American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Moses Newson, 2 of 3
[Interviewer] So the last thing we were talking about, you know, you get stopped, another bus flags you down and it says, "okay, there's a mob waiting for you, the station's closed", what happens? [Moses Newson] Hey, this was Mother's Day, and as we rolled into Anniston, it was kind of quiet. We got to the station that actually was closed, and there was this mob there, and it was a mean one. And the bus driver would get off to take care of his business, but he would lock the door behind him when he got out. They were calling us all kind of names, nigger, nigger-lovers, communists, and just everything, "come on out and integrate Alabama, we dare you to do this, we dare you to do that." And at the same time, they were whacking the bus and the windows with chains and boards and sticks and pipes and whatever they had. We didn't know it at the time, but they were also puncturing the tires.
Eventually, we got out of there. There was some police around who were not doing anything at all to stop these people who were attacking the bus and trying to get to us. And there was a black lady who was right across the aisle from me. And she was down on her knees between the seats there, and she was asking things like, "why are they doing this to us?" And saying things like, "I don't want to die here like this." So I go and try to console her a bit and explain to her what was going on. And she talked a little bit, told me what her name was, said I could use it in my story, which I did. And at the same time, I was watching the windows and watching the doors to make sure nobody was getting on. And eventually, bus driver returned and we started out.
At first, there was a feeling of relief because we were getting away there, we thought. But this small car that was in front of the bus, and it kept dodging from side to side to keep the bus from getting by. And I looked back, there was a long line of cars following us behind. And people hanging out windows and yelling stuff and that sort of thing. By the time we get to the edge of the city, tire goes down. It has kind of an awesome feeling because you know you are stuck there for a while. And they peel out of their cars and things and they started again calling names and banging on the doors and that sort of thing. L. Cowling, he got out and got his luggage from beneath the bus. He strapped on his pistol and he stood in the doorway to keep anybody from actually coming on the bus.
I talked to him later and he said he thought that was one of the tightest cases he had ever had to stand into. He said it was a pretty tough situation for him also. But they kept banging on the windows and calling us names and threatening us and that sort of thing. And eventually they punched a hole in the window that was right behind my seat. And that's where they got through the bomb into the seat just behind me. The only thing I got was a couple of burns behind the ears and a little heat on the back of my neck or something like that. So I was pretty good, but as soon as that bomb went off, it started getting dark in there, real dark in that place, in that bus.
And I decided since they were still trying to whack people outside with whatever they were able to strike us with, that I would just take my time about coming out. I put a handkerchief over my mouth and nose, got down low, and I just stayed there. Two or three people were able to get out of windows and catch rides on to Birmingham. And those who went out of the door, I think most of them escaped getting beat up. But eventually it got so dark in there and it started getting very hot in there. And I knew I had to get off the bus. So I went on out. And that was a sight to behold, coming off that bus. People were gagging and they were crawling around on the ground. They were trying to get the smoke out of their chest and that sort of thing.
And it was just a heart breaking thing to see that Americans would be treating fellow Americans that way. Eventually, police arrived, other police arrived, and everybody got out. Not being hurt very much, I helped the driver and Freedom Rider Bigelow to get the luggage out from under the bus before it started burning too badly. I sort of realized I had left my camera on the bus as I got out and saw that scene and wanted to shoot pictures. But situations like that, those angry mobs would usually go after people with cameras because they didn't want to get their pictures made. So I thought it was safe at the time to leave the camera on the bus, but turned out to be a pretty bad decision, I guess. But after that they milled around outside for a while and the ambulances came and there was some little hassle at first about whether they should take the Black people.
Let's take the Freedom Riders to the hospital, but eventually they did. I hang around for a little while. [Interviewer] Let me go back. Want some water? What did Cowling do to help you all get off the bus? [Newsom] Well, Cowling, he was a hero that day. Standing there with his pistol, he kept the mob members from getting to us. Had it not been for him, I really don't know what would have happened to us because they were pretty angry, they were pretty mean. And nobody knew exactly what they would do in that situation. But he's the guy who really gave us protection out there that day.
And one of the things about covering the South was that on civil rights situations, you never knew what the police were going to be, what they were going to do, whether they were going to protect you, whether they were going to just stand by and let things happen that day down at the bus station. Well, whether they would join in beating you up, as happened later that day in Birmingham, where police actually got involved and happened to beat people. So, it was a treacherous sort of situation. It was a dangerous sort of situation and almost anything could have happened to any of us out there that day. [Interviewer] Can you just, I want you to tell me this separately, that somebody threw a bomb on the bus or a molotov cocktail on the bus or whatever it is. And then they were trying to block the door of the bus, right, to the mob, to keep you on the bus and just burn you all alive, in my understanding.
[Newson] Well, my understanding is that they wanted us to come off the bus and they were trying to get to us to get us to come off the bus. Because he was blocking the doorways so they couldn't, you know, they couldn't get in. I don't know how ferociously they were trying to get on the bus. I don't think they wanted to get on the bus after it started burning. [Interviewer] Cut for a minute? --realize that there were undercover law enforcement officers on the bus? [Newson] Okay. Outside of Anderson-- outside of Anniston, when they had us trapped there in the bus, and Cowling stepped out and got his luggage, and he strapped on his pistol. That's when I realized that we had some protection there. [Interviewer] Okay, let's cut for a second.
You guys are rolling outside of, you've gotten away, you think, outside-- from Anniston, from the bus station at Anniston. [Newson] Right. [Interviewer] Then what happened? [Newson] Now, we-- that little car that was in front of us, kept us from picking up any kind of speed. And eventually, we heard that sickening sound of the tires going flat. And we were surrounded almost immediately by people who had been trailing us in all those cars and things. And this guy got up from his seat in the rear and he went outside, got his luggage, and came aboard. And he strapped on his pistol and went and stood in the doorway. And that's when I realized that we were going to get some protection.
And he actually kept people from getting on the bus and he allowed the people to get out who needed to get out of the bus. I was the last person coming off that bus because I had decided that I didn't want to go out there and get beat up, as some of them did when they first stepped off the bus. And I just put the handkerchief in front of my mouth and nose and got down low and stayed there as long as I could. Eventually, it became too hot to stay on the bus any longer. It was completely dark at that time. I went out and there was an awful scene outside with people gagging and crawling around on the ground, sitting around on the ground, spitting and coughing. Trying to get the smoke out of their chests and lungs and some of them had been struck when they came off the first go around.
But it was just an awful scene, kind of thing you couldn't imagine that Americans would be doing to their fellow Americans. [Interviewer] Where was the mob at this point? [Newson] The mob was around the bus. Several of them were around the bus. The ones who were tagging the bus with chains and whatnot, they were still around the bus. They were there until they threw the firebomb in and it started burning. Then they sort of backed off too. But they were also trying to beat people when they came off the bus. We didn't have any protection outside the bus at the time until some state troopers came. It was just Cowling and Simms.
I don't know what Simms was doing exactly, but the guy, Cowling, was the one I pretty much had my attention directed to. [Interviewer] As much energy as you can give me, this is a life and death situation, Moses. Do you remember there was this little girl who was giving people water? Do you remember that at all? [Newson] Yeah, I was cognizant of the fact that some people on the outside came and tried to help out. But I don't remember who was who at the time. More than one person brought water and stuff, was trying to help out out there. [Interviewer] Yeah, there's a little girl who was 12, I think, and her family actually had to move. [Newson] Yeah, I read about that, but I didn't know those particulars at the time. [Interviewer] So what, so you finally, you guys get a ride to the hospital? What happened at the hospital? [Newson] So the ambulance took most of the people to the hospital, because I stayed around to talk to some people.
I caught a ride in with a state trooper and in the emergency room where I was, Joe Perkins was calling around trying to locate somebody who could help us get out of there. The governor had said no help. Attorney General had said no help. They were talking about they could take us to the city limits, but that's all they could do for us. And it was night time, you know, nobody wanted to get dropped off at the city limits. We didn't have any cars or anything. They would only let us use the one telephone that Joe Perkins was using. [Interviewer] Was the mob still there? [Newson] Oh, they were hanging around outside. Yeah.
So even while Joe was calling, trying to locate someone to get us out there, members of the mob were still out there. We could hear them yelling and hollering and making all kind of noises out there. At the time, I hadn't talked to my paper or anybody else. So that was a public telephone just outside of the emergency room there, so I stepped out, at the time after I was doing about 13 editions a week and we had a paper that went to bed on Sunday night. So I called the night editor and told them what kind of story I would have the next day. I asked the editor if he would call my wife and let her know that I was okay. And I know he'd be seeing all this stuff on TV and that kind of thing. So we just had to hang around for a while. Eventually, Joe Perkins was able to reach Fred Shuttlesworth over in Birmingham. And Reverend Shuttlesworth said he would send a car over to pick us up.
He sent a caravan, probably about 10 cars that came over to get us. And some of the people were reluctant to get in the cars. I understand that the Reverend had told them not to take any weapons or anything. But before I got into anybody's car, I sort of checked with the driver and they never admitted that they had any weapons or anything, but I felt pretty secure that they had brought something. And our driver, I would tell them "you guys are pretty brave to come into a situation like this." And he was saying "Freedom Riders came this far to try to help us. And, you know, we would be less than men if we didn't come in here and try to get you guys out of this mess." So, that was a long, long ride going on to Birmingham. It was dark out there and everything.
It seemed like we caught every red light we could catch going out of the city there that night. But we were glad to get over to Birmingham. [Interviewer] Let's cut. Why don't you drink some water. Okay? [Newson] Now, we were at the hospital. Some of them were in rooms there trying to get service. I was pretty much confined to the emergency room situation. They had nurses coming in, going through, they had people insisting that we get out of there as soon as possible. Outside, you know, we could still hear some of the mob people out there yelling to each other and screaming things at us. It just seemed like sort of a nightmarish situation that they weren't ever going to give up. And there were questions if some of us thought we would ever get out of there. But I had an obligation to try to contact my newspaper to let them know exactly what was going on.
We had a national edition going to press Sunday night. Eventually, I got the nerve to go outside and dial on a payphone there. So I could talk to the editor tonight, editor there, tell him I was okay and ask him to call my wife and tell her that I was okay. I just felt that eventually something had to break in our favor. And I suppose that happened when Joe Perkins finally reached the minister over in Birmingham, Reverend Shuttlesworth. And he promised that he would send some cars over to pick us up. And so we just sat around there and waited around there.
I don't know how much treatment the people got who were in other rooms there, because I remained pretty much in the emergency area. But eventually the cars came, they identified themselves. And some of us were a little reluctant to get into those cars until we had a chance to see who was there. And I particularly talked to the driver in the car that I was going to be riding in. And I was pretty sure that they didn't come unarmed to pick us up, although I know later that Reverend Shuttlesworth had warned them not to take any kind of weapons, which would have been in line with that nonviolent policy. But this was not a nonviolent night out there. And eventually they got us out of there. And it seemed like we caught every red light on the way out of town.
But after a while we were out on the dark road on our way to Birmingham. [Interviewer] Okay, let's cut. [Newson] So we get to Birmingham. And most of us ended up out at Shuttlesworth's church. The mob people were still hanging around. They were outside the church threatening us, and menacing us. It just seemed that they wouldn't go away. So eventually things broke up at the church that night. They went to various homes and stayed, and the next morning we went up to the bus station to get out of there. And of course there were mob people around there too. We had to make our way through them to get into the bus station. And now we find out that no bus driver was willing to take us any further. So we were pretty much stuck there.
They were making contact with Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and he was calling everybody trying to get some protection for us. And the people down there, they weren't cooperating at all. We couldn't get any buses out. So eventually it was decided that we would raise some money and fly out. [Interviewer] Let's cut for a second. Just want to get that sense again. Try to keep as much eye contact as you can. What happens the next day? Again, this is a sorry bunch. People are still coughing, they got smoke inhalation, there's people with bandages. But what they want to do? Talk about them wanting to get on a bus the next day. [Newson] So now it's Monday, and we gather at the bus station there in Birmingham. And we find out that none of the bus drivers are willing to take us.
It says too dangerous to go any further with the Freedom Riders. We had people there. We only had some of the Freedom Riders there. The others were on the Trailsway bus that had gone on to Birmingham. They had a vote. They were discussing things. Some wanted to continue. The problem was they couldn't continue on the buses because we didn't have any drivers. So that was pretty much out of the question. The idea they came up with was to fly to Birmingham. I mean, to fly, I'm sorry, to fly to Montgomery and continue. That was pretty much wiped out because the airline flight that we were going to take got canceled. So eventually, after all the discussions, they decided the best thing to do would be to fly on to New Orleans.
And that became a problem also. We got out to the airport and you wouldn't believe it, but those mob people were still there. They were following us around. Some of us, particularly myself, I would stand against a wall. Stand against one of the big poles in there. So your back wouldn't be open to somebody coming by and smacking you or something, which they were trying to do. Some were still outside, some were still inside. At this particular time, they didn't have the situation where you just walked out of the airport interior and go right on to the plane. You had to go out on the tarmac to get on to the plane. These people were outside the airport area there, sitting area.
They were yelling, cursing, carrying things, trying to hit us as we went out to get on the plane. And after that, we eventually got on the airplane. [Interviewer] Cut for a second, would you like a drink of water? Okay so you're in the airport and this mob is outside. So you finally hear that there's a plane that's going to take you to New Orleans. [Newson] Once we were ready to board the planes to New Orleans, we go outside and start walking toward the plane, which was out on the tarmac and along the edges of the building that we had to walk past to try to get to the plane. They were still out there and they were still fired up and they were still trying to whack us. And they were still calling us names and that sort of thing. Eventually, we got to the plane and settled in and everybody got a little relaxed.
Then we get this call saying there was a bomb scare. And we had to get off the plane. Everything had to be checked out. But we had to walk back through these people again. 'Cause they was still hanging around and it became sort of a mob, I don't know, sort of a situation where you had this nightmarish feeling that they would never go away. But we got in there and eventually they worked out some deals. So a special plane was arranged and we were able to fly out. I was approaching midnight, I guess, or something like that. It was probably two o'clock or something before we got into Birmingham. I keep saying Birmingham.
Got into New Orleans. They had the big mass meeting in New Orleans there. Jim Peck and one of the Freedom Riders who also had gotten beaten up pretty badly went on to New York to talk about what had happened to us there. [Interviewer] I want to just go back a quick second. How did you feel when you finally get on that second plane and you start rolling down the runway? And you know that feeling when you get airborne? How did it feel? [Newson] I'll tell you, when we finally got aboard and started lifting off, it was a real feeling of relief. You look back at what you were leaving behind and contemplating a better situation, I had-- it was a joyous feeling.
It was a great relief to get out of there. Then we got down there and we started hearing the stories about what happened to the people on the other bus. The horror came back again. That was the sort of situation that I mentioned earlier when I said you never knew what the police would do. [Interviewer] Cut.
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Moses Newson, 2 of 3
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- Moses Newson is one of four journalists who accompanied the Freedom Riders on the initial ride that left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961 headed for New Orleans.
- American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
- (c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
- Media type
- Moving Image
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: barcode357604_Newson_02_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-b27pn8zb5z.mp4 (mediainfo)
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- Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Moses Newson, 2 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-b27pn8zb5z.
- MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Moses Newson, 2 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-b27pn8zb5z>.
- APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Moses Newson, 2 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-b27pn8zb5z