As you may recall, seven years ago, in May of 1961, bunches of so-called Freedom Riders bused down south and intentionally provoked the armed mobs who had gathered to greet them with bricks, lead pipes, and Molotov cocktails. Ignoring local ordinances, they traveled in accordance with the deliberate speed limits of the U.S. Constitution. Before it was over, 600 federal marshals were dispatched to keep order, a federal judge issued sweeping injunctions which (a) barred the Ku Klux Klan from interfering with interstate travel and (b) barred the Freedom Riders from engaging in it, and the governor of Alabama declared martial law, but only after advising the riders “to get out of Alabama as quickly as possible.”
The biracial bus riders were widely condemned in the Southern press, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, after much long-distance telephoning on their behalf, called for “a cooling-off period” (to which CORE National Chairman James Farmer, originator of the rides, responded, “We have been cooling off for 100 years. If we get any cooler we’ll be in a deep freeze”). Even such enlightened papers as the Washington Post urged sponsors of the rides “to take it easy,” and the New York Times editorialized that “non-violence that deliberately provokes violence is a logical contradiction.” Anyway, logical or not, as a result of the rides, the Attorney General got the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to ban segregation in interstate bus terminals; and he further arranged for a private foundation to support a voter-registration drive which would divert troublemakers like CORE, SNCC, and SCLC from buses to ballots.
Everyone concedes that Justice would not have petitioned the ICC had it not been for the crisis intentionally initiated by the nonviolent Freedom Riders. And most moderate observers retrospectively assume, without ever having examined the results, that here was one instance where burning (a mob slashed the tires of and then burned the Freedom Rider bus at Anniston, Alabama), terrorism (at Montgomery, Alabama, even Justice Department aide John Seigenthaler was knocked unconscious and left lying in the street for twenty minutes while an FBI man on the scene took notes), and rioting (by the crackers) led directly to social reform. Partly to test this assumption, but also to share the contemporary experience of tens of thousands of Southern Negro bus riders, I decided to revisit the original Freedom Rider trouble spots, taking Greyhound and Continental Trailways buses from Washington through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
The terminals I saw at Anniston, Montgomery, and Birmingham, like those at Charlotte, Atlanta, and in Louisiana, have replaced “White Only” and “Colored Entrance” signs with cardboard copies of ICC antidiscrimination regulations. The back of my ticket was stamped “interstate travel is without regard to race, color, creed or national origin.” People of all colors boarding my buses at the big cities sat pretty much where they pleased, although it should be noted that most Negroes pleased to sit at the back of the bus, and most whites, up front. The Negro now washes down the same soggy doughnuts and greasy hamburgers with the same stale coffee and watery Coke at the same dirty counter as his Caucasian fellow traveler. Where service is cafeteria-style, Negroes don’t tend to share six-seat tables with whites, but that seems a matter of preference, and given the average Caucasian bus traveler I don’t blame them. By and large, as far as my white eyes could see, there is de facto desegregation in the Southern metropolis. Despite the turbulence following Martin Luther King’s assassination, bus riding continued pretty much as usual.
This is not to suggest that all of the big city terminals are integrated. Vide, the Trailways terminal in Jackson, Mississippi, which doesn’t have any signs up but maintains two adjacent waiting rooms, one of which was populated exclusively by Negroes and was less than half the size of the white terminal. If you eat at the white food counter, you can spy your Negro brethren through a window-sized aperture, eating at their own counter on the other side. But even in a place like Jackson, capital of the Magnolia state and headquarters of the White Citizens Council, the Greyhound terminal is integrated, and the morning I left via Trailways for Columbus, Georgia, two well-tailored Negro ladies were dining in the otherwise all-white section, unmolested, if you don’t count a dirty look from the Negro waitress. All of this is a considerable advance over the afternoon a group of riders led by Wyatt Tee Walker, then chairman of the Atlanta SCLC, were arrested for attempting to buy cigarettes and have a cup of coffee in the lunchroom.
Jackson aside, Southern bus segregation, like the Northern Wasp, seems to have settled in the suburbs, where Yankee reporters seldom travel, A determined segregationist, however, could plan a trip around the backup stops, gas stations, general stores, and smaller terminals. For instance, instead of boarding his bus in Atlanta, he might arrange to start from Douglasville, Georgia, about fifteen miles west of Atlanta. My suspicions that all was not kosher in Douglasville arose when I noticed, as our bus pulled up, two contiguous benches outside the Greyhound waiting room. On one bench, a kind of Central Park gray, sat two whites. On the other, painted Joe Louis brown, sat five squeezed-together Negroes. Although Douglasville was not a “rest stop,” I debarked long enough to look in the waiting room (about fifteen hundred square feet), sliced in two by a lunch counter, on the left side of which sat and stood groups of Negroes, with whites on the right. This, I later discovered, is a typical arrangement, although most often food is dispensed form machines, and there is a five-foot-high partition where the counter used to be.
Proceeding south, the informed racist would probably switch from Greyhound to Trailways in Montgomery, Alabama, which in May, 1961, was the scene of a race riot involving hundreds; today it is desegregated and quiet. Here he would grab a bus for Hurtsboro, Alabama, about twenty miles to the east. My bus didn’t even stop in Hurtsboro, but as we passed the dilapidated Trailways terminal, just west of the railroad tracks, I noticed that adjacent to it is a place called “City Grill.” Outside is a sign that says “Royal Crown Cola” and under that another sign which says “Colored Entrance,” with an arrow pointing down and to the left.
He might then swing over to Jackson, Mississippi, stopping on the way for a game of pinball at the Trailways station in Meridian, a large L-shaped room. When you enter from the back (which is where the bus stops), to your right is a row of benches on which I saw three or four Negroes, which led me to wonder if the management hires Negroes to sit on them as a guide to inexperienced passengers now that the signs are down. Anyway, in the Negro section of the terminal (which is about one quarter the size of the main section, despite the fact that from my observation about 70 percent of all bus riders are Negro) are a food counter (with stools rather than tables, which are available in the white section), two telephone booths (four in the white section), six small lockers and one big one (twelve small and two big in the white section); each has its own water fountain, and each has its own stairs leading to its own rest rooms. The whites have a newsstand (there is none in the Negro section), but most important, where the Negro pinball player can only try his hand at “Gigi,” the white man can choose from “Masquerade,” “Touchdown,” “Derby Day,” “Sing-Along,” and target practice on a “Captain Kid Gun.”
While there is frequent service between Jackson and New Orleans, I’d advise getting off at a place like the Greyhound station in Hammond, Louisiana, a few miles north of Lake Pontchartrain. There, the segregated waiting room is set up like a horseshoe. And if the ICC-regulation sign is distracting, he can always go next door to Joe Joe’s. Just follow the finger on the hand on the sign that says, “White Way Cafe.” About 100 feet off the street (which is where the bus stops) is a sign saying “Birdell and Grover’s Colored Cafe,” with a hand which points to what appears to be the back of Joe Joe’s. The signs don’t lie.
I am sure I found all of this more depressing than did the Negro passengers, whose seats I sometimes shared. For most of them, the fight for equal service has moved from the lunch counter to the rest room.
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