American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 1 of 3
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 [woman] ok we're rolling [man] OK The question was do you, how did you learn about the freedom rides, did you get information about the riders in advance? "[Seigenthaler] the first information that came to the justice department was a form of press release and um, this issue has been raised uh, so many times that i went back and researched it - that press release was sent directly to Ed Goffman's office. Now, I know uh, Jim Farmer may have written a letter that covered it. If so, it went with the press release to Ed Goffman's office and so um, we read about it in the press uh, the attorney general read about it in the press, before he knew that the press release uh was- had arrived at the justices department. Before um, before the freedom riders left Simeon Booker who was working for Johnson Publications, Jet and Evani, uh, came in to see the attorney general. We went it and sat down had a
conversation and he um, expressed grave concern about the safety of the freedom riders and his own safety. And the attorney general gave him his own number and my number to call in case there were difficulties beyond that i don't think there was any contact or notification." "[Interviewer] Um, so that in- in- in some way I think uh Harr- Harris Walker tend to say that- that- that you know, there was a little war- warning or a little thought about it but, then it kinda was forgotten would that be?" "[Seigenthaler] Well, I didn't- I- you know, it was um, there were only a few days between the time the press release came out and and the rides began and i haven't seen that press release in a long time but um,- but the first time, i think, there was any real concentration on it was when Simeon Booker came to see the attorney general and um I ca- I don't know how far in advanced that was but it was right on the cusp of their departure and um, and I-
I don't think that there had been um,- I know there had not been conversations between the attorney general and Burke Marshall, the head of the civil rights division, or John Dorr, who was in the civil rights division, um, until Simeon came in. And I think Bob talked to both um, to both um, Burke and John about it but, only to say Simeon had been in and um, now, it well maybe that Jim Farmer had been in touch with Harris Wofford in the white house but, but the attorney general heard nothing from Harris nor did I. Um, we knew it was going to occur- and once it began of course you followed press reports of what- of what was happening when there was an incident." "[interviewer] Ok, let's cut for a minute here, pump up the speed. Re-testing..." "[Seigenthaler] I think from the time um,
that alert came from Simeon Booker, um,- when there were press reports of trouble um, of course we tracked it, and it would be a few days before you'd get an FBI report on it. Um, but mm- to the extent that the attorney general personally tracked it, it was largely through the press. Now, it well maybe that Burke Marshal and John Dorr, on their own, independently, were tracking it more closely. Um, but, uh, there was one incident ss- ah one incident of- of um, violence that was rather serious and I- I don't mean that any attack was not serious but, um, but it- it was amazing that they made as little news as they went uh, through the upper south um, because you know, you would you would have thought that the towns where they were stopping um,
the big crowds out to meet them and to protest and to um, threaten and to intimidate um,- so, there was not day to day tracking by the attorney general or by me um, my guess is that Burke Marshal and John Dorr both um, through the FBI field offices, may have heard something about it." "[Interviewer] Let- let- let me ask you the- the the, cuz I like, I wanted to have you just talk about the fact that they made little news. Inaudible" "[Seigenthaler] mhm." "[interviewer] -as they moved about the south and just one of the things I say is you know we should cut, we're gunna, that that there was not a lot of press as they were going through the south." "[Seigenthaler] There was very little." "[interviewer] I'm sorry we're going to have to get that take again." "[Seigenthaler] Yeah, sure. There was very little um, press on uh, on the rides um,- if there were an incident, and there were incidents, um, and somebody was attacked, somebody was arrested, um,
then there would be a local news report. AP would pick it up, perhaps it would show up in The Washington Post or The New York Times. Beyond tha,t uh, as far as the attorney general and his office were concerned, there was- there was no tracking in the civil rights division. It may well have been that Burke or John Dorr tracked on a regular basis but, in insofar as the attorney general was concern, um, insofar as i was concerned the only information we received came from occasional press reports of incidents along way." "[interviewer] Can I just ask you wha- wha they ?intended? just ?inaudible? cause I think you need to say as they were in the upper south, you know? So that we understand-" "[Seigenthaler] Yeah." "[interviewer] -because you know of course-" "[Seigenthaler] Right." "[interviewer] -as it went on it was huge perhaps-" "[Seigenthaler] Yeah." "[interviewer]I just wanna kinda-" "[Seigenthaler] Sure." "[interviewer] -give a- give a time stamp there." "[Seigenthaler] Yeah. As the freedom riders began to move across the upper south there were occasional incidents that caught the attention of the press. Occasional. Uh,
someone would be attacked, someone would be arrested. The victim who was attacked would be arrested. That would make news. Um, but, there were a few, only one or two of those as I recall and so um, throughout that- the early days of that trip uh, there was uh,- the freedom riders didn't make much national news and therefore um, there was very little attention paid to the fact that the riders were on their way." "[interviewer] Great, thank you um, [pages turning] well, one of the things that- that- that is- is interesting to me is- is- is that one of the riders said, you know, that we felt that we were being protected you know, that- that- the justice department had to be watching us but even more he said you know we felt that we were being watch and protected by the FBI. Um,
so you know, ahh, tell me a little bit about the relationship between- what was the relationship between Bobby Kennedy and J Edgar Hoover." "[Seigenthaler] The relationship between Attorney general Kennedy and J Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was strained very early on. The first visit that Martin King paid to Bob Kennedy in april of 1961- the attorney general explained to him that he didn't have a national police force and that he was not getting much cooperation from the FBI. He explained and what dr. King knew and that was that J Edgar Hoover was unsympathetic uh, and considered civil rights matters outside the jurisdiction of the FBI. If there was an assault, uh, if there was a murder, if there was arson, if there were bombing - and there was all of that - according to Hoover that was a local law
enforcement problem. It was not a national crime, it was a local crime. And the attorney general continued to press him um, but, uh, J Edgar Hoover heard what he wanted to hear and heard nothing he didn't want to hear and the attorney general was his superior uh, and I think their relationship was marked from- uh with tension from the outset because- simply because Hoover uh, was tone deaf when it came to any issue of civil rights, outside voting rights, which he could not escape responsibility for. Voting rights was a national crime if you denied voting rights uh, the FBI had to move in. And beyond that Hoover knew that his agents in the south- uh, and there was 1 an- or 2 to in every major city but no more he knew that they were working with local law enforcement on crimes like bank robbery, kidnapping, interstate transportation of stolen
goods, working with local police on those federal crimes and he knew that the local police establishment invariably was infiltrated by the ku klux klan and sometimes dominated by the klan so the tension between the attorney general on one hand and the- and the director the FBI on the other - his subordinate was palpable and continuous." "[interviewer] So, this kind of uh, protection this web of pro- of- of uh, you know, FBI protection that some of the freedom riders thought was there, wasn't there?" "[Seigenthaler] There was no protection from the FBI for the freedom riders and I would go so far as to say there wa- those agents with those agents assigned to the south there was no interest in providing protection [silence] which is to say Mississippi burning is largely mythical in terms of my experience in the
justice department." "[interviewer] Okay thats a cut, we probably wont be able to use that piece. [laughs] So, you- you did know something about the freedom riders. What was it that- that- that you thought or wished or hopped would've happen?" "[Seigenthaler] I hoped that the freedom riders would make their trip from Baltimore to New Orleans and um, and that they would arrive with minimal danger, with minimal difficulty. Um, but, coming from the south and knowing the south and having watched the sit ins in Nashville, I knew in my mind that it was unlikely that they could make that trip without some incident of uh, some incidents of violence, major violence. Um but of course, I hoped um, Simeon Booker uh, his expression um, when he came in to see us
was an expression of fear. He was going to take this assignment on as a journalist. Um, Johnson Publications had given the assignment um, but, he wanted the attorney general to know that uh, that if there was trouble uh,- he didn't have any faith in the FBI and he was looking for somebody he could- he could call. And uh, so, I- I- I had hoped um, day to day, the rides would go successfully and frankly over the first several days, when there were not press reports of um, of problems, uh, my confidence built a little bit perhaps they would get through perhaps people would simply turned their backs on it. The last thing that the attorney general wanted and the last thing the President of the United States wanted was a major civil rights conflagration their worst fear was to have to deal with another little rock - to have to send in federal
troops to keep the peace and um, yes, that was- uh, that was a political concern. They had carried 5 southern states. President Kennedy had carried 5 southern states with the help of Lyndon Johnson, then seen as a segregationist, um. If they could have avoided major blowup in the area of civil rights, there was some possibility of that um, that the president could maintain some popularity in the south. And so, they were hoping against hope that um, that there would not be that sort of explosive um, outburst of violence that forced federal action. Part of that was concern about um, just how committed the FBI and its agents were uh, to the cause of civil rights. And so,
and- and so it was it was almost, for them, it was almost a catch 22. On the one hand, can't move Hoover. On the other, can't control the movement. The movement is going on uh, and- and so uh, so all you could do was hope. And that's all I did was hope." "[interviewer] Great. Um, lets- lets- if you can just start- start- just gimme the first couple sentences of that ?a hint of? 'cause I actually think that that they might have left from Washington not Baltimore." "[Seigenthaler] I believe they left from Baltimore. Uh, that's where Farmer's headquarters were. But I'll be glad to I'll be glad to say it." "[interviewer] I mean I'm not sure you got me so I- so I thought I knew but-" "[Seigenthaler] I know the press release came from Baltimore but I'll- I'll say Washington. You- you- you pick and choose whichever one's accurate. I'm almost certain that... yeah.. right. Sure." "[interviewer] Yeah- yeah you dont need to do the whole thing that way we get the editing we're set just say when they first left from Washington." "[Seigenthaler] Sure. Fine. Yeah, when the freedom riders first left from Washington um, we had no immediate notice that the bus was pulling out. Uh,
we knew from the press release that it was Grey Hound, but no more than that." "[interviewer] Great, that's great. Let's cut. Um, okay. What- what was the reaction wh- you know, when you all heard about the bus burning and the uh, the uh, the rides in Birmingham?" "[Seigenthaler] Well, uh, the first uh, notice of it, I guess, uh, was on Sunday evening um the bus had been stopped ehh, just before they got to Anniston, Alabama. the Klan put up a road block and bombed and burned the bus and of course there was news about it um but as i recall it was um Sunday night i know that sometime Sunday night, Simeon Booker called me, and I called the
attorney general. Uh, and um, I guess, the first thing i felt, i'm sure he- that the attorney general felt was shattered hope. Uh, we should have know it couldn't have gone like this. Um, and eh- eh- the full impact of it um, really didn't um, dawn attorney general, I think, until the next day uh, when we sat down in the office and began to talk about what was to be done. Burke Marshal immediately was uh, on top of it. Um, he was milking the FBI for any information that- that they had. Um, and all of the- all of the reports were tragic. Uh,
there were people who were beaten uh, men named Peck literally had his brain scrambled, I mean, he was never the same until his death. There were um, you know the- they- they bombed the bus and set fire to it. Some of the riders couldn't get off suffered smoke inhalation and the next day um, Burke Marshall, by that time, did get information that they had voted among themselves not to continue on the bus. There- they physically were not able to. I mean, the beatings had been intensive and almost all of them suffered some injury and um, and then after they decided that they wouldn't go forward with the bus ride, that the bus ride would end, they then um,
they then went to the airport to leave and of course that was in the local news and within no time a crowd had gathered at the airport." "[interviewer] When- when- they- what- let's cut. Yeah. Okay. beep go ahead, what what what what was your thinking when you know?" "[Seigenthaler] Well the first um,- my first reaction of course was um, concern, uh, grave disappointment, keen awareness that uh, it had to be bad. Um, you couldnt come from the south as I did and- and- and not understand uh, what had happened and uh, I remember talking to the attorney general about it, the attorney general talked to the president. President was getting ready to make a trip uh, out of the country at that moment and um, when word came that the freedom riders had decided to go by air
to New Orleans the next reports were that they couldn't get out of Birmingham by air. Every um, every flight resulted in a bomb threat. Calls would come and Delta Airlines would cancel the flight. Um, and so they couldn't get out and the attorney general and the president talked about it and um, so i was sent down the decision was made that morning to send me to Birmingham to help them get out of New Orleans uh, get out of Birmingham and to New Orleans. Attorney general and the president talk together and I talked then with them and our strategy was simply go to Alabama, go to Birmingham um, get those freedom riders to New Orleans.
one of the disappointments I think for the president was that John Patterson the governor of Alabama would not take the president's phone call; would not take the attorney general's phone call. He was supposedly in Mobile Bay on a boat and couldn't be reached which is facetious on its face and um. So by the time I left that mid day uh, the uh, the governor still had not responded to the president's call." "[interviewer] Let's cut. Um bobby, what time is it- back to the airport- the airport in- in- in- uh in, where were they?" "[Seigenthaler] Montgomery, uh Birmingham their trapped there." "[interviewer] In Birmingham and uh, and your- your- in DC and- and you get sent down there." "[Seigenthaler] Yeah. I ehh, after talking with the president and the attorney general I take a delta flight to to Montgomery um, even through Atlanta. Um,
it's a long fight but by the time i get there um, they're still trapped in that airport. They are frightened to death uh, they go to the restroom in pairs uh, they can't get served any food um, their visible because they've been so badly beaten um, and so uh,- and they were glad to see somebody from the federal government. I think the people who were not glad to see somebody from the federal government was Delta Airlines uh, but I got with the manager of Delta and they got on the telephone and said the representative of the administration is here and I suggested to them that there would be no bomb threats if they'd checked everybody's luggage who's passing through Birmingham to New Orleans and if they checked all our luggage, the freedom riders and mine.
Didn't have those checkpoints- we have to go through today after 9/11 so they checked all of everybody's baggage and that's the way we got- that's the way we got out of there. If you represent the president of the united states and your talking to ehh, officials of a regulated airline - and they were very regulated in those days uh, we were out of there on the first flight and um, I think, it was a great relief to those freedom riders uh, who had suffered uh, near death - couple of them, near death - and all of them great danger and all of them intense pain. And um, the flight down was uneventful. When we arrived in New Orleans state police lined - there were no jet ways that pulled right up to the terminal in those days, you know? You came down a ladder. State police formed a corridor from the steps at the bottom of the plane to
the terminal and i'll say they were cursed and condemned uh, with racial slurs from the bottom of that ladder 'til we walked into that terminal. They and I, by this time, uh, the fact that I was there was in the news, uh, you wouldn't believe it from state police officers just spewing filth and venom and hatred. And so we walked into the terminal and I deliver them to their friends who had come out to meet them and there were tears and- and there was joy. Um, and I went to a motel to spend the night and, you know, I thought, what a great hero I am. My- you know, how easy this was, you know? I mean I just took care of everything the president and the attorney general wanted done um, mission accomplished." "[interviewer] Okay, lets cut. Great-
that's great. In Birmingham, um, you guys must have tried to get governor Patterson involved in some protection, what was governor Patterson's reaction?" "[Seigenthaler] Governor Patterson was incommunicado. The president of the united states could not reach the governor of Alabama because he didnt- because the governor of Alabama didn't want to talk to him. John Patterson had supported Jack Kennedy in 1960. He had been the first southern governor to endorse Jack Kennedy publicly uh, and now he was furious uh, pointing a finger of emotional blame at the president of the united states because the freedom riders had come to Alabama. So, governor Patterson had made up his mind that he was not going to talk to the president about this. Maybe he knew the president was about to leave the country and he did not talk to president of the united state before before the president left the country." "[interviewer] Okay, lets cut. Okay, what do we got there? The FBI is clearly there in Birmingham." "[Seigenthaler] The FBI- the FBI- the FBI i'm sure
was in the air terminal when I arrived. They never identified themselves to me uh, they never identified themselves to the Freedom riders, to my knowledge. Um, ehhhh, it sort of indicates to me the attitude of the FBI refrecling- reflecting the views of J Edgar Hoover, knowing that I'm reflecting the views of the attorney general who had this- this tension uh, this grave misunderstanding and- and so I- I- I guess looking back on it and in light of what happened afterward, I- i'm not surprised that they didn't identify themselves to me but certainly they knew I was going and certainly they should've been there and certainly I believe they were there, but they provided no comfort to the freedom riders, to my knowledge,
during those long hours they were stuck at that airport. There was- I mean it was it- it was as if the FBI had ice water in it's veins." "[Interviewer] What - just- just real quick because I don't know if we, what was the tension like in that airport?" "[Seigenthaler] Inside the airport the first thing uh, I found was the fear that was palpable. The free riders were- were afraid. And they right to be afraid, I mean, they had narrowly escaped death on the highway uh, and um, everybody in the airport uh, knew who they were. There was no friendship from the Delta attendants for them. There was no effort to provide comfort, there was no effort to provide them food, uh. As I-
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with John Seigenthaler, 1 of 3
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- 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.
- 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: barcode357610_Seigenthaler_01_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-mc8rb6x31v.mp4 (mediainfo)
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- Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 1 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 16, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-mc8rb6x31v.
- MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 1 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 16, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-mc8rb6x31v>.
- APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 1 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-mc8rb6x31v