingham Police Chief Bull Conner dropped off in rural Alabama in the middle of the night and told not to return. But she and her group did return to Birmingham to continue the Rides.
Bill Svanoe heard Dr. King speak in his last year at Oberlin College and realized that “this was not the country I thought it was." He signed up with the CORE and during his July 16th, 1961 bus ride was threatened with a gun by another traveler, but made it to Jackson where he was sent to Parchman prison. Later, his Rooftop Singers folk-rock group scored a No. 1 hit with 1963's “Walk Right In.” Play writing & teaching followed.
Hank Thomas was a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C. when he joined the first May 4, 1961 CORE Freedom Ride – the one that was firebombed in Anniston, AL. He was also beaten with a baseball bat there, but persisted in service with CORE as a field secretary in the South during 1962. In 1965-66 he served a tour of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. Today he & his wife own restaurants & hotels in Georgia.
Margaret Leonard, a 19 year-old student at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, LA in June 1961, was the first white Southerner to participate in the Freedom Rides, joining 8 others on June 21 on a bus ride from Montgomery, Al to Jackson, MS where she was arrested. Her mother, a progressive columnist for the Atlanta Journal, was fired after Margaret’s arrest. Margaret, now retired, had a long career as a reporter in Florida.
Clarence Melvin Wright, one of ten children, was born in Mason, TN and was a 19 year-old student at Tennessee State University when he rode a Greyhound bus from Nashville, via Memphis, to Jackson, MS. Clarence was one of 14 Tennessee State students expelled from school for joining the Rides. He also became active in voter registration drives and urban community work, settling in Detroit as a Conrail worker and security contractor.
Winonah Myers was a white student at the historically black Central State University in Ohio when she joined the Rides after the first group was attacked. She would later explain one key tactic of the Rides, in counter to those who thought mass arrests would stop the Rides: "Our feeling at the time was, 'We're going to keep coming and we're going to flood your jails, cram your dockets, and break you financially,' "
Jean Thompson was born and grew up in Louisiana, and along with her sisters, became active in New Orleans CORE. She was arrested in Jackson on a June 1961 Freedom Ride. After bailing out of jail, she returned to New Orleans to train other Riders. She also did civil rights work elsewhere in the South in the `60s and also with CORE in NY City. By the late '60s, she became involved in anti-war and feminist causes in California.
James Farmer was co-founder and National Director of CORE, chief architect of the original 1961 Freedom Ride. Farmer joined the Montgomery-to-Jackson ride on May 24th, 1961, was arrested in Jackson and sent to Parchman prison. Farmer, who devoted his career to civil rights and social justice causes, served as an Assist. Secretary in Richard Nixon’s Dept. of HEW, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 by Bill Clinton.
Jorgia Siegel was attending UC Berkeley when she heard a speaker describe the Freedom Ride violence in the South. She joined a training group in New Orleans to help “fill-the-jails.” On June 20th, 1961, she and 13 others took a train to Jackson where they were arrested and sent to Parchman. Growing up in a Jewish family, she remembered a cross burning in her neighborhood and a sign that read: “No Jews or Colored After Dark.”
Rev. Grant Harland Muse, Jr. was a 35 year-old priest at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, CA when he joined the Freedom Rides. Rev. Muse was a graduate of the University of New Mexico and had studied theology at Mirfield, England, and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. On June 20th, 1961, he and 12 others rode the Illinois Central Railroad from New Orleans to Jackson where they were arrested.
Helen Singleton and her husband, Bob Singleton were among the few people to join the Freedom Rides as a married couple. Inspired by the courage and commitment of earlier Freedom Riders, they helped recruit students from UCLA and Santa Monica College and other activists in Southern California to join the “fill-the-jails” strategy in Mississippi. They were both arrested after a July 30, 1961 train ride from New Orleans to Jackson.
Ellen Lee Ziskind was volunteering at the CORE offices in NY City the summer before her last year at Columbia University. She heard first-hand accounts from Freedom Riders who’d been beaten and jailed. “I think they kind of took my breath away,” she would later recall. “...[I]t was kind of like a story from another country. And I was so... struck by, swept away by their working to have a democracy.” She later volunteered, rode a bus to Jackson and served six weeks in Parchman.
Stokely Carmichael was a 19-year-old student at Howard Univ. when arrived in Jackson on June 4, 1961 by train from New Orleans with 8 other Riders. He would go on to become one of the leading voices of the Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party. He moved to West Africa in 1969, changed his name to honor African leaders, and was a proponent of the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party. He died in Guinea at the age of 57.
Eugene Levine, a 34 year-old English instructor at Oklahoma State Univ. and WWII vet, became a one-man Freedom Ride. Later explaining to Eric Etheridge that he hated joining groups, Levine drove to Jackson on his own. “The police saw I was alone... and older than the usual Freedom Rider.” They tried to send him back home without an arrest, but he persisted in joining the protest and was finally arrested on June 21, 1961 and put in jail.
John Lewis, at age 19, was on the first CORE Freedom Ride and had already been arrested in Nashville sit-ins. He later rode to Birmingham, was beaten in Montgomery, and also rode to Jackson, serving time at Parchman. He was chairman of SNCC, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and played a key role in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis has served his Georgia district for 27 years.
A 19-year-old Duke University student, Joan Trumpauer arrived in Jackson, MS by train from New Orleans, LA as part of a June 4, 1961 Freedom Ride. Arrested that day, she was later transferred to Parchman Prison, where among other things, she was subject to a forced vaginal examination. In 1964, she became a Freedom Summer organizer, later worked at various jobs in Washington, DC, and taught English as a second language.
Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner (left-center) and Rabbi Martin Freedman of New York – who rode a bus on the June 1961 Washington-to-Tallahassee, FL Freedom Ride – were also arrested in Tallahassee, shown above, for attempting to eat at a segregated airport restaurant.
Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and The Struggle for Racial Justice, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
WGBH, “Freedom Riders,” PBS/American Experience, Film & Website, PBS.org.
“Democracy in Action: A Study Guide to Accompany the Film, Freedom Riders,” American Experience/PBS/WGBH, PBS.org, 2011.
Terry Gross, “Get On the Bus: The Freedom Riders of 1961,” Fresh Air, WHYY/NPR, January 12, 2006.
Elsie Carper, “Pilgrimage Off on Racial Test,” Washington Post, May 5, 1961, p. B-4.
United Press International ( Rock Hill, S.C., May 10), “Biracial Unit Tells of Beating in South,” New York Times, May 11, 1961.
“Newsfilm Clip of a Burned out Greyhound Bus and Injured Freedom Riders in the Hospital in Anniston, Alabama,” WSB-TV (Atlanta, GA), May 14, 1961, Civil Rights Digital Library.
Associated Press (Anniston, Ala., May 15), “Bi-Racial Buses Attacked, Riders Beaten in Alabama; Alabama Whites Fire Bi-Racial Bus, New York Times, May 15, 1961, p. 1.
“Darkest Alabama,” Editorial, Washington Post, May 16, 1961.
United Press International (UPI), “Bi-Racial Group Cancels Bus Trip; Alabama Rejects Appeal by Robert Kennedy for Guard; Bus Drivers Balk at Bi-racial Trip; State Inspector Aids Passengers in Bus Burning,” New York Times, May 16, 1961.
“Pickets March Here,” New York Times, May 18, 1961.
Jack Gould, “TV: ‘C.B.S. Reports’ Turns Camera on Birmingham; Negroes and Whites State Their Views; Program Sheds Light on Conflicting Forces,” New York Times, May 19, 1961, Business, p. 63.
Associated Press, “Judge Issues Writ; Alabama Judge Bars Attempts At ‘Freedom Rides’ in the State,” New York Times, May 20, 1961, p. 1.
Associated Press (Birmingham, Ala., May 19), “Crowd at Bus Station,” New York Times, May 20, 1961.
“SNCC Wires President Kennedy,” The Student Voice (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC), Atlanta, Georgia, April-May1961, p. 1.
“Freedom Rides,1961,” The Student Voice (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC), Atlanta, Georgia, April-May1961, p. 3.
Associated Press (Montgomery, Ala, May 20), “Freedom Riders Attacked by Whites in Montgomery; President’s Aide Hurt by Rioters; Battle Rages for 2 Hours as Mobs Chase and Beat Anti-Segregation Group,” New York Times, May 21, 1961, p.1.
“Negroes, Whites Try to Renew Freedom Ride,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1961, p. 3.
U.S. Sends 400 Officers to Alabama After Riot,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1961, p. F1-F2
Anthony Lewis, “400 U.S. Marshals Sent to Alabama as Montgomery Bus Riots Hurt 20; President Bids State Keep Order; Force Due Today Agents to Bear Arms — Injunction Sought Against the Klan,” New York Times, Sunday, May 21, 1961, p. 1.
“Kennedy Orders Marshals to Alabama After New Freedom-Rider Mobbing,” Washington Post, May 21, 1961, p. 1.
“Russians Scornful; Refer to Alabama Violence as ‘Bestial’ U.S. Custom,” New York Times, May 22, 1961.
“Martial Law Declared in Alabama’s Capital; National Guard Troops Put Down New Riot; Wild Mob Trying to Overthrow U.S. Marshals; Scattered Troops Quell New Riots in Alabama’s Capital,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1961, pp. 1-3.
Susan Herrmann, “Southland Coed Caught in Rioting; Coed’s Story,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1961, p. 1
UPI, “Patterson Declares Martial Law As Alabama Negro Church is Attacked; New Violence Explodes in Montgomery Sunday,” Rome News-Journal (Rome, Georgia), May 22, 1961, pp. 1-2.
Norman Rockwell’s painting of six year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted into a New Orleans school in 1960 was printed inside the January 14, 1964 edition of Look magazine.
In June 2011 at the White House, Norman Rockwell’s 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With, depicting a famous school desegregation scene in New Orleans, began a period of prominent public display with the support of President Obama. The White House exhibition of Rockwell’s piece, which ran most of 2011, drew national attention to an iconic moment in America’s troubled civil rights history.
Rockwell’s painting focuses on an historic 1960 school integration episode when six year-old Ruby Bridges had to be escorted by federal marshals past jeering mobs to insure her safe enrollment at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was the first African American child to enroll at the school, and the local white community – as elsewhere in the country at that time – was fiercely opposed to the court-ordered desegregation of public schools then occurring. Rockwell’s rendering focuses on the little girl in her immaculate white dress, carrying her ruler and copy book, as the four U.S. marshals escort her. The painting also captures some of the contempt of those times with the scrawled racial epithet on the wall and the red splattering of a recently thrown tomato.
Norman Rockwell at work, mid-career.
Rockwell’s portrayal first appeared to wide public notice in January 1964 when it ran as a two-page centerfold illustration on the inside pages of Look magazine. The painting ran as an untitled illustration in the middle of Look’s feature story on how Americans live, describing their homes and communities.
The context of the Ruby Bridges scene rendered by Rockwell had been heavily reported in print and on television in November 1960, with the anger of the mobs that day burnished deeply in the public mind. Magazine readers viewing Rockwell’s piece in 1964 would likely recall the unhappy context of young school children being heckled and needing federal protection.
July 15, 2011: President Obama with Ruby Bridges (girl in painting), Rockwell Museum CEO, Laurie Moffatt, and behind Obama, Rockwell Museum President, Anne Morgan, viewing Rockwell’s painting at the White House near the Oval Office. White House photo, Peter Souza.
In 2011, President Obama had a hand in bringing Rockwell’s original painting to the White House, as did others, according to the Washington Post, including Ruby Bridges herself, the Norman Rockwell Museum which owns the painting, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Some quiet lobbying helped bring the painting to the White House, suggesting it be displayed there at the 50th anniversary of Ruby Bridges’ admission to the Frantz school. “The President likes pictures that tell a story and this painting fits that bill…,” explained a statement in the White House blog. “In 1963 Rockwell confronted the issue of prejudice head-on…” However, at the time of the painting’s White House display, some reporting had erroneously stated the Rockwell piece had initially appeared on thecover of the January 14th, 1964 Look magazine. That is a forgivable mistake given the fact that so much of Norman Rockwell’s work frequently did appear on magazine covers, most notably at the Saturday Evening Post. But the error raises an important question, nonetheless. Why didn’t the Rockwell painting of the famous civil rights incident run on the cover of Look magazine or some other magazine?
Norman Rockwell, circa 1940s.
Well, therein lies a whole other tale, or at least a part of the story not often told – about how depictions of race and civil rights evolved in American art and popular magazines during those times. By way of presenting some of that story here, the article that follows will look at the history of Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges piece; three other works he did related to race and civil rights; and how Rockwell, his magazine sponsors, and popular magazine publishing dealt with race and civil rights in the 1940s-thru-1960s period. First, some background on the artist.
Born in 1894, Norman Rockwell grew up in New York city, and as a boy dreamed of becoming an artist. By the time he was ten he was drawing constantly. He soon dropped out of high school and enrolled in art school, first at the National Academy School, but by 1910, at the prestigious Art Students League. After graduation he did some of his first work for Boy’s Life magazine. In 1916, Rockwell did his first cover for Saturday Evening Post, then one of America’s premiere weekly magazines. For nearly the next fifty years, he would continue making much-loved Saturday Evening Post covers, most depicting everyday scenes of 20th century Americana. Rockwell in fact, would do more than 320 covers for the Saturday Evening Post through 1963. But that’s only part of his story.
1929: Girl & Doll's Heart.
1949: Game Called, Rain.
1954: Girl in The Mirror.
1958: The Runaway.
Rockwell’s cover subjects for the Post ranged across American daily life – from a young boy in a doctor’s office awaiting a curative needle or teenage girls gossiping at a soda fountain, to a rookie baseball player reporting to play his first game or a worn-out politician at the end of a hard day of campaigning. Some of Rockwell’s covers dealt with aspirational themes and democratic values. In 1942, in response to a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt, Rockwell made his famous “Four Freedoms” series, each of which also ran as a Saturday Evening Post cover – Freedom of Speech (Feb 20, 1943), Freedom of Worship (Feb 27, 1943), Freedom from Want (March 6, 1943), and Freedom from Fear (March 13, 1943).
During this period as well, his Rosie the Riveter cover for the May 29th, 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and another depicting a “liberty girl” for the September 4th, 1943 edition, helped the government recruit female workers for the war effort during WWII. Some of these paintings traveled around the country in the mid-1940s, shown in conjunction with the sale of government war bonds. “The Four Freedoms” series reportedly brought in a tidy sum of $132,992,539 in war bond funds. Rockwell also did poster art for the U.S. Office of War Information in conjunction with the war bond drives.
Norman Rockwell at work on a 1953 painting for Saturday Evening Post cover, “Soda Jerk.”
While Rockwell’s name became practically synonymous with the Saturday Evening Post, he also did art for other publications, including: Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Literary Digest, Look,Country Gentleman, Popular Science, and others. Rockwell’s art appeared on the covers of some 80 magazines. His work also appeared in numerous advertisements and he became well known for illustrating the Boy Scouts of America annual calendar. (Galleries of Rockwell’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post are found at a number of very good websites, a few of which are listed at the end of this article in “Sources, Links & Additional Information”). In the 1950s and 1960s, Rockwell in particular — and other artists at the Saturday Evening Post as well — became chroniclers of American culture and America’s culture past as nostalgia. Rockwell worked at the heyday of the Saturday Evening Post’s reign as a magazine powerhouse, when circulation reached 4-to-5 million copies a week, and when a Rockwell cover alone could boost non-subscription sales by 250,000. For millions of magazine readers in those years, Norman Rockwell became a household name in America, even if many art critics at the time didn’t regard his work as “serious art.”
Civil Rights Subjects
“Freedom of Speech” was one of a Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series admired by African American activist Roderick Stephens, who urged Rockwell in 1943 to do a similar series to promote racial tolerance.
Rockwell appears to have been first nudged toward civil rights as subject matter in June 1943 when Roderick Stephens, an African-American activist and head of the Bronx Interracial Conference, wrote to Rockwell urging him to do a series of paintings to promote interracial relations. Stephens had been moved by Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” and was worried at the time that urban race riots would ensue in major cities like his own New York, touched off by the migration of southern blacks to major cities. Race riots, in fact, had then already occurred in Houston, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Although Stephens expressed his admiration to Rockwell for his “Four Freedoms,” he noted that two of the freedoms – “Freedom From Want” and “Freedom From Fear” – were, for most blacks at the time, freedoms denied. Stephens proposed that Rockwell do a series of paintings to be printed and circulated as posters, just as the “Four Freedoms” had been, to promote racial tolerance, featuring subject matter that would illustrate the contributions of blacks to American society and how they helped realize the Four Freedoms. Stephens believed Rockwell was an artist who could make a difference at the time, and could help “advance racial goodwill by years,” offering art to point up what was then in American practice, a restricted conception of freedom. Rockwell is believed to have replied to Stephens, but he never embarked on Stephens’ proposal, more or less rejecting the series idea, explaining to Stephens the difficulties he had encountered creating the “Four Freedoms” series. But there may have been more to it than that, as Rockwell was then laboring under restrictions imposed by The Saturday Evening Post.
Dec 7 1946: “NY Central Diner,” Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell’s venturing into controversial material such as race and civil rights did not come until later in his career, after he had left the Post. Like other artists of the 1940s and 1950s who did commercial art and magazine illustrations, Rockwell was bound by certain publishing covenants and restrictions, written and unwritten, that determined what could and could not appear in magazine covers and illustrations. The Saturday Evening Post, for example, would only allow minorities to be shown in servile roles.
In a 1971 interview with writer Richard Reeves, Rockwell explained the unwritten rule laid down by his first editor at the Post: “George Horace Lorimer, who was a very liberal man, told me never to show colored people except as servants.” Lorimer was Rockwell’s editor at the Post for his first twenty years there. The Rockwell cover illustration at left from the December 7th, 1946 Saturday Evening Post illustrates the rule in practice. The scene, which is also known as Boy in Dining Car, shows a young boy in a railroad dining car studying the menu with purse in hand, trying to determine the proper payment and tip for the black waiter.
Rockwell’s “Full Treatment” SEP cover of May 1940 includes black shoe shine boy.
In addition to the 1946 Post cover above, Rockwell also did other magazine covers and illustrations from the mid-1920s through mid-1940s that depicted African Americans in various roles, usually in minor or servile roles, and sometimes not facing the viewer. Among a few of these Rockwell pieces, for example, are: The Banjo Player, an illustration for a Pratt & Lambert varnish advertisement appearing inside The Saturday Evening Post of April 3rd, 1926; Thataway, a March 17th, 1934 cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a young black boy pointing to the direction taken by a thrown rider’s horse; Love Ouanga, a June 1936 illustration for a short story in American Magazine depicting a beautiful, stylishly-dressed young African American woman in a church scene contrasted against more coarse and country dress of other farming and working African Americans also in the scene; Full Treatment, a May 18th, 1940 cover for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a wealthy man being attended to by a barber, manicurist, and a black shoe shine boy; The Homecoming, a May 26th, 1945 cover for The Post depicting a returning military veteran arriving home to a scene of welcoming family and neighbors that also includes an African American worker; and Roadblock, a July 9th, 1949 cover for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a moving van that is blocked by a small dog in an urban alley scene with a variety on onlookers, including some black children.
Continuing into the 1950s and early 1960s, publishing art and mainstream magazines generally were slow to portray African American success stories and the civil rights struggle.
Cover Art, 1950s
1947: Jackie Robinson.
1954: Dorothy Dandridge.
1954: Segregation story.
1955: Thurgood Marshall.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the civil rights movement was struggling for recognition, the American art community – then involved with modern art and abstract expressionism – was generally not at the ramparts fighting racial discrimination. Nor, for the most part, were America’s most popular magazines in that era featuring African Americans on their covers or doing prominent stories on civil rights. In its May 8th, 1950 edition, Life magazine featured a photograph of baseball player Jackie Robinson on its cover, the first individual African American to be so featured by that magazine. Robinson had become the first African American to break the color barrier in professional baseball three years earlier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Time magazine, for its part, had used an artist’s rendering of Robinson on an earlier cover in September 1947. Back at Life, meanwhile, actress Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American woman to be featured on a cover at that magazine, for the November 1st, 1954 edition. Dandridge was then appearing in her Academy Award-nominated best actress film role in Carmen Jones. A few stories on segregation also appeared on major magazine covers in the mid-1950s. On September 13, 1954, Newsweek ran a cover story on segregation in schools, showing a white and a black child in a Washington, D.C. school. Time magazine put Thurgood Marshall on the cover of its September 19th, 1955 issue, Marshall then having risen to notice as chief counsel for the NAACP arguing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court. (see “Brown vs Board…” sidebar, later below, for more details).
A portion of the January 24, 1956 cover of Look magazine showing “Approved Killing” story tagline.
Look, another pictorial magazine similar to Life, and also popular in the 1950s, had rarely if ever used cover art that solely featured an African American. There were black sports stars shown on Look covers occasionally – such as Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson – but usually as one among five whites in a framed, six-photo layout. Look did give cover billing to a few articles on racial issues in the 1950s. On the cover of its January 24th, 1956 issue, Look ran the title of an article by William Bradford Huie, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.”
Although there was no mention of race in the title, and it ran on a somewhat incongruous cover featuring the U.S. teenager (partially shown at left), the “shocking story” inside was truly shocking. It was the story of the August 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old Chicago boy who was savagely beaten, shot, and mutilated by white men in Mississippi while the boy was visiting relatives there. Till, a brash kid who knew nothing about the realities of the South, made the mistake of whistling at a white woman at a local country store. Later abducted from his relatives’ home, Till was brutally pistol-whipped and dumped into a river, his body tied to a heavy metal fan.
Click to read at PBS.org.
Two white suspects – Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam – were later tried and acquitted by an all-white jury in less than two hours. Their defense attorney had called on the jurors to honor their forefathers by not convicting white men for killing a black person. Back in Chicago, Till’s mutilated body was displayed at an open-casket viewing. No mainstream print publication in America at that time published the gruesome photos, although a few black-owned publications did, provoking outrage throughout African American communities.
Inside the January 24th, 1956 Look magazine, the article by author William Bradford Huie covered the Till murder and he also interviewed the two suspects, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who were paid $4,000 to tell how they killed Emmett Till. In the article, the two suspects – then safe from conviction after having been acquitted in their friendly Mississippi trial – confessed to the crime. A year later, in its January 22nd, 1957 edition, Look published a follow-up article on the killing, also by William Bradford Huie, entitled “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?” That story reported that blacks in the local community stopped using stores owned by the Milam and Bryant families, putting them out of business, as both men were also ostracized by the white community.
1957: MLK bus boycott.
1961: Freedom Riders.
1963: Negro in America.
Cover Art ( cont’d)
On September 3rd, 1956, Life magazine featured a cover story related to slavery and segregation – “Beginning A Major Life series – Segregation,” stated Life at the top of the cover. Time magazine featured Martin Luther King on its cover February 18th, 1957, as King was then in the news for his leadership in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Later that year, on October 7th, 1957, Time and Life both featured the school integration conflict at Little Rock, Arkansas with National Guard troops shown on their covers. By the time of the Freedom Riders in 1961, a Newsweek cover story featured photos and quotes from three key players in the controversy: U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Mississippi Governor, John Patterson. For its June 28th, 1963 edition, Life featured a cover photograph of the wife and child of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers at his Arlington National Cemetery funeral. Evers, a Mississippi organizer, was shot in the back in his own driveway by a Ku Klux Klan member. In July 1963, Newsweek published a special issue on “The Negro in America,” picturing an unnamed black man on the cover. In smaller type on the cover, Newsweek further explained the focus of its series with the following: “The first definitive national survey – who he is, what he wants, what he fears, what he hates, how he lives, how he votes, why he is fighting … and why now?” For its September 6th, 1963 issue, Life magazine featured a cover story on the historic August 1963 “march on Washington” with a photograph of two of its leaders, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, shown standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And as the civil rights movement received more national notice throughout the 1960s, along with urban unrest, more magazine covers followed.
13 Feb 1960: Norman Rockwell, cover feature, Saturday Evening Post.
Rockwell & The Post
Norman Rockwell, meanwhile, was experiencing change at The Saturday Evening Post. By the early 1960s, the frequency of his covers there had slowed – down to a half dozen or so a year – and the magazine was experimenting with new formats. Still, after more than 40 years of his cover art being featured for millions of Post readers, Rockwell was clearly an asset to the magazine. In fact, for the February 13th, 1960 issue of the magazine and its cover story, he was the featured star and title subject. The cover used his famous “triple self-portrait” and gave full billing to a beginning series of articles about him for the magazine taken from a new autobiography written with the help of his middle son, Thomas Rockwell. Shown at right, the cover taglines for that issue of the Post explained: “Beginning in this issue: America’s Best Loved Artist Finally Tells His Own Story… My Adventures As An Illustrator.” Yet Rockwell was chafing at the Post by this time, and his days there were numbered.
1960: Window Washer.
1961: Artist at Work.
1962: Art Connoisseur.
1963: Nehru of India.
Through the early 1960s, Rockwell continued doing Post covers. In 1960, for example he did five more Post covers in addition to “triple self portrait,” shown above, three of which offered traditional subjects: “Repairing Stained Glass,” April 16, 1960; “University Club,” August 27, 1960; and “Window Washer,” September 17, 1960 (with the washer ogling the secretary). Two more Rockwell covers that year were portraits of the 1960 presidential candidates – U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. The magazine by then had begun shifting to more portraits of famous people as cover material, and was also using more cover photography rather than illustrations or paintings. Rockwell cover portraits, in any case, held their own at the Post, and included others in the early 1960s, among them: Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, January 19, 1963; Jack Benny, entertainer, March 2, 1963; a serious portrait of President John F. Kennedy to accompany a cover story on his foreign policy challenges, April 6, 1963; and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, May 25, 1963. Other more traditional Post covers by Rockwell in the early 1960s included: “Artist at Work,” Sept 16, 1961; “Cheerleader,” Nov 25, 1961; and “Art Connoisseur” of January 13 1962, showing a middle-aged man in a museum observing a Jackson Pollack-type painting (this issue also had cover billing for a story inside the magazine entitled, “The Little Known World of Our Negro Aristocracy.”).
Rockwell’s “Golden Rule” appeared on Saturday Evening Post cover, April 1, 1961.
One interesting departure for Rockwell from his normal Saturday Evening Post fare during the early 1960s – and a sign of his more liberal inner concerns – came with the April 1st, 1961 cover that appeared under the title “The Golden Rule.” This illustration actually had its genesis, in part, during the late 1940s when Rockwell had set out to do a painting honoring the United Nations (UN), an organization he admired and found hopeful for solving world problems. For the UN painting, Rockwell had in mind something that would highlight the cultural, racial, and religious tolerance of the organization, and he had visited the UN Security Council Chamber for ideas and sketches. His first efforts yielded a charcoal drawing of several major-nation delegates debating from their seats in a brightly lit foreground. Behind the delegates, in the shadows, was a crowd of more than sixty people – a cross-section of men, women, and children from around the world, some in native dress. But Rockwell had difficulty with the UN delegates agreeing to sit for the drawings, and he also had his own dissatisfactions with his art, so he set the project aside. Some years later, in 1960, he resurrected the project, then changing its composition somewhat and using “the golden rule” as theme. He also incorporated the phrase “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” directly into the painting using gold lettering.
Rockwell at work on “Golden Rule,” 1960.
The painting – which ran as a Saturday Evening Post cover on April 1st, 1961 – became a further expression of Rockwell’s inner values and interests, marking something of a turning point in his relationship with the Post, not the least of which was his depiction of people of color. African Americans were also included in the painting and placed in prominent positions – one as a Ruby Bridges-type young girl in the foreground holding her schoolbooks to her chest, and another as a middle-aged black man in a white shirt in the upper right corner looking out at the viewer. Art critics have noted that these African American depictions were positive portrayals that broke with the traditional servile stereotypes at the Saturday Evening Post. And along with the other Asians and Africans shown, were Rockwell’s way of following his conscience and “integrating” a Saturday Evening Post cover on his own. Rockwell also incorporated a portrayal of his second wife, Mary, in the painting. Mary was the mother of their three sons and had passed away in 1959. She is shown in the right middle of the painting holding their grandson she never saw. Rockwell is believed to have completed this painting in November 1960. He was later presented with the Interfaith Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for the painting, a citation he treasured.
Rockwell’s last cover for the Post, Dec 1963, an earlier JFK portrait.
By late 1963, Rockwell was about to embark on a career change. He was in his 60s by this time. The cover art at the Saturday Evening Post pretty much continued to focus on Americana and everyday life as it had in the past. Inside the magazine, however, there were contemporary stories of the day; the magazine was slowly changing.
Still, Rockwell had become frustrated by the limits the Post had imposed upon his art, especially regarding political themes and social concerns. By then he had begun thinking about and moving on to other subject matter. So in December 1963, he ended his near half-century with the Saturday Evening Post.
Rockwell’s final cover for the magazine appeared in mid-December 1963. It was actually an earlier portrait of John F. Kennedy he had done during the 1960 presidential campaign which the Post republished in a special memoriam issue that ran after Kennedy’s assassination.
Look magazine at about the time Rockwell signed on, December 1963, then featuring Hollywood’s Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn.
Rockwell at Look
In December 1963, at the age of 68, Norman Rockwell signed on with Look magazine. Look covers at the time dealt with contemporary subjects, celebrities, and general topics of the day, using mostly photographs. A sample cover from December 1963 appears at left, this one also mentioning a civil rights story inside that edition.
Major circulation magazines in the early 1960s were beginning to feel the competition of television. Collier’s had ceased publication in 1956, and even the Saturday Evening Post was feeling the heat. Yet, Life and Look – the “picture magazines,” as they were sometimes called – remained strong, with solid advertising revenue. Look by the mid-1960s would have some of its best years for sales and circulation.
When Rockwell began doing work for Look, Dan Mich was editor there. Mich was a supporter of thought-provoking journalism, and along with art director Allen Hurlburt, they gave Rockwell freedom to pursue his “bigger picture” interests, as he called them. Look wanted to use Rockwell’s art as a compliment to current reportage and that gave Rockwell opportunity to pursue subject matter that interested him.
Rockwell’s third wife, Mary L. “Molly” Punderson, a fervent liberal, was an influence on Rockwell’s work through the 1960s, as was his friend and psychiatrist Erik Erickson. And Rockwell himself, despite being tagged “conservative” by association with his Saturday Evening Post covers, had his own internal guideposts and values, as already noted above. Rockwell was clearly more liberal/progressive than many of his Saturday Evening Post followers might have realized. Some who knew him described him as a “strict constructionist,” especially so when it came to American values. No surprise then, if given a subject and a free hand where American ideals such as freedom and equality of opportunity were at stake, his brush would be on the right side of those concerns.
Ruby Bridges exiting the William Frantz school in New Orleans, November 1960, with U.S. marshals.
And so it was with the Ruby Bridges episode from 1960. Rockwell came to this particular controversy somewhat after the actual event had occurred. The date of his painting, The Problem We All Live With, is 1963 and its use in the illustration in Look magazine appeared in January 1964. So the Ruby Bridges painting was a studied affair for Rockwell; a project he had worked on for some time and given considerable thought to. In November 1960, at the time of the actual incident, there had been television and news reporting of the event. Rockwell no doubt made use of this reporting and the news photographs of the event. He also employed models to work from as he painted.
Prior to the first integration actions in New Orleans – and there were two schools involved and several black students; three at another school – politicians in Louisiana, including the state’s governor at the time, segregationist Jimmie Davis, had maneuvered to prevent and forestall the integration. In September 1960, the schools there opened initially as segregated. By November, however, the courts had set a deadline to begin school integration, but parents did not know which schools would be involved
“Brown vs. Board…” Landmark Case: 1954
Ruby Bridges being escorted into school, November 1960.
The racial integration of American public schools was triggered by a Kansas welder named Oliver Brown who wanted a better education for his children. Brown had sought the opportunity for his daughter to attend a whites-only school that was closer to his home than the local school for blacks. An earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision dating from 1896 had allowed for the establishment of racially-segregated schools, which the court had then deemed acceptable under the constitution, calling them “separate but equal.” Yet most of these schools were not equal. A long legal battle – a court fight consolidated with other similar cases using the name Brown vs. Board of Education – eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case was argued by Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (and who later became a Supreme Court justice). The court unanimously ruled in Brown’s favor on May 17, 1954, and the case became a landmark ruling in ending segregation, not only in schools but throughout a wide variety of public venues.
A federal marshal driving first grader Gail Etienne to McDonogh 19 school in New Orleans, November 14, 1960, one of four black children who entered two previously all-white schools in the city. Times-Picayune photo.
Putting the new law into effect, however, would take years. Initially, as Southern states and counties resisted integrating schools, federal marshals — and sometimes federal troops — had to be used to enforce the law, as in the case of Ruby Bridges in New Orleans. In 1956, U.S. District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the desegregation of the New Orleans public schools. After a series of appeals, Wright in 1960 set down a plan that required the integration of the schools on a grade-per-year basis, beginning with the first grade. The New Orleans School Board then tested black kindergartners to determine the best candidates. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges was one of six children selected; four agreed to proceed. On November 14th 1960, Bridges integrated the William Frantz School (the other three children were assigned to the McDonogh 19 School).
Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges
Sidewalk protest in New Orleans over school integration, November 15th,1960.
Once it was revealed which schools in New Orleans were the ones chosen for the court-ordered integration, sidewalk protests ensued and white parents promptly removed their children from those schools. However, at Ruby Bridges’ school – the William Frantz school — there were also two white parents who chose to keep their children in the school: a Christian minister’s five-year old daughter, Pamela Foreman, in kindergarten, and another white child, Yolanda Gabrielle, age six. In addition to the jeering of Ruby, these white kids and their parents were also jeered and harassed, even beyond the school grounds. Neighbor turned against neighbor and it got pretty ugly in those communities.
Rockwell, no doubt knew about all of this and likely read news accounts of the protests. On November 15, 1960, The New York Times reported the greeting Ruby and her mother received as they arrived that day: “Some 150 white, mostly housewives and teenage youths, clustered along the sidewalks across from the William Franz School when pupils marched in at 8:40 am. One youth chanted ‘Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate’…”
Detail from Rockwell painting: note “K.K.K.” on upper left wall.
As four U.S. marshals arrived with Ruby and her mother, they walked hurriedly up the steps to the school’s entrance as onlookers jeered and shouted taunts. On the sidewalk that day, assembled mothers and school students were yelling at police, some carrying signs, one held by a young boy that said, “All I Want For Christmas is a Clean White School.” Another placard that day read: “Save Segregation, Vote States Rights Pledged Electors.”
The white parents kept up their boycott of the schools the entire year, and the protests and jeering continued periodically. On December 2nd, 1960, for example, housewives demonstrated at the William Frantz school, one standing with a placard that read “Integration is a Mortal Sin,” citing a biblical scribe as source.
Rockwell’s painting, of course, does not capture all of this, nor was it intended to. His focus appears to be solely on the girl, placed at center, giving no special notice to the marshals, other than they were needed, as he portrays them as anonymous and headless, from mid-torso down. The setting around the little girl is ugly and threatening, but she is innocent and perfect, as her white dress and ribbon-tied hair suggest. As far as she is concerned, she is just going to school.
1962: Steinbeck book.
One description of the 1960 New Orleans school integration protests that Rockwell may have read prior to or during his work on the Ruby Bridges painting was John Steinbeck’s observations of the episode, offered in his 1962 best-seller, Travels with Charley: In Search of America. “Charley” was Steinbeck’s dog and traveling companion during his road trip around the United States. Travels With Charley was published by Viking Press in the mid-summer of 1962, reaching No.1 on the New York Times nonfiction best- seller list October 21, 1962. In part four of that book, Steinbeck recorded his reactions on coming to the New Orleans communities where the school integration controversy had flared, and he came away gravely saddened by what he saw. In his book, Steinbeck offered a detailed account of Ruby Bridges’ arrival at the elementary school and her handling by the U.S. marshals:
“…The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white…The little girl did not look back at the howling crowd but from the size the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big…”
November 1960: Demonstrators during school integration in New Orleans, Louisiana; one holding sign that reads, “Integration is A Mortal Sin.”
Steinbeck had come to New Orleans in part to see the “cheerleaders,” as he called those then protesting New Orleans’ school integration, and he describes what he found first hand, as he witnessed some of the protests:
“…No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. . . . But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?…”
Steinbeck wrote that he knew “something was wrong and distorted and out of drawing” in what he had seen in New Orleans. He had formerly counted himself as a friend of New Orleans; knew the city fairly well, had his favorite haunts there, and also had many treasured friends there – “thoughtful, gentle people, with a tradition of kindness and courtesy.” Where were they now, he wondered – “the ones whose arms would ache to gather up a small, scared, black mite?” Answering his own question, he wrote:
“…I don’t know where they were. Perhaps they felt as helpless as I did, but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world. The crowd, no doubt, rushed home to see themselves on television, and what they saw went out all over the world, unchallenged by the other things I know are there….”
Another influence on Rockwell at this time was likely Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst at the Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where Rockwell then lived and worked. Erikson treated Rockwell occasionally for bouts of depression, was Rockwell’s friend, and also had a passion for civil rights. Erikson was a colleague and mentor to a younger child psychiatrist named Robert Coles, who had begun working with Ruby Bridges and other children in the early school desegregation cases in 1961. Coles had found that segregation had damaged the self-esteem of the little girls, and by 1963 he had written a series of articles beginning in March for The Atlantic Monthly magazine profiling Ruby Bridges’s experiences during integration of the Frantz school. He also published The Desegregation of Southern Schools: A Psychiatric Study, a short book. Erikson may well have made Rockwell aware of these at the time he was painting The Problem We All Live With.
Look magazine’s cover story of January 14, 1964 focused on “How We Live” – American’s homes and communities – city, farm & suburb.
It appears Rockwell began working on the Ruby Bridges painting sometime in 1963, also finishing it that year. The editors at Look decided to use it in their January 14th, 1964 edition. On the cover of that issue, a portion of which is shown at right, Look featured photos of American homes in various urban and suburban settings, along with a few family shots, billing its cover story as: “How We Live: Up in the city, Down on the farm, Out in the suburbs. In homes packed with pride, prejudice and love.”
There was no special mention or billing of Norman Rockwell’s painting on the cover. The illustration would be found in the middle of the magazine as a full two-page spread with no accompanying text. In the table of contents it was billed under “art” with the title “The Problem We All Live With.” It appeared amidst a series of articles with titles such as: “Their First Home,” “Down On The Farm,” and “Their Dream House Is On Wheels.” One of the stories focused on Theodore and Beverly Mason, a black family living in a mixed community in Ludlow, Ohio.
Detail from “The Problem We All Live With.”
Rockwell’s former Saturday Evening Post fans, coming upon this painting in Look, may have been quite surprised. In fact, the painting did elicit reaction from Look’s readers, as the magazine received letters from those who were deeply moved by it, as well as those who were angered by it. Some analysts would later note that precisely because Rockwell was an artist dear to the hearts of many conservatives for his renderings of Americana and American values, that his “new” work on civil rights subjects may have made some of these same fans think twice about America’s racial problem at that time, helping them face up to racism. Rockwell himself would later say of his change in subject matter: “For 47 years, I portrayed the best of all possible worlds – grandfathers, puppy dogs – things like that. That kind of stuff is dead now, and I think it’s about time.”
March 23, 1965, Look cover.
Rockwell appears to have been quite comfortable with what he offered in the Ruby Bridges painting. In fact, in a letter he later wrote to the NAACP, Rockwell offered the illustration to the civil rights group, suggesting they reproduce the illustration as a poster to publicize their progress and accomplishments. It is not known here what the NAACP made of this offer, or if the illustration was ever used as Rockwell suggested. Rockwell, in any case, had more work to come on civil rights issues; work that would also be published by Look magazine, two of which are explored below.
Apart from Rockwell’s work, Look also published cover stories on civil rights issues in that period. On March 23, 1965 the magazine featured “The Negro Now” story by Robert Penn Warren on its cover, describing its content with a series of questions, also on the cover: “How far has the Negro come?,” “What is the South ready to concede?,” “What happens next in the North?,” “Can we move forward without violence?,” and “Who speaks for the Negro now?”
Rockwell’s “Southern Justice” painting of 1965, also known as “Murder in Mississippi,” depicting the killings of three civil rights workers murdered in June of 1964.
Another step that Norman Rockwell took with his civil rights painting in the 1960s, came when he ventured into depicting violence then occurring in the civil rights movement. In 1964, he began work on a painting inspired by the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in June of 1964.
The three young men – James Chaney, a 21 year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi; Andrew Goodman, a 20 year-old white Jewish anthropology student from New York; and Michael Schwerner, a 24 year-old white Jewish organizer and former social worker also from New York – were helping to register black voters in Mississippi. Initially, the three men were reported missing.
Within days of their disappearance, the story made national headlines, as President Lyndon Johnson ordered a massive search. However, it turned out that shortly after midnight on June 21, 1964, the three civil rights workers were murdered by local members of the Ku Klux Klan, aided in their plot by a local police chief. All three were beaten and then shot, and their bodies not located until August 8, 1964, found buried beneath an earthen dam.
Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman – the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi, June 1964. FBI photos.
Rockwell began work on his “Murder in Mississippi” in 1964, a painting which later used the name of the Look article that it ran with, “Southern Justice.” Rockwell typically worked on several projects at once, but with this project, he bore in on the work exclusively for five weeks straight. The painting, which depicts the horror endured by the three young men as they were being beaten, uses a barren, isolated rural scene as its setting, likely at the end of some dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. The scene is lit only by an unseen torch. One man is portrayed by Rockwell lying on the ground, presumably beaten, but trying, with one arm, to push himself up from the ground. Another is standing in the glow of the attacker’s torch trying to help his colleague, who appears beaten and near death. Analysts of this painting have noted that Rockwell, rather than actually showing the murderers in the scene, casts them instead as six ominous shadows approaching from the right, indicating that the young men are outnumbered, and also perhaps, symbolically, indicating the problem is a larger societal issue.
Norman Rockwell’s rough study sketch of beaten civil rights workers as it ran with article in Look magazine, June 29, 1965.
In considering this piece, the editors of Look were more taken with Rockwell’s initial sketch for the illustration and favored it over the finished painting, using it in the magazine. The editors felt the coarser version offered a more powerful, emotional interpretation. Rockwell at first disagreed with their choice but he did allow the sketch to be printed. In the June 29, 1965 edition of Look, it ran as a single-page illustration alongside a one-page article by Charles Morgan titled, “Southern Justice,” which focused on “segregated justice” in the South, the Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman murders, other civil rights murders and beatings in the South, and the absence of black judges in Southern courts. Rockwell’s illustration was captioned as “Philadelphia, Miss., June 21, 1964.”
As with the Ruby Bridges episode, Rockwell no doubt learned of this civil rights story through the media accounts and newspaper reporting of that day. On June 22, 1964, for example, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the incident using the following headlines and description: “3 In Rights Drive Reported Missing; Mississippi Campaign Heads Fear Foul Play–Inquiry by F.B.I. Is Ordered….”After the three workers were found dead, however, local officials in Mississippi refused to prosecute the suspected killers. The U.S. Justice Department then charged eighteen individuals with conspiring to deprive the three workers of their civil rights (by murder). Seven were found guilty on October 20, 1967, but with appeals, did not begin serving their 3-to-10 year sentences until 1970, with none serving more than six years. Three other suspects had been acquitted, but no further legal action ensued in the case until pressure was brought decades later, in June 2005, when the state of Mississippi prosecuted and convicted Edgar Ray Killen – who planned and directed the killing – on three counts of murder.
May 3, 1966: KKK cover.
June 14, 1966: Peace Corps.
Look magazine, meanwhile, went on to do other stories on civil rights issues. Less than a year later, on May 3, 1966, Look ran a cover story on the Ku Klux Klan showing a hooded Klansman on the cover wielding two flaming torches. Rockwell had done some other work for Look in 1965 following his Southern Justice illustration. For the July 27, 1965 edition of Look, Rockwell did an illustration to accompany an article on President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program for the poor, entitled “How Goes the War on Poverty.” Rockwell’s illustration featured a “helping hand” clasped to another’s seeking help, superimposed over a background of diverse faces with a quote from President Johnson lettered into the painting: “Hope for the Poor, Achievement for Yourself, Greatness for Your Nation.” In the following year, for the June 14, 1966 edition of Look, Rockwell did the cover art and four other pieces inside the magazine helping to illustrate a story on The Peace Corps – “J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy.” Rockwell’s cover piece included a profile of John F. Kennedy and others who actually served in the Peace Corps (some of whom also modeled for Rockwell as he did the painting), including one African American female. All were shown on the cover in profile looking left, with Kennedy in front (see cover above). Rockwell had thrown himself into the Peace Corps project, actually visiting Peace Corps volunteers in action in Ethiopia, India, and Colombia during 1966 as he created several narrative scenes of them at work. But Rockwell would also do more civil rights work the following year, also published in Look.
Look 1967: "Suburbia."
Story: Negro in Suburbs.
The May 16th, 1967 issue of Look magazine was billed as “A Report on Suburbia” – with added tagline, “The Good Life In Our Exploding Utopia.” Look’s cover for that edition also listed the line-up of suburban-related stories inside: “Parties and Prejudices,” “New Styles and Status,” Morals and Divorce, and “Teenagers in Trouble.” One of the stories to follow was by Jack Star, entitled “Negro in the Suburbs.” Mrs. Jacqueline Robbins, a young black housewife who then lived in the all-white Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois with her chemist husband, Terry, 32, and their two sons, was quoted as saying, “Being a Negro in the middle of white people is like being alone in the middle of a crowd.” A Rockwell illustration — entitled New Kids in the Neighborhood — ran in the middle of that article. “Although Negroes are still a rarity in the green reaches of suburbia,” reported the Look article, “they are emerging from nearly all the large metropolitan ghettos with increasing frequency.” In Chicago during 1966, the story explained, 179 Negro families moved into white suburbs – more than twice as many as in the previous year, seven times as many as in 1963…”
Norman Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood” ran as full two-page centerfold in Look magazine, May 17, 1967.
Rockwell’s full, two-page illustration inside this suburban-themed issue focused on a “moving-in” day scene for a new black family freshly arrived in some unnamed white suburb. In his painting, Rockwell uses black and white children as his focal point. The two sets of children are standing in front of a moving van sizing one another up. The two African American kids are presumably brother and sister. The three white kids – two boys and a girl – are kids from the neighborhood. Rockwell has included common elements for all the kids – the boys have baseball gloves, the girls each wear ribbons in their hair, and both groups have a pet. For the viewer, meanwhile, there is little escape, as Rockwell involves them quite directly with the central question, essentially asking them to complete the picture; asking them to think about how the interaction between these kids, their parents, their community and the larger society will unfold.
Child models used by Rockwell for “New Kids,” 1967.
Students of Rockwell have noted that he often used kids in his illustrations, sometimes as neutral arbiters and non-judgmental conveyors of life situations – but also as a means of reaching out to mainstream audiences to prod, send a needed message of some kind, or raise a pointed question. Rockwell’s two groups of kids in this painting might be seen as surrogates for the larger society, each group trying to decide what to do and whether or how to conquer that middle distance. The issue in the New Kids painting, of course, is not only the relationships that may ensue between the kids in the weeks and months ahead, but also the larger slate of societal and democratic issues that integration then posed for the nation and its future. The kids, in any case, are usually not the problem. As Ruby Bridges has remarked from her own experience with integration in Louisiana, “none of us knows anything about disliking one another when we come into the world. It is something that is passed on to us.” Rockwell, it seems, also tried to convey some of that, featuring childhood innocence amid adult turmoil, or just letting children be children. But Rockwell was also capable of more direct messages, using tougher themes and subject matter.
A black and white copy of Norman Rockwell’s “Blood Brothers” painting which he later gave to CORE.
In June 1968, during a conversation at a party, Norman Rockwell hit upon an idea for a painting. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April that year, there had been rioting in more than 100 U.S. cities, with a number of people killed and injured. Rockwell was thinking of a scene resulting from this urban unrest, and he called his editor at Look, Allen Hurlburt, to get preliminary approval and begin work. What Rockwell began to sketch were two dead men on the ground – one black and one white – both bloodied and beaten, found on a ghetto street after a riot lying parallel to one another, their blood co-mingling in a pool on the ground. According to the Norman Rockwell Museum, “Rockwell hoped to show the superficiality of racial differences – that the blood of all men was the same.”
Norman Rockwell, 1968, in front of easel with his “Blood Brothers” painting as shown in photograph from Ben Sonder book, “The Legacy of Norman Rockwell.”
Rockwell continued working on the project though June 1968 when Allen Hurlburt at Look suggested that Rockwell change the ghetto scene to a Vietnam battlefield scene. Rockwell then had the two men in essentially the same position, now dressed in military uniform, presumably killed in action during the Vietnam War, their helmets cast beside them on the ground. In war, of course, there was no discrimination; death and injury came to soldiers the same way, no matter if they were black or white. At this point the painting began to be known as Blood Brothers. However, later that fall, the editors at Look decided not to use the painting.
Rockwell wasn’t happy with the decision, did some soul searching and talked with friends about the painting, but set it aside and moved on to other work. But later that year, Rockwell received an invitation from the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group founded by students at the University of Chicago in 1942. CORE was active in desegregation protests and sits-in from its founding, and became a leading civil rights group in the 1960s, especially in the South, and also helped sponsor the 1963 March on Washington and other events. CORE wanted Rockwell to do an illustration for a Christmas card that the organization likely planned to use to send to its membership or perhaps for fundraising. But Rockwell did not send the group a typical Christmas or Holiday-themed illustration. Instead, he sent them the Blood Brothers painting. CORE, in any case, was happy to have Blood Brothers. However, it is not known how CORE used the painting or whether the group reproduced it for other purposes. One account has reported that the painting is missing from the CORE collection. The earlier studies and sketches Rockwell did for the painting are still held at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
Rockwell RFK sketches.
Rockwell, in any case, had been a very busy man in 1968. He had done portraits of all the presidential candidates for Look magazine that year – President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. Senators Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Bobby Kennedy for the Democrats, and Ronald Regan, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon for the Republicans.
Also in 1968, Rockwell’s Right to Know – a painting of a diverse group of citizens addressing their government – was published in Look’s August 20th edition. The 74 year-old artist had a number of other projects ongoing that year as well, including advertising work and illustrations for a children’s book. He also found time that year to appear on the Joey Bishop Show and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Norman Rockwell continued painting through his 70s. However, it was only in his latter years that his work began to be recognized for its artistic value. During much of his professional life, especially during his Saturday Evening Post years, Rockwell’s work was dismissed by many art critics who regarded his portrayals of American life to be idealistic or too sentimental. They did not consider him a “serious painter;” others believed his talents were wasted or put to frivolous purpose. Yet time would work in Rockwell’s favor.
Norman Rockwell, later years.
Today, his body of work, stretching over more that 60 years, is highly regarded and continues to be studied by scholars while thousands flock to Rockwell exhibitions wherever they appear. During his lifetime Rockwell completed some 4,000 original works, some lost to fire. In addition to his several hundred magazine illustrations and covers for Saturday Evening Post, Look, and other publications, he also did illustrations for more than 40 books including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; made annual contributions to the Boy Scouts of America calendars between 1925 and 1976; did illustrations for the Brown & Bigelow publishing and advertising firm between 1947 and 1964; completed numerous illustrations for booklets, catalogs, movie posters, sheet music, stamps, and playing cards; and also painted a few wall murals. His portrait work in later years would involve a number of famous figures, among them, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Arnold Palmer, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne. He also did a few unexpected pieces, such as a 1968 album cover portrait of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper for their rock-blues recording, The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
In 1969, having lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for last quarter of his life, he agreed to lend some of his works to the Stockbridge Historical Society for a permanent exhibition. Word soon spread that his works were on display there and attendance grew annually, into the thousands. By 1973, then in his late 70s, Rockwell established a trust to preserve his collection, placed initially in a custodianship that would later became the Norman Rockwell Museum of Stockbridge. In 1977, Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Gerald R. Ford, recognizing his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” The following year, on November 8, 1978, Rockwell died at his Stockbridge home at the age of 84. An unfinished painting remained on his easel.
Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” became a WWII & women’s rights icon. The original painting sold for 4.95 million dollars in 2002.
In July of 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative series of five Rockwell works including “Triple Self Portrait” and “The Four Freedoms.” In 1999, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said of Rockwell in ArtNews: “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.” Rockwell’s work was exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York city from November 1999 through February 2002.
Today, Norman Rockwell originals fetch millions at auction, and in recent years the values have been jumping. Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveterpainting, used for a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1943 shown at right, was sold twice in recent years – once in 2000 for $2 million, and when resold again in May 2002, escalated to $4.95 million. His Homecoming Marine sold for $9.2 million at auction in May 2006. And in November 2006 at Sotheby’s in New York, Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties sold for $15.4 million. Collectors of Rockwell art today include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The National Portrait Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others.
1994 U.S. postage stamp for Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want.”
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA – with visitors now trending upwards of 160,000 annually – holds the world’s largest collection of original Rockwell art, including some 574 original works as well as the Norman Rockwell Archives of photographs, fan mail, and other documents. Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges painting – The Problem We All Live With – featured at the top of this story, is on display at the White House from June 22 – October 31, 2011. Thereafter it is scheduled to rejoin the Rockwell museum’s traveling exhibition, “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell.”
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Rockwell & Race, 1963-1968,” PopHistoryDig.com, September 22, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
1940s: Norman Rockwell at work on a magazine cover.
"Thataway" - March 1934 Saturday Evening Post cover; example of early "rule" on African American depiction.
Nov 29, 1960: White parent, Rev. Lloyd Foreman (left) walks his five-year-old daughter Pam to the newly integrated William Frantz School where they were blocked by jeering crowd. At right is AP reporter Dave Zinman. AP photo.
Nov 30, 1960: White parent Mrs. James Gabrielle, with police escort, is harassed by protestors as she walks her young daughter home after day in the newly integrated William Frantz school in New Orleans. Crowd wanted total white boycott. AP photo.
Rockwell’s “Breaking Home Ties,” SEP cover art of Sept 25, 1954, depicts father and son sitting on automobile running board as son departs for college, sold for 15.4 million dollars at Sotheby's auction in 2006.
Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” SEP cover art of Nov 24, 1951 and a fan favorite, depicts an older women and young boy giving thanks for their meal at a shared table amid busy scene in a working class restaurant.
Norman Rockwell’s "Truth About Santa" or "Discovery,” captures the complete surprise of a crestfallen young boy who has discovered Dad’s Santa suit. SEP cover, December 29, 1956.
DeNeen Brown, “Iconic Moment Finds a Space at White House,” Washington Post, Monday, August 29, 2011, p. C-1.
Brooklyn, NY sculpture of Pee Wee Reese left and Jackie Robinson, commemorating Reese’s May 1947 "arm-around-the-shoulders" support of Robinson during racial heckling by fans at a Cincinnati Reds game. Photo: MLB.com.
On May 13, 1947 a professional baseball game was about to be played at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. A new ball player for the Dodgers named Jackie Robinson was taking infield practice with the rest of his mates before the game was about to start. Robinson, however, wasn’t just any player. He was the first African American to play on a professional baseball team. Baseball then was still an all-white affair, as black ballplayers played in the “separate and apart” Negro League, as it was called. Robinson, however, was chosen by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey, to be the first black player to play for a professional team in Major League baseball. Robinson had been signed by the Dodgers in 1945 and had played for the Dodger’s minor league team a year earlier in Montreal, Canada. He had made his major league debut with the Dodgers at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on April 15th, 1947. So this game in Cincinnati was among the earliest of the Dodgers’ road games that year, with Robinson being introduced for the first time to fans beyond Brooklyn. In Cincinnati that day, however, they were not particularly welcoming of Robinson.
The Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson monument is a work by sculptor William Behrends. Photo, Ted Levin.
During the pre-game infield practice, the fans were heckling and taunting Robinson, who was then playing first base. Robinson had also received death threats prior to the game, as he had elsewhere; threats that would continue to dog him for several years. But Reese on this day walked diagonally across the field and joined Robinson, engaging him in conversation and putting his arm around Robinson’s shoulders as he did. Reese then, according to sportswriter Roger Kahn, “looked into the Cincinnati dugout and the grandstands beyond,” as the slurs and heckling were coming both from the Cincinnati ballplayers and fans. Some of the players and fans were taunting Robinson, shouting out terms like “shoeshine boy” and “snowflake” and worse. Reese, however, did not call out at the taunters or the Cincinnati dugout. But he kept his arm around Robinson’s shoulder while talking to him, which soon helped quiet the crowd and defuse the hostility. It was a moment for many who saw it say they will never forget, as a hush fell over the field and stadium. For Robinson and Reese, the moment became an important bonding experience that helped forge a long friendship. Years later Robinson would tell Roger Kahn: ”After Pee Wee came over like that, I never felt alone on a baseball field again.”
Pee Wee Reese, Brooklyn Dodgers, on a 1953 Topps baseball card.
Reese, in many ways, was an unlikely candidate to ally with Robinson’s strife. He was born in 1918, in Ekron, Kentucky, and moved with his family to racially segregated Louisville when he about eight years old. Louisville, not far away from Cincinnati, was then part of the old south; the south that had practiced institutionalized racial discrimination with all its outward manifestations of separate “colored” facilities. As a boy growing up, Reese had seen and experienced racial discrimination. His father had memorably marked one particular spot for him as a boy, pointing out a local tree where lynchings had occurred. Reese, however, had little contact with blacks during his youth. “When I was growing up, we never played ball with blacks because they weren’t allowed in the parks,” he would later explain. “And the schools were segregated, so we didn’t go to school with them….”
Reese was still finishing up his World War II military tour in the U.S. Navy in 1946 when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Dodgers’ baseball organization. Robinson would begin his play that year with the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, Canada. But in 1947, when Robinson reported to the main Brooklyn Dodger’s spring training camp, Reese was the first Dodger to walk across the field and shake his hand. “It was the first time I’d ever shaken the hand of a black man,” Reese would later say. “But I was the captain of the team. It was my job, I believed, to greet the new players.”
Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jackie Robinson made his debut in major league baseball when he stepped onto Ebbets Field that April 1947 day in Brooklyn, New York. Branch Rickey had carefully selected Robinson for this day. Rickey thought he had found in Robinson a candidate who could weather the storm of taunts and abuse that was certain to come to the first black player in major league baseball. Rickey had the support of Happy Chandler, baseball’s commissioner, at the time. Chandler, in fact, had stated that if African Americans could fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal, and in the South Pacific during WWII, they could play ball in America. There was also political support for Rickey in New York, as both the city council and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on Baseball backed a resolution against discrimination in professional baseball. And in March 1945, the state of New York had passed the first state Fair Employment Practices law forbidding “discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin.” Jackie Robinson, meanwhile, was an exceptional athlete. At UCLA, he had become the first ever to earn a varsity letter in four sports in one year – baseball, football, basketball, and track. But Rickey selected Robinson not only for his athletic capability, but also for his character, competitiveness, and determination. Robinson, however, was no patsy; he had a strong rebellious streak in him and a temper that could be provoked.
Jackie Robinson & Brooklyn Dodger’s general manager, Branch Rickey, shown in a 1948 photograph.
Rickey knew the going would be tough for Robinson and he warned him early on that there would be few supporters for what they were about to do: “No owners, no umpires, very few newspaper men – and I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile,” Rickey told Robinson. “We can win,” he said, “only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”
Rickey wanted a candidate who had the guts not to strike back. He asked Robinson to promise he would not fight back for his first three seasons – even though he would surely hear every imaginable kind of slur and insult. However, Robinson’s first test at the major league level – he already had a season’s worth of taunts at the minor league level in 1946 – came not from fans, but from
his own Brooklyn Dodger teammates.
Jackie Robinson & Pee Wee Reese, circa 1950s.
A petition had been drawn up in early 1947 by a group of Dodgers that stated they would not take the field with a black man. Pee Wee Reese, however, refused to sign it. Reese later downplayed his role in the refusal. “I wasn’t thinking of myself as the Great White Father,” Reese would later tell a reporter. “I just wanted to play baseball. I’d just come back from serving in the South Pacific with the Navy during the Second World War, and I had a wife and daughter to support. I needed the money. I just wanted to get on with it.”
But Pee Wee Reese became one of the most popular players of his day, known among fans and teammates as the “Little Colonel.” Not only was he the Dodgers’ captain in those years, he almost appeared to be their manager on occasion, bringing out the line-up card to the umpires at the start of games, a practice usually reserved for managers.
Brooklyn Dodgers players on opening day, April 15, 1947, from left: John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jackie Robinson.
Robinson, meanwhile, was stepping into a very visible and very contentious arena. Blacks had struggled for decades against every imaginable kind of discrimination and indignity and had to use separate rest rooms, drinking fountains, and waiting areas; could not stay in most hotels or eat in public restaurants; and had designated seating areas on buses and trains. In the late 1940s, segregation and discrimination were common throughout the U.S., north and south. On Long Island, New York, returning WWII veterans in the late 1940s were snapping up Levittown homes, but not black veterans. Developers refused to sell to African Americans. In fact, in 1950 there were state laws and/or local ordinances in effect in 48 states and the District of Columbia that mandated racial segregation of some kind; laws requiring African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and/or Asian Americans to go to segregated schools, work at segregated jobs, and live in segregated parts of town. Racially motivated violence still occurred throughout the country during the 1940s and 1950s, as Congress had refused to pass an anti-lynching law to quell racial violence. But soon the modern civil rights movement had a new spark – and as some would come to believe, a prime moving event pushing civil rights ahead – when Jackie Robinson took to Ebbets Field in April 1947. Yet the indignities and prejudices would not yield overnight, and Jackie Robinson in the limelight, bore a heavy load over many, many games and too many years.
Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and pitcher “Preacher” Roe celebrating after beating the New York Yankees in game 3 of the 1952 World Series.
White fans, in particular, were upset that black fans would be coming to see Robinson play; coming into stadiums in which they had previously been denied admission. Players from opposing teams also heckled Robinson mercilessly. And on the field during games, he was purposely spiked and spit on, while pitchers sometimes threw at his head. He also received hate mail and threats from fans, like those in Cincinnati.
That first year for Robinson, his teammates, and the Dodger organization was a rough time. Reese, who was also Robinson’s roommate when they traveled, did what he could to help buoy Robinson through the worst of insults and hard times. But in the end, it was Robinson’s play that won the day and would gradually win fan support. Still, under great pressure in that first year, Robinson’s play was outstanding, and he won the Rookie of the Year award.
“Thinking about the things that happened,” Reese would later say of Robinson’s ordeal, “I don’t know any other ballplayer who could have done what he did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
“Pee Wee” Reese
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Harold H. “Pee Wee” Reese began his baseball career in 1938 when he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing first with their Louisville Colonels minor league team. He then went briefly to the Boston Red Sox who sold him to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he made his big league playing debut in April 1940. That year Reese hit .272 in 84 games sharing shortstop duties with player-manager Leo Durocher. By 1942, he made National League all-star team at age 24. Then with World War II, he went off to the Navy for two years. Back with the Dodgers in 1946, Reese was named to the National League all-star team again, a distinction he would win in eight more consecutive seasons.
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers, shown on 1957 Topps baseball card.
In 1947 and 1948, Reese led National League shortstops in double plays. In 1949, Reese topped the National Leaguers with 132 runs scored as the Dodgers won the pennant. He also led the National League that year in fielding average at .977. In the 1949 World Series, the Dodgers lost to the Yankees despite Reese’s .316 series batting average. In 1952, Reese led the National League in stolen bases with 30, and in the World Series that year compiled a .345 batting average with 10 hits, one home run and four RBIs. In Game 3 of that World Series, Robinson and Reese pulled off a double steal, with both later scoring on a passed ball.
In 1953 Reese again was an important player in the Dodgers’ National League pennant run, compiling a .271 batting average and scoring 108 runs. The Dodgers went 105–49 that year but again lost the world Series to the Yankees. In 1954, now 36 years old, Reese compiled a .309 batting average. The following year he scored 99 runs as the Dodgers won their first World Series with Reese garnering two RBIs in Game 2 while also making some outstanding defensive plays. By 1957, Reese was playing less as starter, and after moving with the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 as a backup infielder, he retired. In 1959, he coached with the Dodgers, a year they won the World Series. After that, Reese enjoyed a broadcasting career for a time, working with CBS, NBC, and the Cincinnati Reds. He later became director of the college and professional baseball staff at Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of Louisville Slugger bats. Reese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984. Reese passed away in 1999. At Reese’s funeral, Joe Black, another African American ballplayer who helped integrate baseball, spoke of how he and others had been moved by Reese’s support for Robinson when the insults were flying:
“…When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time that a white guy had accepted us. When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, ‘Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.’ With Pee Wee, it was No. 1 on his uniform and No. 1 in our hearts.”
Among other things, Jackie Robinson had been a track star at UCLA in 1940.
Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia . Robinson’s father left while young Jackie was still a toddler, and the family then moved to Pasadena, California where Robinson’s mother worked various odd jobs to support the family. At John Muir High School, Robinson became a star athlete in several sports – at shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, and guard on the basketball team. In track he won awards in the broad jump and also won a junior boys singles tennis championship.
Following high school, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College, where he continued his athletic career excelling in basketball, football, baseball, and track. After junior college, he transferred to UCLA, where he became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. In 1939, he was one of four black players on the UCLA football team, a time when mainstream college football had only a few blacks in the game. In 1940, Robinson won the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship long jump event, baseball then being his “worst sport.”
Jackie Robinson in his U.S. Army officer’s uniform, was acquitted in a court martial for a “back-of-the-bus” incident & false charges.
In 1941, Robinson played semi-professional football briefly with the racially-integrated Honolulu Bears in Hawaii, and had plans to continue with the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League. However, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Robinson’s football career ended as he was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a segregated Army unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. At Fort Riley, Robinson and several other black soldiers applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School, but admission to the program was blocked until help came by way of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and others. Robinson was admitted to OCS school, and in January 1943 he was commissioned an officer, second lieutenant, in the U.S. Army. Then came an incident on a military bus where Robinson was ordered to sit in the back of the bus, which he refused to do, leading to an arrest, some trumped-up charges, and a court martial, in which Robinson was acquitted in August 1944 by an all-white panel of officers.
Jackie Robinson with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League, 1945.
By early 1945, while Robinson was serving as athletics director at Sam Houston College in Texas, the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team of the Negro baseball leagues sent him a written offer to play for the team. Robinson accepted a contract roughly equal to $4,800 a month in today’s money. In April 1945, Robinson also attended a tryout that the Boston Red Sox major league team had arranged for a few black players; a tryout that turned out to be a farce to appease an anti-segregation city councilman. At the tryout, with largely Red Sox management in attendance, there were racial slurs and epithets hurled at the black players, leaving Robinson and others humiliated.
Meanwhile, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers had been searching for a prospective black ball player to help break the color barrier in professional baseball, and in August after meeting with several prospects, he began meeting with Robinson. Satisfied that Robinson would commit to not fighting back, Rickey signed him to a contract of roughly the equivalent of $7,300 a month in today’s money. The deal was formally announced in late October 1945 that Robinson would be playing for the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals minor league team for the 1946 season.
Jackie Robinson at his first minor league game, Jersey City, N.J., April 18, 1946.
In his year with Montreal, Robinson faced racial difficulties from the start. In spring training in Florida local hotels refused to lodge him. But it wasn’t just Robinson who had problems. Some baseball parks in Florida at the time, typically eager to host spring training teams, refused to let the Montreal Royals use their parks. In March 1946 the Triple-A Royals were scheduled to play an exhibition against their parent club, the Dodgers. However, both Florida towns of Jacksonville and Sanford refused to allow the game to be played in their parks, citing segregation laws. Daytona Beach, however, agreed, and the game was played on March 17, 1946. The Dodgers didn’t forget the incident, as the following year they shifted their spring training from Jacksonville, their previous spring training home, to Daytona.
Jackie Robinson at his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15,1947.
Robinson, meanwhile, throughout his minor league season with Montreal, was taunted and heckled. His play on the field, however, was superior, leading the league in batting and fielding with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage, also named the league’s Most Valuable Player while helping set league attendance records. More than one million people attended minor league games involving Robinson in 1946, a very large number at the time. In fact, at one point in Montreal, after winning the league championship, Robinson was chased – in a good way – by a crowd of jubilant fans.
Next came the big leagues. But some of the Dodgers’ players weren’t happy to be playing with a black man, as some had signed a petition saying they would not play. Rickey delegated team manager Leo Durocher to address the problem head on, which he did in a locker room speech. “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a … zebra,” he told his players. “I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see
that you are all traded.”
Example of hate mail Jackie Robinson received, May 20, 1950, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: National Baseball Library.
On opening day with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, Robinson did not have an exceptional playing debut, but more than 26,600 fans had come out, with about 14,000 of them black fans. But Robinson soon had an early test of his pledge to Branch Rickey when the Philadelphia Phillies came to Brooklyn that April for a three-game series. The taunts hurled at Robinson came from the players and the Phillies’ manger, Ben Chapman, most embellished with the “n” word. “We don’t want you here, n____,” and, “N___, go back to the cotton fields.” And worse. Robinson nearly lost it with the Phillies, and was ready to throw in the towel then and there, but some of his teammates began rising to his defense, a positive development that Durocher and Rickey were happy to see.
There were also lots of incidents on the road, like that at Crosley Field where Pee Wee Reese interceded. In August 1947 in St. Louis, Cardinals player Enos Slaugher purposely slid high into Robinson at first base, spikes first, slicing open Robinson’s thigh. Still, even with this onslaught of taunts, rough play, and death threats, Robinson finished the 1947 season with a .297 batting average, 125 runs scored, 12 home runs, and a league-leading 29 stolen bases. His performance earned him the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award, then a single award covering both leagues. Robinson’s play that year also helped the Dodgers win the National League Pennant, then meeting the New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series, though losing to the Yankees in seven games. The taunts and threats for Robinson, however, would continue for years.
Jackie Robinson appeared on “Time” magazine’s cover September 22, 1947.
In 1948, Robinson played second base with a .980 fielding average. He hit .296 that year with 22 stolen bases. In one game against the St. Louis Cardinals in late August 1948, Robinson “hit for the cycle,” a rare batting feat of a home run, a triple, a double, and a single in the same game. The Dodgers finished third in the league that year. By this time, other black players had joined professional baseball, including Larry Doby who joined the Cleveland Indians in the American League in July 1947 and Satchel Paige, who also played for Cleveland. The Dodgers, too, had added three additional black players.
In 1949, after working with retired Hall-of-Famer and experienced batsman George Sisler, Robinson improved his batting average to.342. He also had 124 runs batted in (RBIs) that year, 122 runs scored, 37 stolen bases, and was second in the league for doubles and triples. Robinson became first black player voted into the All-Star Game that year, and also the first black player to receive the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. A popular song was also made in Robinson’s honor that year – a song by Buddy Johnson that was also recorded by Count Basie and others – “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” The song became a pop hit, with the Buddy Johnson version reaching No. 13 on the music charts in August 1949. The Dodgers, meanwhile, won the pennant again, but also lost again to the Yankees in the World Series.
Jackie Robinson, once on base, was always a stealing threat, having very quick feet, a good sense of timing, and smart base running.
By 1950, Robinson was the highest paid Dodger, making nearly $320,000 in today’s money. He finished the year with a .328 batting average, 99 runs scored, and 12 stolen bases. He also led the National League in double plays by a second baseman with 133. A Hollywood film biography of Robinson’s life, The Jackie Robinson Story, was released that year as well, with Robinson playing himself in the film. Branch Rickey, then with an expired contract and no chance of replacing Walter O’ Malley as Dodger president, cashed out his one-quarter ownership interest in the team and became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1951, Robinson had another good year, finishing with a .335 batting average, 106 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases. He also again led the National League in double plays made by a second baseman with 137. Robinson kept the Dodgers in contention for the 1951 pennant with a clutch hitting performance in two at bats in an extra inning game that forced a playoff against the New York Giants – that later game ending badly for the Dodgers with the famous Bobby Thomson home run giving the Giant’s the pennant.
Pee Wee Reese & Jackie Robinson featured on the October 1952 cover of “Sport” magazine turning a defensive “double play”.
In 1952, Robinson had what became for him an average year, finishing with a .308 batting average, 104 runs scored, and 24 stolen bases. Sport magazine that fall put Robinson and Reese on the cover, shown in “double play” action. The Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1952, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in seven games.
By 1953 Robinson began playing other positions, as Jim Gilliam, another black player, took over at second base. Robinson’s hitting, however, was a good as ever, compiling a .329 batting average, scoring 109 runs, and 17 steals. The Dodgers again took the pennant and again lost the World Series to the Yankees, this time in six games. A series of death threats were made on Robinson’s life during the 1953 season. Still, on the road, he would speak out and criticize segregated hotels and restaurants that poorly served the Dodger organization, including the five-star Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis, which later changed its practices. In 1954, Robinson had a .311 batting average, scored 62 runs, and had 7 steals. His best day at the plate that year came on June 17th when he hit two home runs and two doubles.
Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series still angers Yogi Berra who claims Robinson was out. Photo: Mark Kauffman/SI.
In 1955, Robinson missed 49 games and his performance slipped below his usual standard, hitting .256 that year with 12 stolen bases. He was now 37, playing either in the outfield or at third base. The Dodgers took the pennant that year and finally beat the Yankees in the World Series. In the following year, 1956, Robinson hit .275, scored 61 runs, and had 12 stolen bases. Around this time, he also began to exhibit the effects of diabetes. After the season ended, the Dodgers started to arrange a trade of Robinson to their arch-rivals, the New York Giants. However, the deal was never completed, as Robinson retired, announcing his retirement in a pre-arranged exclusive story in Look magazine. Robinson had also arranged for a business position with the Chock-Full-o’-Nuts coffee company.
Over ten seasons, Jackie Robinson had helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants, taking them to the World Series in each of those years, winning the Series in 1955. He was selected for six consecutive All-Star games from 1949 to 1954, received the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1949. But Jackie Robinson’s career, of course, was marked by much more than his outstanding play; as he became a powerful impetus for, and one of the most important figures in, the American civil rights movement that grew through the 1950s and 1960s.
Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson statue at the entrance of KeySpan Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Ted Levin.
In the years following his retirement from baseball, Robinson was honored in innumerable ways for his pioneering role in breaking baseball’s color barrier. He also became a tireless civil rights proponent in baseball and elsewhere, but especially pushing baseball to do more minority hiring in the managerial and front-office ranks. Jackie Robinson passed on in October 1972. He was 53 years old. His life and legacy have since been commemorated on postage stamps and presidential citations; special anniversary commemorations and also having his playing numeral, 42, retired by all Major League baseball teams. In 1973, his wife Rachel created the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has since awarded higher education scholarships to more than 1,200 minority students and is also involved in other baseball history and leadership development programs.
In 1999, Time magazine named Robinson among the world’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century, while Sporting News placed him on its list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Yet among all the Jackie Robinson commemorations and honors — and there are many others enumerated elsewhere — the recent 2005 Reese-Robinson sculpture in Brooklyn commemorating that moment in May 1947 when the two ballplayers made a powerful social statement by simply standing together, remains one of the more interesting and instructive honors, capturing a moment that stands out in baseball as well as the nation’s social history.
Reese-Robinson sculpture in Brooklyn sits atop a pedestal with descriptive engraving about the 1947 incident in Cincinnati. Photo Ted Levin.
The Reese-Robinson sculpture is located at the entrance to KeySpan Park, home of the New York Mets’ Class A minor league baseball team, the Brooklyn Cyclones. The likenesses of Reese and Robinson are eight-foot-tall bronze figures standing on an engraved pedestal with descriptive passages. The sculpture is the work of William Behrends. The monument was unveiled on November 1, 2005 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Rachel Robinson, Dorothy Reese, and a number of other VIPs.
The genesis of the project came about shortly after Pee Wee Reese’s death in August 1999, with some fans looking for a way to commemorate Reese’s playing career. Stan Isaacs, a columnist with Newsday, suggested that instead of naming a parkway or highway after Reese, that a statue in Brooklyn honoring the famous Reese-Robinson moment in 1947 would be a fitting tribute to Reese. Isaacs’ suggestion was subsequently mentioned during a TV broadcast of a Mets baseball game. Then New York Post writer, Jack Newfield, picked up the idea, writing about it in several columns. By December 1999, then Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani embraced the proposal and a committee was formed study the project. Giuliani became one of the lead donors for the project, making a $10,000 gift after he left office. The project then lapsed for a time following September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Close-up of Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson sculpture. Photo: “Mets Guy in Michigan” website.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg resurrected the project after taking office, with Deputy Mayor for Administration, Patricia Harris, taking lead on the project. The KeySpan Park location was chosen, with the monument erected on public parkland, making it accessible to everyone. Some $1.2 million was raised to build and maintain the monument, with 110 donors contributing – ranging from Ted Forstmann, senior partner of Forstmann Little & Co. and Bob Daly, former Chairman and CEO of Warner Brothers and former managing partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to the New York Mets and New York Yankees baseball teams and a group of students at P.S. 7 Brooklyn Abraham Lincoln school who contributed a portion of their collected pennies to the project. The largest gift of $200,000, which helped complete the fundraising for the project, was made by Bob Daly, who had grown up in Brooklyn and had been a Dodger fan as a young boy, had been impressed by both players and Reese’s friendship with Robinson.
On the pedestal of the sculpture are six panels, which include an engraved description with the following explanation:
“This monument honors Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese: teammates, friends, and men of courage and conviction. Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Reese supported him, and together they made history. In May 1947, on Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Robinson endured racist taunts, jeers, and death threats that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man. Reese, captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, walked over to his teammate Robinson and stood by his side, silencing the taunts of the crowd. This simple gesture challenged prejudice and created a powerful and enduring friendship.”
At the dedication ceremony for the Reese-Robinson sculpture in 2005 are, from left: Rachel Robinson, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Dorothy Reese, and NY city councilman, Mike Nelson . Photo: Ted Levin.
At the dedication ceremony in November 2005, there were a number of speeches given by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, various baseball dignitaries, local officials, and Reese-Robinson family members. They all had good things to say.
“The Reese family is extremely proud to be able to share in the unveiling of this very special statue with the Robinson family,” said Reese’s wife, Dorothy. “Pee Wee didn’t see Jackie Robinson as a symbol, and, after a while, he didn’t see color. He merely saw Jackie as a human being, a wonderful individual who happened to be a great ball player. My husband had many wonderful moments in his life, but if he were alive today, I know he’d say this honor was among the greatest in his life. I share in that sentiment.”
“When Pee Wee Reese threw his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder in this legendary gesture of support and friendship,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, “they showed America and the world that racial discrimination is unaccept- able. Pee Wee and Jackie showed the courage to stand up for equality in the face of adversity, which we call the Brooklyn attitude. It is a moment in sports, and history that deserves to be preserved forever here in Brooklyn, proud home to everyone from everywhere.”
Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel, also spoke at the ceremony. “The Robinson Family is very proud to have the historic relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese memorialized in the statue being dedicated at KeySpan Park,” she said. “We hope that it will become a source of inspiration for all who view it, and a powerful reminder that teamwork underlies all social progress.”
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Reese & Robbie, 1945-2005,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 29, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
The late 1940s-early 1950s were the heyday of "stadium pins” or “pinbacks,” produced for sale at stadium concession stands to depict and support favorite players; collectables today. Jackie Robinson is shown in this 1947 Rookie-of-the-Year pin. According to one source, no player aside from Babe Ruth has been the subject of more pins than Jackie Robinson.
Newspaper coverage of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut by the black-owned “Pittsburgh Courier” (Wash., D.C. edition), Saturday, April 19, 1947.
CD cover of Natalie Cole’s version of “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?,” 1994 release, Elektra.; also used in Ken Burns “Baseball” film.
Sept 1953: Jackie Robinson & Pee Wee Reese, center, in the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout. Look Collection, U.S. Library of Congress.
Pee Wee Reese & Jackie Robinson turning a double play during March 1950 spring training in Vero Beach, FL. Photo Phil Sandlin, AP.
Tim Cohane, “A Branch Grows in Brooklyn,” Look, March 19, 1946, p. 70.
In 1968, British pop singer Petula Clark already had a string of top hit records, including, most famously, “Downtown,” a recording that had sold three million copies in America alone. It was the No. 1 song on the U.S. charts in January 1965. “Downtown” was the first of fifteen consecutive Top 40 hits for Clark in the U.S. Among others were: “I Know a Place”, “My Love”, “A Sign of the Times”, “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love”, “This Is My Song,” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” — all in the 1960s. The American recording industry honored her with Grammy Awards for “Best Rock & Roll Record” in 1964 for “Downtown” and in 1965 for “Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance” for “I Know a Place.”
In early 1968, NBC invited her to host her own TV music special in the U.S. Black singer Harry Belafonte was invited to perform on the show and also do a song or two with Clark.
Harry Belafonte with Petula Clark on her 1968 TV show. Click photo to visit related YouTube video.
Harry Belafonte by then was a well known Jamaican-American musician and actor, who had helped make Calypso and Caribbean music popular throughout the world with his singing in the 1950s. Belafonte was known for a number of songs, especially the “Banana Boat Song”, which include a famous “day-o” lyric throughout. Belafonte was also known for his support of civil rights and humanitarian causes. He was an early supporter of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and one of Martin Luther King’s confidants. He provided financial support for King and his family, and bailed King out of jail when he was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama during a demonstration. Belafonte had also raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned civil rights protesters. And he supported voter registration drives, helped organize the historic civil rights March on Washington in 1963, and sang for activists in the summer of 1964 in Greenwood, Mississippi. But in early 1968, Belafonte was just an entertainer coming on television in a guest slot to sing on Petula Clark’s TV show.
Chrysler V.P. Objects
Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark in their ‘controversial’ touching scene that one Chrysler official wanted removed from the performance.
During a taping of the show in March 1968, while singing a duet with Belafonte titled “On the Path of Glory”, an anti-war song that she had composed, Petula Clark innocently and naturally touched Belafonte’s arm toward the end of the song. Doyle Lott, a vice president from Chrysler, the show’s sponsor, was present at the taping. Lott objected to the “interracial touching” and feared the brief moment would offend Southern viewers — this at a time when racial conflict was a major issue in the U.S. Lott insisted they substitute a different take — one with Clark and Belafonte standing well away from each other. But Clark and her husband, Claude Wolff, the executive producer of the show, refused. They destroyed all the other takes of the song, and delivered the finished program to NBC with the touching segment as part of the show. Clark, who had ownership of the special, told NBC that the performance would be shown intact or she would not allow the special to be aired at all. Meanwhile, at Chrysler, by March 10, 1968, Doyle Lott was relieved of his responsibilities.
Belafonte & Clark during the show.
The Clark-Belafonte-Chrysler incident soon made the news, as American newspapers and magazines reported on the controversy. The press stories, however, only heightened viewer interest in the show. Advertising for the Petula Clark Show ran all across the country, with some local TV guides featuring Clark and Belafonte on the cover. The show was broadcast on April 8th, 1968 with Clark doing several numbers on her own as well as Belafonte doing several on his own before they sang together. It marked the first time a man and woman of different races exchanged physical contact on American television. When the show finally aired, it received high ratings and critical acclaim.
Cover of weekly TV program guide from the ‘Independent Star-News’ of Pasadena, CA showcasing ‘Petula Show’ with Harry Belafonte, April 1968.
Reviews of the show were mostly positive and many quite laudatory. Wade Mosby of the Milwaukee Journal, writing on April 3rd, described the show as “a steady pleasant hour of song,” calling Clark a “gifted British import,” equally at home with rock and roll and a broad range of ballads. He also mentioned the “celebrated touching incident,” calling it a “friendly gesture” that “would have gone unnoticed by most viewers” had it not been for the advance press coverage it received.
Bob Hull writing in the Hollywood Reporter of April 4, 1968, said: “…With her guest Harry Belafonte, Petula sang about the horrors of war in the song ‘On the Path of Glory.’ At the end of it, Miss Clark touched Belafonte’s arm, the incident which, during the taping, resulted in a agency rep who must have been thinking of the white-sheet crowd in the South…”
Barbara Delatiner, in her review of April 3, 1968 for Newsday wrote: “…Miss Clark dominated the well-paced hour. . .whether reprising her hits in a plain studio setting…or joining Harry Belafonte, her lone, magnificent guest star, in that now-celebrated rendition of ‘On the Path of Glory.’ Celebrated? Yes, because when at the conclusion of this stirring song Miss Clark touched Belafonte’s arm the sponsor’s representative attempted to kill the number. He was unsuccessful, thankfully. The number was one of the most moving musical interludes on TV ever.”
C. J. Skreen, writing a positive review of the show for the Seattle Times on April 3, 1968, did not mention the incident, but did say: “…Particularly moving was her duet with Harry Belafonte on an antiwar song, ‘On the Path of Glory.’ ” Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News, offered a glowing review of the show on April 3, 1968:
Petula Clark, performing one of her songs.
…A stylish, sophisticated musical hour with a nice contemporary flavor, excellent sets and a star who can sing like a dream. That just about sums up Petula Clark’s first American TV special on NBC last night.
Except, perhaps, for the fact that the hour received some unpleasant advance publicity. It was reported that during the taping of the show a sponsor representative objected to Miss Clark and her guest star, Harry Belafonte, touching during a duet of “On the Path of Glory.”
Ironically, this was the highlight of the hour and Belafonte never showed off to such advantage. How unfortunate that anything should have marred this otherwise flawless program….
Variety magazine, in its review, noted: “… the touching bit which caused such a stir…could only disturb the spiritually sick.”
Some advertising by Plymouth/Chrysler.
In the wake of the incident, there were a number of news and opinion pieces that appeared in the national press, including a piece in the New York Times by Belafonte himself. Most of these pieces focused on the issue of racial discrimination in the entertainment industry and beyond. In a few cases, in the weeks following the incident, as at CBS, there were directives from on high to writers, producers, directors, and studio programing heads instructing them “to intensify immediately the portrayal and use and actual number of Negroes in entertainment programs.”
In August 2000, Harry Belefonte did an extensive interview with Ken Paulson at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee covering the entire trajectory of Belafonte’s career and his work in civil rights. In the course of that interview, they briefly revisited The Petula Clark Show incident, in which Belfonte stated, in part:
…Petula Clark and I performed together on television, and it was a heralded show, because Petula Clark was at the height of her fame. I was in the height of my ascendancy at the time. We loved the work that each other had done and enjoyed performing together. And at the end of this particular song that we sang together — at the end of it, because we had successfully achieved what was a rather difficult technical approach to accomplish — she reached over, delighted at the success…that we had technically achieved our goals, and she put her hand on my hand.“…[Petula] said, ‘I will go any way that you want to go, Harry.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to take ‘em on.’ And she said, ‘Well, then let’s do that’.” - Harry Belafonte The account executive for the sponsor of the show saw the touch and said that he was violated by it. He did not want it to go forward, that it would upset Southern viewers, and that he wanted that shot struck from the [tape]… he wanted it edited out. Petula Clark had the rights to her show, and they called her to tell her quietly what had happened, why…they were having difficulty… [A]nd then she told me what the problem was, and she wanted to know, how did I want to handle it? And I told her we were in a very peculiar place at that moment. Here we were, getting on television for the first time, seeking to have black images put in positive ways on television, and that, certainly, to raise a question at this time would not only frighten other people but, perhaps, even cause her — her show to be suspended, and that I would defer to her. And she said, “I will go any way that you want to go, Harry.” And I said, “Well, I’d like to take ‘em on.” And she said, “Well, then let’s do that.” So we took it on, and the press carried a lot of stories on the subject. She survived. The show did very well. Her ratings went up, and she stayed on television for a very long time.
Petula & Harry during the show.
In September 2008, forty years following the broadcast of the show, Petula Clark and producer Claude Wolff joined moderator Midge Woolsey of WQXR at the Paley Center for Media in New York City to revisit the incident and discuss its impact. There is also an April 2008 on-camera interview with director/producer Steve Binder about the history of The Petula Clark Show and the Belafonte incident conducted by the Archive of American Television Blog. This interview provides some additional perspective on the show and additional behind-the-scenes objections to Belafonte’s involvement in that show.
July 2, 1963: Bob Dylan at civil rights gathering in Greenwood, Mississippi singing ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ a song about the murder of activist Medgar Evers.
In the summer of 1963, the civil rights movement in the United States was coming to a head. There had already been eight years of activism in the south, beginning with the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, where a young preacher named Martin Luther King began to emerge as a leader. In 1957, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas had begun. By the early 1960s, college students had conducted “sit ins” at lunch counters to protest segregated restaurants. A few black students by then had, for the first time, gained admission to the universities of Alabama and Georgia. Blacks across the south and elsewhere were finding they could act to change their world. Medgar Evers was one of those who became committed to action.
Medgar Evers, 1963.
Evers would become one of the rising young leaders in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. In the 1940s, he had dropped out of high school at the age of 17, joined the army and fought in Europe during WWII, completing his service honorably in 1945. But when Evers returned home, he was prevented from voting in elections, and was also intimidated by a mob of white men. He vowed then to work for change. By 1952, he graduated from Alcorn State University and married a classmate Myrlie Beasley.
“Only a Pawn
in Their Game” 1963
A bullet from the back of a bush
took Medgar Evers’ blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game.
A South politician preaches
to the poor white man,
“You got more than the blacks,
You’re better than them, you been born
with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the
governors get paid,
And the marshals and cops get the same,
But the poor white man’s used in the
hands of them all like a tool.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
From the poverty shacks, he looks
from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from
the bullet he caught.
They lowered him down as a king.
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.
In early 1954, Medgar Evers applied to the then-segregated University of Mississippi to study law. When his application was rejected, Evers became the focus of an NAACP campaign to desegregate the school that would later culminate in the 1961-62 case of another student, James Meredith. By this time, Evers and his family were living in Jackson, Mississippi and he became the first field secretary of the NAACP in that state. He traveled throughout Mississippi recruiting new members, organizing voter-registration, protesting unequal social conditions, and boycotting companies that practiced discrimination. Evers soon had a high profile as an activist, and that made him a threat to the power structure in Mississippi, and also a target.
Shot in the Back
On June 12, 1963, just past midnight, Evers drove up to his Jackson home, parking under the car port, the kitchen door to his house a short distance away. Evers that night had attended a group meeting at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, while his wife Myrlie and his children watched President Kennedy’s televised speech — a speech that focused on the racial tensions in Birmigham, Alabama, where violent clashes between protestors and police had been going on for the past two months. As Evers got out of his car, he grabbed a bundle of T-shirts that were to be handed out the next morning to civil rights demonstrators. He only took a few steps away from his car toward the kitchen door when he was shot in back. The bullet tore though his body and went into the house where his wife Myrlie and their three children were. “Medgar was lying there on the doorstep in a pool of blood,” said Myrlie. “I tried to get the children away. But they saw it all — the blood and the bullet hole that went right through him.” Medgar Evers was 37.
On June 19, 1963 in Washington D.C., Evers was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, receiving full military honors. More than three thousand people attended. It was the largest funeral at Arlington since the interment of John Foster Dulles, former U.S. Secretary of State in 1959. On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers’ murder, but it would take decades before justice was finally served in the case.
Meanwhile, in New York’s Greenwhich village, a new, young singer named Bob Dylan had been playing coffee houses and recording some new folk music along with old blues. In 1962, Bob Dylan had released his first album, Bob Dylan, and also had written songs such as “Blowin in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” which were labeled “protest music” by some since they touched on issues of the day, including civil rights. Some of Dylan’s music keyed specifically on civil rights subjects of that time. In 1962, for example, he wrote “Oxford Town” — a song about the riots that ensued in Oxford, Mississippi when black student James Meredith became the first to be admitted to University of Mississippi.
Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town
He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town
Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien’?
Me and my gal, my gal’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don’t even know why we come
Goin’ back where we come from
Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon
Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town
The small town of Oxford was the university’s main campus and on September 20, 1962, it became something of battleground, as U.S. Marshalls had been sent there under direct order from President John F. Kennedy to ensure James Meredith’s enrollment and protection. Rioting ensued; two were killed and numerous students were injured. Dylan’s “Oxford Town” focused the events surrounding the campus riots and Meredith’s enrollment there, and also the larger civil rights movement then unfolding. “Oxford Town” was written by Dylan in October or November 1962 and first recorded on December 6, 1962. He is said to have performed the song at appearances in the fall and winter of 1962 and 1963, including a Carnegie Hall concert in October 1963. The song also appears on Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Music Player “Oxford Town”-1962
Back in New York, Dylan continued to perform in Greenwich Village, as well other cities during 1963, and also a few television shows. On May 12, 1963, Dylan sparked controversy when he walked out of a rehearsal for a scheduled appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Dylan wanted to perform “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” but was informed by CBS Television’s “head of program practices” that the song was potentially libelous to the John Birch Society. Rather than comply with the censorship, Dylan refused to appear on the program. He did perform several days later with Joan Baez on May 18, 1963 at the Monterey folk festival in California. His second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released at the end of May 1963.
Pete Seeger performing in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Following the murder of Medgar Evers on June 12th, 1963, Dylan was moved to write a song about the incident, which he titled “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” In Mississippi that summer, there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was Greenwood, Mississippi. It was here that Dylan visited on July 2, 1963 after an overnight flight. He performed there before a small gathering of civil rights workers and did the song “Only A Pawn in Their Game” and others. Pete Seeger, who had been there for a few days already, also performed at the Greenwood gathering.
Joan Baez & Dylan in August 1963 at the historic ‘March on Washington’.
Elsewhere that summer, Dylan would also perform his songs, including those with the civil rights themes, at numerous performances. At the July 26, 1963 Newport Music Festival, he performed “Only A Pawn in Their Game” and did duets with Joan Baez, some in small group sessions. On the main stage near the end of the festival, the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” were performed with a larger group that included Dylan, Baez, Pete Seger, the Freedom Singers, and Peter, Paul and Mary. In late August 1963, at the historic “March on Washington,” Dylan sang “Only A Pawn in Their Game”, among others, at the Lincoln Memorial — where Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Nor would Dylan end his songwriting of civil rights-related music with his 1963 Medgar Evers tune.
Hattie Carroll’s Death
Dylan also wrote and recorded a song in late October 1963 entitled, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The song first appeared on Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin.’ However, he performed the song live very soon after he had first written it. The song provides what is believed to be a generally factual account of the death of 51 year-old African American barmaid named Hattie Carroll. She was struck by a wealthy young tobacco farmer from Charles County, Maryland named William Devereux “Billy” Zantzinger — named “William Zanzinger” in Dylan’s song. For his crime, Zantzinger served a sentence of six months in a county jail. In 1963, Charles County, Maryland was still strictly segregated by race in public facilities such as restaurants, churches, theaters, doctor’s offices, buses, and the county fair. The schools of Charles County, for example, would not be integrated until 1967, four years after Hattie Carroll was killed.
“The Lonesome Death
Of Hattie Carroll”
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.
William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling,
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.
Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ‘em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’.
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.
Reportedly, the main incident occurred at a white-tie Spinsters’ Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland in early February 1963. A drunken Zant- zinger arrived at the hotel carrying a toy cane — a cane later described by Time magazine as “a wooden carnival cane that he had picked up somewhere.” At the Emerson Hotel, Zantzinger assaulted at least three of the hotel workers: a bellboy, a waitress, and, at about 1:30 in the morning of February 9th, barmaid Hattie Carroll. She was 51 years old, the mother of ten children. Zantzinger — then 24 years old and about 6′-2″ — struck her after she did not bring his bourbon quickly enough.
When Zantzinger and his party arrived at the hotel that night, he was already drunk and had earlier assaulted employees at a Baltimore restaurant, also using his toy cane. At the hotel Ball, however, he continued to be abusive, calling a 30-year-old waitress a “nigger” and hitting her with his cane. Shortly thereafter he started in on Hattie Carroll when she didn’t bring his bourbon immediately, cursing her — calling her a “nigger” and a ” black son of a bitch” — and hitting her on the shoulder with the cane. He also attacked his own wife, knocking her to the ground and hitting her with his shoe. Hattie Carroll meanwhile, told co-workers she felt ill after being hit and verbally abused, and then collapsed. She was hospital- ized shortly thereafter and died eight hours later. Her autopsy showed hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure. A brain hemorrhage was the reported cause of death.
Zantzinger was initially charged with murder. His defense was that he had been extremely drunk and said he had no memory of the attack. His charge was reduced to manslaughter and assault, based on the likelihood that it was her stress reaction to his verbal and physical abuse that led to the intracranial bleeding, rather than blunt-force trauma from the blow that left no lasting mark. On August 28, 1963 Zantzinger was convicted of both charges and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.
Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963.
Time magazine, covering the sentencing, noted:
“In June, after Zantzinger’s phalanx of five topflight attorneys won a change of venue to a court in Hagerstown [50 miles or so west of Baltimore], a three-judge panel reduced the murder charge to manslaughter. Following a three-day trial, Zant- zinger was found guilty. For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125. For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500. The judges considerately deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop.”
Bob Dylan, meanwhile, had been following the case in the news, and reportedly wrote the song in Manhattan, sitting in an all-night cafe. He recorded it on October 23, 1963, when the trial was still relatively fresh news, and incorporated it into his live performances. Dylan also performed the song on Steve Allen’s network television program soon after its release. A studio version of the song was later released on January 13, 1964 and it also appears on Dylan’s 1964 album, The Times They are A-Changin’. But by then Dylan had begun moving away from protest and folk music.
Dylan, with guitar, in the early 1960s somewhere in the south -- quite possibly Greenwood, MS, July 1963. Photo, www.bobdylan.com
Dylan, by virtue of his early 1960s protest music, had become something of a civil rights icon and protest leader — at least in the eyes of many civil rights workers at the time. But he soon moved to take himself out of that role, feeling restricted and pigeon- holed by the designation. In December 1963, three weeks after the assassination of John Kennedy and four months after the March on Washington, Dylan was the invited guest of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at their annual Bill of Rights dinner. There, Dylan was to receive the Tom Paine Award for services to the cause. But in accepting the award that evening, and after some heavy drinking, Dylan signaled his frustration with the protest role, finding it a burden and a limit on his creativity. For some, this was Dylan marking the end of that involvement; expressing his rejection of his role in protest politics and of folk musician in that genre. It would be something of a pattern for Dylan whenever the outside world tried to define him. In mid-1964 he reportedly said to writer Nat Hentoff: “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore — you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organization…” Then came Dylan’s embrace of electric music at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, which left many of his fans and colleagues in shocked disbelief. Yet the change in style, like his speech at the civil rights award dinner, would be Dylan being Dylan, following his muse, and rejecting outside labels, especially when others would try to impose some definition on who he was or what his music meant.
In any case, while Dylan the musician continued to move on to new musical forms and genres — as he does to this day — his contributions to protest music are fact, remain significant, and have become legend. Dylan’s protest songs of the early 1960s did make an important contribution for many in the civil rights arena and beyond. Dylan’s contributions to protest music are fact, remain significant, and have become legend. “He was a folk-singer writing during a time when popular song focused on ‘Moon-June’ sentimentality and vacuous ditties,” wrote Robert Chapman in the late 1990s on why Dylan was important to civil rights in the early 1960s. “At the time it was unheard of for a young white songwriter to compose the kind of songs that he did, and he knocked down some serious barriers as to what was thought possible within the parameters of popular music.” In addition to “A Pawn in the Game,” “Oxford Town,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” mentioned here, other protest and civil rights-related songs he wrote include: “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and “The Death Of Emmett Till” (a song about the a young Chicago boy beaten to death on a visit to Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman). And of course, there is also “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Another, somewhat fuzzy photo of Dylan & Pete Seeger at the 1963 Greenwood, MS gathering.
Although “Blowin’ in the Wind” is regarded generally as a protest song about peace, war, and freedom, it became something of an anthem for the civil rights movement. Upon first hearing the song in the 1960s, other musicians involved with civil rights, such as Marvin Gaye and Mavis Staples of the Staples Sisters, were quite impressed. Staples, in fact, said she was amazed at how a young white man at that time could write something that captured the frustration and aspirations of black people.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” however, was not made famous by Dylan, but by folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, who were also represented by Dylan’s manager. Their version of the song, released as a single in 1963, sold 300,000 copies in the first week. By mid-July 1963, it was No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart and had sales exceeding one million copies. But it was Dylan’s songwriting that shone through on this and other songs of that era.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Only A Pawn in Their Game,” PopHistoryDig.com, October 13, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
This 1964 Dylan album contains both ‘Only A Pawn...’ and ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’
“Northern Folk Singers Help Out at Negro Festival in Mississippi, New York Times, July 7, 1963.
Robert Shelton, No Direction Home, Da Capo Press, 2003 reprint of 1986 original, 576 pp.
Pete Seeger, “Report from Greenwood, Mississippi: A Singing Movement,” originally published in Broadside Magazine, No. 30, August 1963; also in, Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972, p. 247.
Gerry Cordon, Liverpool Community College, Book Review: Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art, by Mike Marqusee New Press, 2003, Review posted, January 18, 2005.
Audio recording, The Story of Greenwood Mississippi, Recorded and Produced by Guy Carawan for the Student No-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Featuring Bob Moses and SNCC workers, Fanny Lou Hammer and Greenwood citizens, Mass meetings, hymns, prayers, Freedom songs, Medgar Evers and Dick Gregory, 2004 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings / 1965 Folkways Records #5593.
Murray Lerner, producer, The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (DVD), Sony, 2007.