thumbnail of American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 2 of 3
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(indistinct) Before dawn I get a call from the attorney general and um he has received word from FBI in Nashville that another wave of freedom riders is coming down to Birmingham from Nashville to continue the freedom rights. And he said to me who hell is diane Nash you're from Nashville and I said Diane Nash is a student I think a junior at Fisk he said, well she is the leader of this and would you call her and talk to her tell her what you've seen and tell her to stop this. and um, [host]: Let me ask you, if I could, if you feel comfortable doing this in another way because at that point you don't know that there's another way wave of freedom riders. [guest]: I think he knew. [host]: Right but
what I was trying to get ... is is.. .let's go [guest]: so on sleepers before dawn uh, my phone in the hotel room rings and it's the attorney general. And he opens the conversation who the hell is Diane Nash and I explained to him that she was a key leader in the sit-ins in Nashville during the years are there the journalist. And he said will she is responsible for and directing another wave of freedom riders that are coming down to nashville. Call her and let her know what is waiting for them and tell her she must not do this. And so, um I called her he had a number and i'm sure you got it from the FBI in Nashville and I called her. [host]: Lemme just ask you to start again. I wanna get her name in here, just in case we... start anew here. [guest]: So I called Diane Nash and, um I open the
conversation by telling her who I was and where I was and where I began and what I had seen. And I said I understand that there are more freedom riders coming down from Nashville you must stop them if you can. And it was so I was speaking in a conversational tone of their friendly tone. I had hoped that perhaps she would remember me as a journalist who had with David Halberstam covered the sit-ins in Nashville. Her response was well, the freedom righters have left and they're on the way. And I couldn't call me back if I wanted but they're not going to turn back. They're on their way to Bermingham and they'll be there shortly.
I, thinking back, my voice raised a decibel and I explained what I had seen him Birmingham in that airport when I walked in there. uh, beaten frighten people who had narrowly escaped death. And so I spoke to her in stern terms, with a strident tone many times I thought about it since standing by the water I will not be moved, she would not be moved. And and, and I felt my voice go up another decibel and another and soon I was shouting "young woman do you understand what you're doin'. You're going to get somebody, you understand you're going to get somebody kill"? 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 would be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence." That's virtually a direct quote a word that came out of a child mouth. Here I am an official of the United States Government representing the president and attorney general talking to a student at Fisk University. And she never quiet but strong way, uh, gave me a lecture, um. She was not going to be moved, she was gonna make an effort. And so, um
I had to call the attorney general and tell him I had failed. [host]: So what's the mood now in-in-in, with you, your mood, and the mood in Washington. You know you've seen the violence, you've seen the tension first hand, you know what's going on. But there's this group that's going down there and they just refuse [guest]: From my point of view, now there's nothing to do except what (stuttering) maybe I should just okay, um (indistinct) So there's nothing to do but to head back to Birmingham [host]: I'm sorry So now there's nothing to be done except go back to Birmingham.
The attorney General says you better get up there as quickly as you can and of course by the time I get there they're all incarcerated. "Bull" Connor, Eugene "Bull" Connor. "Bull" Connor the police commissioner of birmingham, who prefers to be called "Bull" rather than Eugene has been in jail. And now lead attorney general is trying to reach the governer. I'm trying to reach the governor. "Bull" Conner talked to me as if I were a juvenile delinquent. He was coarse and crass, insulting both the president and Bobby and didn't wanna talk about it. And, uh, I knew that
these students in his jail were the same students who had been in jail in Nashville during the sit-ins. I knew he was going to get nights a prayer and singing. Ah that a jail all night long was going to be disrupted that the jailers wouldn't sleep at the inmates' wouldn't sleep. Um, these kids were right where they expected to be. They weren't intimidated by jailing, they'd been there before. I couldn't explain that to 'em. Um, I make contact with the FBI agents in birmingham and met with Fred Shuttlesworth who was the minister for the southern christian leadership conference in Birmingham and and he was making an effort to visit them and to get a out. I guess was the second night in birmingham. Still no
contact with the governor. And the FBI call me at the motel and woke me up and said, the freedom riders have all been taken out of jail. I said, kidnapped and he said, well we think commissioner Connor it has taken them in a motorcade. And I though, "my god they're gonna kill 'em." I didn't think "Bull" Connell was above that. I knew who "Bull" Connell was. And, um, so we were all, I was desperate. and, uh, of course, what had happened was that, uh, "Bull" Connell had gotten tired of having them in his jail. He wanted to get rid of them.
And they wouldn't make bond. Fred Shuttlesworth had already made an effort to make bond for'em. They wouldn't make bond, and, uh so he, ya know, he took'em back to Tennessee line and dumped 'em. (unintelligible) [host]: 've just want you to give me that, just a little bit more ya know, of ya know, "Bull" Connell got tired of them and tired of this thing (unintelligible overlap) self and and just put them in cars and took 'em to (unintelligible) So what had happened? [guest]: So, what had happened was that the that book on assembly gotten fed up with the freedom riders, uh, peaceful, and non-violent, uh but agitating. They stayed up all night and they sang and they prayed and they talked and they, it aggravated him. And he said, I gotta get rid of this, ya know. And so he
take some put them in cars and off they go to the Tennessee line where he dumps them. [host]: (unintelligible) and then you're actually summoned to see Paterson. Talk about that. [guest]: The attorney general calls and says John Paterson is now available and is willing to talk to you. And so I, um had a rental car and I drove from Birmingham to Montgomery late in the afternoon. I remember walking up the steps of the state capital and looking above the capital, seeing stars and bars flying above the stars and stripes. I knew what I was, where I was and what I was was walking into. He welcomed me at his office door after a state policeman escorted me to his office door. Uh, it was a courteous handshake. He took me to
a table across from his desk around which he had a cabinet office seating. He sat at the head of the table, I sat on his right and he began to lecture me about, uh how outrageous the actions of the president were, how outrageous the actions of the attorney general were. That he he John Patterson had taken a stand against these rabble rouser. And that he was more popular by far with people across the country. Not an Alabama boat across the country, than Jack Kennedy. And that his desk was filled with, he said, the stack the letters that high. People all over this country who know when I'm right about this issue. And Jack and Bobby are undermining law enforcement in this country. And he, uh, and he just a pounded the table and lectured me. Bob and I had
developed a strategy. I was to say to Patterson, look give them safe conduct to the state line. Make this Mississippi problem make it Louisiana's problem But I had it-it-it was several minutes, maybe, maybe ten minutes before you stop berating me about how president and attorney general were responsible for engineering the freedom rights. I listened to that and took it. And the first time he took a breath, I said look governor of this is just this simple. If you can't provide them protection and you say you can't you know leave us any option. We'll have to provide protection for 'em. And it will have to be U.S. marshals or troops. And you don't want that and I don't want and certainly the president & attorney general don't want that.
He said, "you bring marshall or troops to Alabama and blood will run in the streets". It was the very first opening I had and I said, "Governor, blood ran in the streets of Anniston Alabama last Sunday surely we don't want that again". I don't know that it took him back but he turned immediately to a man seated across the table and said, "that's Floyd Mann, my commissioner of safety. Floyd, tell this man these rabble rouser they're asking for trouble and we can't protect them". And I look across the table at this man and you got a sunburn. And I thought, "redneck". and how wrong you can be, ya know. I mean, Floyd Mann (pause)
He didn't get out his badge and hold it up, but it was almost that visible. He said, "governor, I've been in law enforcement all my life. if you tell me to protect them or protect'em". It sucked the air outta the room. I mean there was a silence, you know, pregnant (unintelligible) I'm sure there was no time, any other member of that cabinet ever dared challenged the governor. But man was a professional police officer. I think John really was taken aback by it and he did, he was, he was not angered by it. He was puzzled by Floyd. How can you do that. And Floyd Mann said police cars in front of the bus police got behind the bus and I'll have police officers on the bus and we'll have an airplane over the bus. We will
tell them, protect these people and they will protect them governor this of course put John Patterson in a bit of a bind. And he begins to think about what he, what he's done and he's thinking about "Bull" Connell police commissioner in Birmingham. He's thinking about commissioner Sullivan in montgomery. He's got political problems and so he says well Floyd if you think it can be done, work it out with "Bull" and with Sullivan. We'll protect them on the highway, on the state highway. Let them protect him inside the city limits. And that's and that's, that's the resolution that the government of Alabama promised in that conversation. [host]: So now ya got this disagreement and I love the image of
I think Patterson won't get on the phone, so you're sayin. [guest]: Yeah, right Well, so, uh, so now we've had a revolution and now we work out a statement that will release to the press and statements from the governor says we will protect all citizens, residents of Alabama and other on the highway and elsewhere. And I said I needed to tell the attorney general that we've reached this agreement and he said, well why don't you sit at my desk and so we get up and i walk over and sit at the desk of the governor of Alabama and he comes and stands directly in front of me. And I called the attorney general who's waiting I say do you wanna speak to him governor, no you talk to'em Bobby knows me and so I read the statement to Bob and he says did John mean it? And I have the phone away from my ear slightly
so governor Patterson can hear it. Yes Bobby I mean it. Um, and so I said well release this statement to the press outside. He said ask him if he would mind telephoning the president of Greyhound I was talking to'em a little bit earlier and he lost the bus in Alabama and he's worried about losing another bus and he's we're trying to find driver for the bus. Because the drivers are all frightened. And if the governor would reassure him it would be helpful. The governance heard that and said, of course I'll call him. I took the number down and Bob and I rang off and the governor then sat down at his desk and did call president of Greyhound and did have a conversation in which he fully reassured, uh, fully reassured the president of Greyhound of the bus would not be hard.
(indistinct) (indistinct) [host]: So, so, now you got this agreement which I think you described beautifully. What do you think would happen that next day? [guest]: As I though about the next day, frankly I was feeling very good about myself again I thought this is gonna be a cake- walk. We're gonna have, I know "Bull" Connell wants those kids out of his city. I know Floyd Mann is trustworthy. Uh, and they worked it out with a commissioner in Montgomery. And so um, so I went to bed that night back in Birmingham feeling very good about where we were and what the future was. And
the next morning the driver (laughs) I got no idea what they paid, um, the freedom riders had anticipated that this was going to be a riot in which the driver stopped at every schedule town along the way. And they would have that chance to go into the terminal in each town. Try to get to the lunch counter. Which they would not be able to do. Or try to go to the bathroom which they wouldn't be able to do and then get back on the bus and they go the next town. And John (unknown) deputy head of civil rights division was in town and he and I decided we would ride together in my rental car to montgomery. And we anticipated riding down saying and take the bus from Mississippi and we would drive back. Mission accomplished. Again! And so Dora and I
set out by car and this bus took off the driver was not about to stop any place. This was going be an express bus and I understand, he was scared out of his wits. Um, John and I thinking we had time stopped for breakfast on the way down and arrived at the federal building where john had a meeting that day. Which incidentally was almost abutted the greyhound bus station. There was a small alleyway that separated the federal building from the bus terminal. And as I let John Doerr out at the federal building suddenly we heard screams and shouts. Uh, we looked up through the windshield and you see baggage being thrown in the air. You could hear screams. Suddenly I looked ahead and white men were chasing the black kids across the street in front of me, a couple of them.
John ran for the federal building to call attorney general. I move with the car up toward the bus terminal to take a view. My throat was in my mouth. I, my heart was in my throat I was. I knew suddenly, uh betrayal. Disaster. Uh, I hope not death. But I was frightened. [host]: You guys pull up in Montgomery [guest]: So John rushes to call the attorney general inside of the federal building. I move the car slowly. (host speaks indistinctly) As we pulled up to the federal building, which was just across the alleyway from the bus terminal
John Doerr opened the door and suddenly we heard these really terrible screams and shouts and I looked up through the windshield and baggage was thrown into the air hurl into the air. And i knew immediately worst fear, violence they had met with violence there had been a betrayal and I said to John run quick call Bob tell him what happened. And uh, he leapt out race for the federal building I drove up the street. And as I pass the terminal looked out on the parking lot of Greyhound. It was a teeming anthill of violence. I mean from outta nowhere this mob had come. I don't know how many hundreds. And and then you could, and you could just see and hear and feel the uh,
brutality of that mob as they've set up on these kids. I, I could see clashes here in there where beatings were going on. A couple of the other kids darted in front of the car. I got up to the alleyway turned to my turn to right again and coming down the other side of the street. I had no idea how bad it was but I knew people just being mauled and I feared murdered. And suddenly as I come down I looked and there are 2 young freedom riders who have been surrounded by maybe a dozen or fifteen people. And and they are being beaten and the 2 young women, both white and, and 1 is slightly ahead of the other and there is a there is a skinny young kid in a t-shirt. I remember he had a set package of cigarettes rolled up ya know how
in the t shirt sleeve and he was sorta dancing in front of this young woman punching her. And I could see as she turned her head, blood from the nose and mouth. The other woman was slightly behind or and, um and she was being shoved & jostled but they were really focusing on the young woman in front. The woman was hitting her with a purse. You can see her head and I thought you know I can get them outta here. And suddenly I bounced up on the curb, blew the horn opened the door. I yelled to the woman and the young woman in the rear get in the backseat. And she did. She move toward a backseat I couldn't get around the crowd, then closed in around the car. I couldn't get quite to the young woman who was bleeding. And, but grabbed her by the wrist over the hood of the car pulled around, had her right at the door and said get in. A0nd she put her hands up on the door jam
and said Mr., I don't want you to get hurt I'm non-violent trained to take this. Please don't get hurt we'll be fine. Get your ass in the car sister. At that moment they wheeled me around with a couple of guys. I never got a look at 'em. That was just a flash you know. And they hit me right there with a pipe. And I'd never been knocked out in my life. Never been unconscious. I think, I've thought about it many time, I think i felt it when I hit the ground. They kicked me under the car and left me there. I was there for 25 minutes before, um, I woke up. Um, it was clear later as I thought about that commissioner Sullivan given them a half an hour before he let police officers come to the scene.
When I woke up I was sitting in the passenger side, window down. Uh, the first thing I noticed was I had borrowed - I'd been on the road now for several and I'd borrowed one of John Doerr's shirts. And, ya know I was down in the seat, and when I first thing I saw just this blood drenched shirt. And I think probably my first thought was is Doerr gonna be pissed off at me. And then I looked up to this lieutenant. And he said it looks like ya ran into some trouble buddy. He had gotten me out from under the car I found out later, brought me around put me in that passenger seat. I had not worn a coat. I thought this is going to be a quick expressed trip down
expressed trip back for me. I had left my coat in the motel. I had no identification. I had a reporter's notebook which I always carry in my back pocket. And he had a notebook. He couldn't tell who I was, and he says is there anybody I can call for you? And I was dazed and I was dizzy. Uh, it was gradually comin' to me what had happened. And I had the good sense to say yes you could call Mr. Kennedy. And he said wait, which, who and I said, look either the president or the attorney general. The numbers are in the notebook. And my notebook was filled with numbers from, um, included "Bull" Connell Fred Shuttlesworth and John Patterson and the White House number. I, I could tell that it took
Series
American Experience
Episode
Freedom Riders
Raw Footage
Interview with John Seigenthaler, 2 of 3
Contributing Organization
WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
AAPB ID
cpb-aacip/15-jw86h4dt3v
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Description
Description
John Seigenthaler was a native of Nashville, TN who worked as a newspaper reporter at The Nashville Tennessean prior to working as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. As special assistant to the Attorney General, Seigenthaler initially served as the intermediary between the federal government, the Freedom Riders, and white segregationist state officials.
Topics
History
Race and Ethnicity
Subjects
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
Rights
(c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
Media type
Moving Image
Duration
00:30:35
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Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
AAPB Contributor Holdings
WGBH
Identifier: barcode357611_Seigenthaler_02_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Duration: 0:30:30

Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-jw86h4dt3v.mp4 (mediainfo)
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Duration: 00:30:35
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Citations
Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 2 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 20, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-jw86h4dt3v.
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 2 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 20, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-jw86h4dt3v>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 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-jw86h4dt3v