NEW ORLEANS — Nine of the original Freedom Riders who joined the 1961 bus expedition that traveled through the southern states, testing the Boynton vs. Virginia ruling that outlawed segregation in public transportation, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Tulane University on Wednesday night.
The riders, now mostly in their 70s, shared their experiences and memories of the trip during which the riders were frequently jailed and beaten, and also talked about their continued efforts in the civil rights movement.
They shared memories of New Orleans, talking about Oretha Castle Haley’s home, which, while not very big, was always open as a place to strategize, sleep and get a meal.
Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons said that after spending a day picketing Woolworth’s and other lunch counters in New Orleans, she and others would look for transfer tickets in the gutters in order to pay for the bus ride home.
“We were so poor we couldn’t we couldn’t afford the other ‘o-r’ in poor,” she said joking. “That’s how dedicated we were.”
Alice Thompson talked about getting arrested while on the Freedom Ride in Poplarville, Miss., where the group was testing whether the bus station waiting areas were complying with the ruling. She said she was arrested immediately and jailed under miserable conditions. The guards made sure to let her know that the cell she was in was where Mack Charles Parker was held in 1959 before he was kidnapped from the cell by a mob and beaten, shot and killed.
“I guess they were trying to upset us,” Thompson said.
The riders also touched on atrocities not well publicized, such as reports of black prisoners sent under threat of their jailers to beat and rape jailed Freedom Riders.
Hubbard recalled trying to find medical treatment after hours for a badly beaten Jerome Smith, also on the panel, and going door to door where the black doctors were known to reside, but being refused because the doctors and their wives had seen images on television and did not want to be involved.
But along with the violence, burned buses, imprisonment and the brutal torture and deaths of fellow activists, the panel also recalled victories during the effort, described by one participant as “setting the stage of the future of the civil rights movement.”
Smith-Simmons described participating in “the first known peaceful integration of a bus station waiting room in the state of Mississippi’’ in December 1861 in front of reporters, FBI agents, police and a “white mob of 500.’’
The panelists also discussed continued efforts in 1963 to register black voters in the middle of Ku Klux Klan territory in northern Louisiana and being smuggled out of town in a hearse with James Farmer, one of the principal founders of the Congress Of Racial Equality, the Chicago-based civil rights group that organized the Freedom Rides.
Hubbard described efforts to register black voters in New Orleans and pointed out that the panel’s moderator Judge Edwin Lombard became the first black official elected citywide when he was elected clerk of court in 1974.
One of the most poignant moments of the evening came when a 10-year-old girl stood up and asked the panel, “What caused segregation?” It was several moments before anyone spoke.
“Greed and hate,” Smith said, “and being despised based on the ink of descent in your skin.”
Smith spoke often and passionately during the discussion with rage and frustration at the injustices that still exist 50 years later. The capacity for indecency is “very much alive as we sit here now,” Smith said.
Asked about reaching a point of no return in their involvement, Smith-Simmons told the audience that she thought, while faced with angry mobs in McComb, “that was it for me, but that was OK because I was there doing what I believed in.”
At the end of the evening’s program, Smith-Simmons led the crowded room, hands linked, in a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” The song brought tears to many eyes and, after hearing so many tales of hate, ended the night a note of hope and harmony. Smith-Simmons did not want anyone to stop singing.