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Durangoan recalls 1961 Freedom Rides

Joe Griffith Enlarge photo

Joe Griffith

They snipped the backs of their neckties down to a few threads. If someone tried to choke them, the tie would fall apart.

They stopped along the way to purchase jockstraps, the steel ones that football linemen wear. They were young, and still interested in having families.

Were Joe Griffith and his three male cohorts from Cornell University apprehensive when they boarded a train in New Orleans and headed to Jackson, Miss., in May 1961?

Very, admits Griffith, now 77 and a decade-long resident of Durango. Others who’d gone before them had been battered, bruised and bloodied by bigoted mobs.

They feared for their lives. At the least, “We were expecting to get beaten up.”

The 436 men and women, white and black, who put their bodies in harm’s way that spring and summer are known as Freedom Riders. They entered the segregated Deep South to challenge the racist and illegal system that prevailed. The U.S. Supreme Court had established in 1946 that interstate buses and trains could not be segregated. So the Riders sat at the front of buses and in whites-only waiting areas.

Today, the Freedom Riders are heroes. In 2011, the 50th anniversary of the rides, their story was told in a two-hour PBS documentary and on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” – 178 of them, including Griffith, gathered on Oprah’s set in Chicago.

Earlier this month, Griffith was a guest at Fort Lewis College professor Andrew Gulliford’s U.S. history class. The 30 students and this reporter watched part of the documentary and heard Griffith talk about the temper of the times.

The Yankees defeated the Rebels to settle the slavery issue, but prejudice takes longer to die. Southern states passed Jim Crow laws, keeping the races separate in public places. Despite federal laws that integrated schools and buses, Southern whites refused to let go easily of a system that, for them, had worked just fine for centuries.

The Freedom Riders, trained in work sessions to react nonviolently, were looking to provoke a reaction and attract attention. Whose attention? The sympathetic public’s, for one. But also that of the Kennedy administration, which had won the 1960 election only with the cooperation of Southern governors, and was reluctant to act on the segregation issue.

On May 4, the first 13 Riders left Washington, D.C. On May 14, Mother’s Day, the riders split into two groups in Atlanta, some boarding a Trailways and some a Greyhound, both bound for Birmingham, Ala.

The Greyhound bus was halted by a mob outside Anniston, Ala., the windows broken and a firebomb hurled inside. Passengers, choking on smoke, escaped only after the gas tank ruptured, causing the mob to back off. Many were beaten upon leaving the bus, and several hospitalized.

Meanwhile, the Trailways bus was boarded at the last moment by informed Klansmen, who tormented and physically attacked several of the Freedom Riders. When the Trailways passengers reached Birmingham they were met by “Klansmen and their police allies ... armed and ready to do what had to be done to protect the Southern way of life,” according to the 2006 book Freedom Riders by Raymond Arsenault.

The attackers used fists, baseball bats and pipes to pummel the Freedom Riders, black bystanders and journalists. Although the riot sent several to the hospital, no one was killed.

Despite the dangers, the Freedom Rides continued. Mississippi took a different tack, simply arresting the incoming riders for disturbing the peace. A call went out for other Freedom Riders to follow and fill the jail in Jackson, Miss.

As the documentary played in the FLC classroom, an emotional Griffith pointed out himself in a scene with his Cornell classmates. “I can’t watch without tearing up,” he said, dabbing his eyes.

At age 26, Griffith already had a wife and two children. But buoyed by his political convictions and supportive activist wife, he joined four others who saw the injustice.

“We were certainly nervous going down,” Griffith said last week in a separate interview. A native Texan and Oklahoman, he understood Jim Crow thinking. He knew that blacks were kept in their place with threats and beatings, imprisonment and periodic lynchings.

“We were very aware of the condition of the country not being what it ought to be, and this was outrageous.”

The five piled into a “ratty” Ford convertible and drove 36 hours from the Ithaca, N.Y., campus straight to New Orleans for training. A day later four of them boarded a train for Jackson.

Police were waiting. But the precautions of cutting ties and wearing jocks proved unnecessary.

“We were totally surprised how gentlemanly they were,” Griffith recalled of his arrest on May 30. “And thrown off by it, because we expected to do something to make publicity.”

After a few days eating beans and molasses in the city jail, they decided a hunger strike might help to achieve that publicity. It’s amazing what changes happen to your body after 10 days without food, said Griffith, who spent two weeks in jail, then paid $50 bail. Others stayed weeks or months in the city jail and a state prison.

To some, the Freedom Riders were rabblerousers causing trouble. Many even believed they were communists. Ultimately, the rides galvanized a generation of activists and pushed the issue along. The big victory came Sept. 22, 1961, when an Interstate Commerce Commission decree, pushed along by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, prohibited racial discrimination in bus transit and required this to be posted on interstate buses.

Soon after, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

After the Freedom Rides, Griffith participated in desegregation sit-ins in D.C., and in the summer of 1964 spent time in Fayette County, Tenn., helping to register black voters.

The struggle to overcome Jim Crow wasn’t over, but huge strides had been made. Griffith had put his life on the line as a soldier of peace.

“I’m proud to have been part of that.”

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

Griffith in 1961 Enlarge photo

Griffith in 1961

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