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(long beep) [Hughes]: Congress of Racial Equality in all these years. [Interviewer]: Really? Really? [Hughes]: Not one of them. [Interviewer]: Really? [Hughes]: Well there's never been a reunion. SNCC had a reunion, but we ne... we never had a a reunion. None of them lived near me. [Interviewer]: Well, you'er going to have a reunion after this. [Hughes]: We are? [Interviewer]: I'll make make sure [Hughes]: [laughs] that'd be nice. [Interviewer]:I don't know if Lorenz told you we interviewed Hank Thomas and Hugh Person, was it Hugh Person? [Hughes]: No it isn't [Interviewer]: What's his name I'm sorry ?inaudible?
he's So, do you remember did you first hear about the rides and why did your decide to join? I was a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and so, of course, I heard through the office that they were sponsoring this and i knew there had been a ride in the late forties that just took care of the, the border states because it got very dangerous and i immediately thought this is something i've got to do James Farmer didn't think i had to do it all he thought that i was at average risk because I was the kind of person that, uh, southerners very much resented getting involved in any way, and I was not supposed to down there associate with anybody who was of a different color
so he just thought, we can do without this we don't need to have this girl, uh, join us but I kept bugging him and bugging him and bugging him and finally out of fifty applicants he chose me among others and, uh, I was so excited. [Interviewer]: This a cut? It's always something. So you So you said -- I want to go back a little bit because I'm no sure what we got and what we didn't get with the dog, um When you heard about the rides, you said, you know, that, that you were pettitioning Jim Farmer to join. Why? What was it that made you want to be part of it? i thought it was an opportunity going on this ride to accomplish a lot with just a few people and without, you know, on a tremendous, massive build-up
and i knew that public accommodations were segregated all over the south and sometimes up in Pennsylvania and what have you so it seemed like at one blow we could wipe all that out especially as we had the law on our side of course down there the law isn't always respected, and I think I knew that that was a possibility too, that the law wouldn't be respected, but you know I had the bravado of youth and I thought we could do anything. [Interviewer]: You said, just before we started talking, that we were talking about the group, you said you thought that they were really well chosen. Talk about the selection process in, in the group that you had found. [Hughes]: I was not too aware of what the selection process was. I was not part of it myself, but the people who were chosen were primarily young people
and many with a very strong religious background, and it was, sort of, do or die in their eyes they, they were totally prepared for anything that could happen and some of them had prior experience for instance i didn't know it at the time but John Lewis had had quite a bit of prior experience and quite a bit of experience after that and several of the others in fact most of them I think were CORE members from different chapters some as far away as colorado so I think CORE wanted to go with people who had a deep understanding of nonviolence and a very strong feeling of dedication and so I think that's why they chose these people they felt that they could stand up to whatever happened. [Interviewer]: Did you and CORE have an idea of the danger...have an idea of the danger that these rides represented
when i started off on this ride it seemed as I if everything went very smoothly in most places they served us and i had a natural tendency to downplay danger myself like [laughs] arrogantly thinking i could do anything and as we got closer to the deep south, and particularly when we got to Atlanta, and we met the reverend Martin Luther King, and he acted like the end of the world was about to happen the next day, and I realized something was up but i didn't know what was up. Actually I think he had some private information as to what was likely to happen, but I knew there were something and I poo-pooed it like, oh well [laughs] things change dramatically after that day with the bus being burned and Jim Peck being beaten [Interviewer]: I'm sorry, cut. [Hughes]: Cut?
[Member of production crew] ...can actually hear your watch ticking. What? Really? [Interviewer] Talk about the training sessions again and you can talk about it being very similar to what ?inaudible? was doing so so you know part of when you are in DC and now you are accepted as a freedom rider you were you were trained. Talk about the training. [Hughes] Well I think we had about three or four days of training. Some of it was philosophical and some of it was very tactile and physical and it was mostly orienting us to the behavior that would be needed and trying to vary it enough so that we would be prepared for anything and i think Jim Lawson was doing the same kind of thing our with SNCC people and ah so they received some some like John Lewis received double training and it just was you know it was make believe and it did not scare me perhaps because it was
make believe and I wasn't sure I'd really have to use all these techniques as it turned out very early along I used at least one and I don't think that the training was exaggerated. [Interviewer] Uhm talk about I want you talk about the upper south because everybody has said that you know at first it was it was a was okay. So talk about the upper south and what happened the first couple of days. [Hughes] When we went through the border states I felt I was in familiar territory because I come from Maryland myself and I don't think of Marylanders as people who are likely to physically interfere with what you're doing and it was very much that way but as we got a little closer to Atlanta some things happened that made me realize that almost anything can
happen. Joe Perkins was arrested for uh I don't know being in the wrong place [laughs] I think in some people's eyes and I remember being outside with him and other freedom riders I think this was right after he was released from jail and he spent I think two nights in jail and there was this crowd around us and I didn't think much about that then we realized we were local celebrities at that point and one guy started to move on Joe Perkins so I just quietly stepped in front of him and he knocked me down. It [laughs] defused the attention because the wrong person had gotten knocked down someone that they were embarrassed to have knocked down later on I think that feelings like that disappeared but there was a certain decency to these people they step back and realize that was not really what they wanted to do they were not into attacking at that point. [Interviewer] Let me just go back a second because I you know we got these
pictures of you all kind of going on the bus you know getting on the bus in DC for that first ?inaudible? the rides were just starting you know you all looked so idealistic so I want you to tell me a little about what was the feeling as you boarded that bus for the first time in DC. [Hughes] I think we were were very very serious as we boarded that bus we did not know what was about to happen I downplayed any bad possibilities but I did think that this was going to be historic in the sense that if there was opposition and they wouldn't serve us it was going to be noticed. It would call attention to what was happening and I was very glad that we were within the law because it took one issue out off the table don't have to worry about whether we're doing something illegal and we didn't have to worry about behaving provocatively because we've been
trained not to so we knew we were going to do that so it i felt it was likely to be historic and accomplished a lot and i think it accomplished a great deal more than I thought it would [laughs] [Interviewer] Uh can we cut for a second? What what were the freedom riders? [Hughes] The freedom rides tried to duplicate the earlier ride that took place in the late forties which was which was not successful and did not penetrate any further than the border states and Jim Farmer was there for that and I think he thought the time was right to do something more to try and to see if we couldn't accomplish something. It basically was aimed at segregation both on buses but but in particular because of the recent Supreme Court decision the Boynton decision
in uh waiting rooms and in restaurants that were associated with bus terminals the whole experience of travel and through buses and so they would wait do a little pre-testing going down to various communities and particularly ones that we were fairly familiar with like Rock Hill or Sumter and uh found out that pretty much it was universal. People didn't get served people who were black stayed in the back of buses for people who are white stayed in front of buses just like the Montgomery bus boycott. This was interstate travel so this was federally speaking illegal what was happening and nothing had changed there had been no no enforcement of the law at all so we had a route that took us through some major cities like Atlanta and we aimed to end up in I believe Jackson Mississippi although in fact
we ended up in New Orleans and we went through some of the more vicious parts of the south vicious then I hope not vicious now now uh but - [Interviewer] Let me cut for a second. Uhm I am sorry so you can give that to me. You know - [Hughes] Do it all over again? What was the idea of the freedom rides? [Interviewer] Yeah. Uh-uh. [Hughes] Well, the freedom rides duplicated an earlier ride that had not been successful we were to go to through various parts of the south gradually going deeper and deeper six of us on the trailways bus and six of us on the greyhound bus and see whether places were segregated whether people were being served when they went to get something to eat or buy a ticket or what have you use the restrooms and we found out they weren't. It wasn't happening. Law was not being enforced [Inaudible from interviewer]
There had been a previous freedom ride which was not successful back in the late forties and I think Jim Farmer wanted and thought that it was time to see if these places had obeyed the law or whether they were still discriminating against people so we began with some of us on the greyhound bus and some others on the trailways bus and to act or ride that pattern continued there were the greyhound people and there were the trailways people and we both encountered the same things. [Interviewer] Talk a little bit about again about the upper south. And you guys would actually go and speak to churches and colleges and things. ?inaudible? pictures [Hughes] In the in the upper south we found in many cases that they were serving people
they had prior notice that this was going to happen and they thought that was the easiest way to handle it and in those places we often went to churches that were friendly towards our objectives and we sang we talked and doubtless we were amateurs but i think the sincerity shone through [Interviewers] How were you received in the churches ?inaudible? [Hughes] Almost too enthusiastically [Laughs] [Interviewer] okay again my question is not Sorry sorry sorry uh in the churches. [Interviewer] Again my question the congregations and other church people were out in force they knew what we were doing and where we are growing even though by and large in the press we received no coverage whatsoever but the black community welcomed us. [Interviewer] One of the things that that
always uhm interested me is the fact that you did not have coverage, that you only have the black ?inaudible? uhm did that worry you at all? Because also the black press were basically weak [Hughes laughs] so that meant that you know what I mean so if something happened on Tuesday the word might not get out until the other Tuesday and they were the only press that you had. Did it worry you that Was there a thought that you did not have mainstream press? [Hughes] I think there was a sense of disappointment we did get a little press in Washington before we left then that did not continue it was like the south had made up its mind and it was not going to pay attention to this because the whites are not be referring to the other south and I uh I think i did feel that maybe we wouldn't achieve anything because nobody knew what we were doing
and it wouldn't spread. We had hoped we could sort of end all of this in one big moment you know some place would look and see what was happening and say well we don't want that in our community and a lot could be done with the very simple little trip. [inaudible from interviewer] In Atlanta Atlanta [inaudible from interviewer] In Atlanta there was a little reception force and the highlight was that Reverend Martin Luther King would be there and he was and he gave a little talk and I thought oh my heavens he thinks we're doomed! There was an atmosphere of some tension and we were told how brave we were but I didn't feel we had been brave yet so then I felt well we're going to have to be brave that's the feeling I'm getting and nobody said that anything was planned
although I later found out that things were planned and there was knowledge of that and I think Martin Luther King wanted to prepare us for what was going to happen. I don't think he had any specifics but I think he knew and in fact in a book I've read he said to Mr. Booker that we would not make it out of out of Alabama. He didn't say that to us however so I was being arrogant and sort of you know don't tell me that [laughs] [Interview]: Now I am going to ask you that question again, and I don't want you to go forward. I don't want you to talk about the book. I don't want you to talk about what you later found out. Because you are just in that moment. [Hughes] Oh Ok. Alright. [Interviewer] ?inaudibale? Martin Luther King, and you said a couple of times that you know there was this doom and gloom so if you could tell me a little bit more what
what was it? Ok so start again, when you got to Atlanta. [Hughes] When we got to Atlanta there was a little reception for us that was uh headed by Reverend Martin Luther King and of course it was a great privilege for all of us to meet him he was an icon of the movement and uh he gave an inspiring speech and encouraged us all but there was something about it that told me trouble was ahead and I think it was that the rhetoric was sort of exaggerated and seemed to be implying there was something going to happen and nothing was specific but I got that impression and I just brushed it off. I thought people like to dramatize that things and so I put it down to that actually I I think he was trying to prepare us
[Interviewer] Was there a uh sense of of fear of Alabama, of dread of Alabama. Did you know who Governor Patterson was? Was there ?inaudible? [Hughes] I knew who Governor Patterson was and I did not have a very good impression of him and I thought there could be trouble in Alabama but I really had no notion of what sort of trouble. There were no details uh I don't think we felt dread. We were uh very high on ourselves [laughs] and we thought we could conquer anything with our nonviolent behavior goodwill and so I think we were just looking forward to a very busy day [Interviewer] In some ways because I think that that that the freedom rides that there were a bunch of people who were not from the deep south
Uhm It was planned in the north Was there some naivete about the the you know the different, the deep south Alabama, Mississippi, ?inaudible? [Hughes] I think some people who were on that right there probably were not naive at all like John Lewis. He had quite a bit of experience prior to that ride and the Bergmans had been demonstrating all their lives for things they believed in and they don't think they were easily frightened and others I think like myself were a little bit naive we had never, I had never encountered a physical assault and until I saw it I didn't quite believe in it. [Interviewer] You said you mentioned to ?inaudible? I think she gave me a note part of your conversation last night
that maybe there was a bit of martyrdom ?inaudible? [Hughes] Well whether it was spoken or not there was an attitude of that if it's going to take dying for the cause I'm gonna die for the cause and that was pretty well I felt I think by the young people I don't think that the Bergmans would say something like that although it was absolutely true that they would they just wouldn't boast that way but I think this is probably a little bit of unfortunate that we were looking for glory and in some sense [inaudible from interviewer] Well, death is glory [laughs] It immortalizes you. I don't think people wanted it. I wouldn't say that for a minute but I think they felt prepared for it. [Interviewer] Did
you have any idea what it meant to do what you were doing as a white woman in the deep south? You know because I surprised you know what I mean [Hughes] Jim Farmer initially did not want me on that ride and he told me no quite a few times. He felt that my being there simply attracted the worst elements to express themselves against what they hated most which was any association between blacks and whites especially across different sexes and so why bring that issue up why make that an issue in the south and I don't understand why he changed his mind possibly because he felt that I had some experience in training at this point that a lot of other people didn't have they were completely new to this whereas I had at least wandered around the border states and seen a few things
and he knew me and I think that makes a big difference. [Interviewer] You know I was surprised because you know I was researching this that you know it wasn't the black people who were centered out singled out. The white people got it worse worse and it was almost expected that the white people would get it worse the white freedom riders. So talk about that the uh [Hughes] Well i think that white freedom riders were considered a traitor to the race and I think I was exempted to some extent because they have these weird feelings about white women [laughs] we're up on some pedestal or something and I couldn't be like these other people I must be a little bit more decent in their eyes but I think they were being punished for taking the wrong side in the eyes of some of these people. The best of the people in the south weren't there you have to
understand that. These were well I wouldn't call them scum exactly [laughs] but they were not well educated refined sorts at all [inaudible from interviewer] My experience is [Interviewer] What we are going to do is get you ?inaudible? and then get get to where the bus leaves Anniston and we will talk about the burning bus. [Hughes] Alright. [Interview]er Let's talk about the whole thing. Let's do the whole story. [Hughes] Ok [Interviewer] And you can give me as much detail as you want and we'll cut and I might go back and ask you some specific questions about stuff. Ok so let's roll So Genevieve talk about uhm when the bus that they pulled into Anniston. When did you realize that there was something wrong, and tell me ?inaudible? what happened? [Hughes] Well when the bus pulled into Anniston I was busy reading my little religious book called Moral Man and Immoral Society by ?inaudible?
neither could I didn't want these people to think that I was interested in what they were doing and I knew there was trouble though because there was quite a crowd out there and the bus stopped and uhm the a crowd hung around and some of the things that i have read did not seem accurate to me because I was sitting in the back and the so called bomb or incendiary device that was shoved through the broken window was done opposite of where I was sitting. It did not come in through the back but it could've later and but there was in a certain amount of breaking the windows and there were two gentlemen on the last seat I did not know what their function was but they were both white and at that point whites didn't feel comfortable back there so it was a puzzle as to what they were doing there and they were
two young man dressed similarly and one of them looked me in the eye I broke my resolve not to look at any of them and he put his hand in his pocket pulled out a pistol and he sort of pointed at me and I just acted like hmmm that's interesting [laughs] and I went back back to reading my book and in the meanwhile this incendiary device or whatever it was it was not an explosive device was burning away in the seat right next to mine and it was getting rather smokey in there in fact it got really smokey and there was a man sitting several seats up. He was black and I realized that this was going to end pretty quickly either we were all going to burn up or were all going to get out out and I said to him I'm sorry I got you into this
So am I [laughs] So it after while Jimmie McDowell who is at this point in front of the bus said that we shouted something like that we need to get out of here and people were trying to exit but the front the doors were being held shut so they weren't being too successful but one of these two men had left the bus and I believe he shot his gun into the air and people backed away and allowed other people to get off the bus but Jimmie McDowell thought it would be more fun to to go out the window and he said something to me like don't panic Genevieve [laughs] If I don't panic soon I am going to be dead so I jumped out the window along with him and I missed some of the things that happened because i was
on the wrong side of the bus the people were all on the other side of the bus and going out the window in the crowd was around there I was not aware of any rioting type behavior especially after his men shot his gun on our end and a woman from across the street from the house there asked me if i would like to come in and wash up my face was black from the smoke and I was coughing of course and so I said yes and I went into her house and I washed up and left her with my watch ?inaudible? so she got something for it and I don't know whether she asked me that because she thought I was being assaulted by blacks [laughs] she was rescuing me or whether she thought I was part of the same group she was white and I did appreciate that little gesture so things sort of settled down. The bus burned up of course
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 1 of 3
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Episode Description
Genevieve Hughes Houghton was CORE field secretary on the CORE Freedom Ride May 4-17, 1961.
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
(c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 1 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 20, 2023,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 1 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 20, 2023. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 1 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from