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so is breached and for a few years ago in the fall of nineteen sixty through Some of my friends that have been involved in the sit-ins in Nashville Tennessee that they're called the Congress of Racial Equality response in something called a freedom ride. I knew it was something that I knew I had to go on because I traveled through the South and I had
seen the signs that said White Waiting Colored Waiting White Men Colored Men White Women Colored Women and I wanted to be part of an effort to change it. [Interviewer] Talk about in your book you have a great passage about the joy of being accepted one the on the Freedom Ride. [Lewis] When i got word that i had been accepted to be part of the freedom ride i was more than excited I wanted to do what I could to bring down those signs of segregation those signs those symbols that told people they could not take a seat anyplace on a bus or anyplace on a train or could use any waiting room or any restroom. So i was more than happy I was more than pleased. I had been a participant in the sit-ins in 1960. I stood in at the theaters in the early part of 1961 [audio tone in background].
So the goal on the freedom ride was a dream come true. [audio tone starts again - dialogue hard to understand] and we're gonna get another blog and what about when you get down to ten. [Interviewer] OK. You were talking about the joy of being accepted. [Lewis] I was more than happy more than pleased when I was accepted to go on the freedom ride. I wanted to do what I could to strike a blow against discrimination in public transportation. This was a decision of the United States Supreme Court that we were testing ?banned? in discrimination in public transportation. I've seen it. I've felt it in traveling for almost 4 years between Alabama and Tennessee to school
having to move to the back of the bus. Couldn't use the waiting room that I wanted to use. Couldn't use the restroom facilities that I wanted to use. [Interviewer] I wanted to talk just a little bit about and ?just give? this separately, about, talk about how it was for a black person back in '61 to travel, you know, interstate travel in the segregated South. How was it [inaudible] to travel? [Lewis] Before 1961 it was not easy for people of color to travel. As a matter of fact it was very dangerous. If you got outta place or you got outta what people call outta line or you got in the way you could be arrested, jail beaten, maybe even killed. I remember in 19 60 traveling home for the Christmas
holiday with one of my school mate. We tried to take a seat right behind the Greyhound bus driver. [Tone starts again. Discussion about it]. [Interviewer] OK OK let's start again. Start again if you can John with I remember traveling. [Lewis] I remember traveling in 1960 during the Christmas holidays with one of my schoolmate. I was traveling from Nashville to Troy Alabama about fifty miles south of Montgomery and he was traveling to Tampa Florida where we had to board the same bus and we were seated together right behind the bus driver and this bus driver ordered us to move to the back of the bus and we refused to move and he pushed his seat back on us he tried to squeeze us or squash us and when we got to Troy I got off the bus and my
classmate continued down the road to Florida. I didn't know what happened to him but later ?l? learned he made it there without any problem. Back in 1960 and before 61 it was tough; it was difficult; it was hard to face segregation and racial discrimination. To see those signs that said Colored Waiting White Waiting Colored Men White Men Colored Women White Women. [Interviewer] Why why was that so upsetting? [Lewis] To see the signs to see the symbols of racism of segregation and discrimination was an affront. It was an insult to our dignity. We had to change it. We had to change it to make it possible for other people to ?ride? with a sense of dignity and with a sense of pride. [Interviewer] OK let's cut. ?Lorenz? give me the
his application [inaudible]. Alright. Ready? We rolling? When i applied to be a Freedom Rider in the Fall of 1960 I had to write an essay. I said in my essay I must ?sing? it at American Baptist Theological Seminary and hoped to graduate in June. but ?on? the hand Freedom Riders is much more of a challenge to what I believe than a degree I know that an education is important and I hope to get one but at this time human dignity is the most important thing in my life. This is most important decision in my whole life to decide to give up all if necessary for Freedom Ride that justice and freedom might come
to the deep South. Your fellow Freedom Fighter John R. Lewis. [Interviewer] OK. OK Let's cut. I think we're gonna - ?Is there any way to blow this up a little bit? That would help. There's also, we were trying to also get this this part of [inaudible] So I just wanna, again, I'm sorry John, but I'm trying to jump around. I just wanna make sure we cover some some things. One of the things I want to talk about is your memory of getting, you know, after you go to D.C. and you go through this training and then that first day of becoming a Freedom Rider and going on this bus you know you're gettin on the bus for the first time headed South and how you felt. One of the things that we're thinking of just so you'll know for the film is using that song you know, Hallelujah I'm a'Traveling you know so tell about how you felt now you're a Freedom Rider you're gettin on that bus and you're going
to be a Freedom Rider through the South. [Lewis] We arrived in Washington D.C to go through a period of training and then on the morning of May 4th 1961 a group of boarded a Greyhound bus to travel from Washington D.C. through Virginia to North Carolina and the first major problem or incident occurred in North Carolina in Charlotte when a young African American man attempted to get a shoeshine in a so called White Waiting room that had a so-called white barbershop. He was arrested and taken to jail and the next day he went to trial and the jury dismissed the charges against him. We continued to a little town called Rock Hills, North Carolina. My seatmate a white gentleman the two of us tried to enter a so-called White Waiting room
in Rock Hill and a group of young white men attacked us. We tried to go through the door and started beating us and left us lying in a pool of blood. The local police officials came toward us and wanted to know did we want to press charges and we said no. The next day I left ?a ride?. [Interviewer] Why did you refuse to press charges? [Lewis] We believed in the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We were not protesting against these young white men. We were protesting against a system against customs against tradition. We were trying to make real a decision of the United States Supreme Court. We didn't have anything against these young men. Our fight was not with them. ?Would? guess making it clear that we
wanted the South to live up to the decision of the United States Supreme Court. To bring down those signs that said White Waiting Colored Waiting and end discrimination in public transportation. [Interviewer] Let's cut [inaudible] [Lewis] OK I will run. [Interviewer] How long do you think this will be [Lewis] Yeah [Lewis/Interviewer speak over each other] [Short single tone, inaudible dialogue] [inaudible] we're fine we're fine [Interviewer] OK we're going to start John with you know saying when I applied I had to write an essay and the- then if you wanna if you could add something at the end you know what I'm saying you know whatever you want [inaudible] time or this is the ?[inaudible]? road or this is you know whatever
and when you finish you know just maybe add a little whatever you want to add to it. Are we ready? [Other speaker] I'm ready. OK we're rolling. So tell me about the letter that you wrote. [Lewis] When I applied to go on the freedom ride in 1960 the Fall of 1960 the freedom ride was scheduled for 1961 May 1961 I had to write an essay and i didn't kn- know that much about trying to write an application or anything but I did it and it read something like I'm a senior at American Baptist Theological Seminary and hope to graduate in June but on the other hand the freedom ride is much more of a challenge to what I believe than the degree. I know that an education is important and I hope to get one but at this time human dignity is the most important thing in my life. This is the most important decision in my whole life to decide to give up all if
necessary to the freedom ride that justice and freedom may come to the deep South and it was signed your fellow freedom fighter John R. Lewis. When I wrote this little essay I was convinced that I may not return after going on the freedom ride. I knew it was a very dangerous mission to get on a Greyhound bus in Washington D.C. and ride into Virginia, to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama into Mississippi. I never been to Mississippi before and I remember on that night when we had the last meal at a little Chinese restaurant in Washington D.C. and we were eating. Someone said you must eat well. This may be like the Last Supper. [Interviewer] Great great great
[noise] [noise, papers shuffling, low inaudible dialog] [silence] [silence] [Interviewer] I just want to ask you again John this doesn't have to be long but talk about you know for people now young people now and people who haven't didn't experience segregation they're saying so what's the big deal you know you just so what's the big deal. You had to ride in the back you know so what's the big deal you had separate bathrooms but you had a bathroom what's the big deal. Talk about why it was so terrible in the segregated South to try to travel from one place to the other interstate on these buses. [Lewis] 1961 annual four nineteen sixty one in a time that you traveled in the deep south and use public transportation deal the bus
to ride on a train, to walk through a waiting room you saw those signs that said White Waiting Colored Waiting White Men Colored Men White Women Colored Women the same places that you were not supposed to take a seat you had to go to the back of the bus and take a seat and if many more white people got on the bus you had to move much farther back and take the seat as farther to the back as possible. More than anything else it was an affront to our self respect to a sense of dignity. It was an insult to all that we believed in. We were treated less than human beings. So we had to stand up and say no to segregation and to racial discrimination. The signs was there saying interstate
?Waiting White? And all the of the black people or people of color had to go to the same waiting room and in some bus stations with just a little hole in the window where you could buy a ticket and you have to stay in and set in the so-called Colored waiting room. [Interviewer] OK. Let's cut for a second. Hey Brenda [inaudible] come here [Brenda] yeah [Interviewer] for a second OK. We got some pictures we want to show you [Lewis] OK [Interviewer] and you can help us tell us [inaudible]. I wanna go I wanna ask this question again because and I want to talk about that joy you know so you go through this kind of training but I want to talk about the joy that you must have felt that first day cause we have these pictures of you guys you know you're just kind of standing in line gettin on that first
bus you know to go down and be a Freedom Rider. How did it feel on that first day as you head out to the South. [Lewis] On that first day boardin that Greyhound bus to travel through the heart of the deep South I felt good. I felt happy. I felt liberated. It was like almost like the first time i got arrested [inaudible] had been sitting in in Nashville at a lunch counter. I felt free. I had never traveled outside the deep South except for once and I traveled by car from south Alabama to Buffalo and there were certain places you couldn't stop along the way to get something to eat. You couldn't use the rest room and so this was the first time in my life that I could could do something in addition to the sit-ins in addition to the stand-in at the theater to end segregation in
public transportation all across the South. I had never been to Washington D.C. before. I had never seen the United States capitol before. But to come to Washington D.C in May of 1961 twenty one years old to board a Greyhound bus to travel to through the South with the possibility of putting my life on the line was something I believed I was ready. I was like a soldier in a non-violent ?armory? I was ready. [Interviewer] So you weren't scared? [Lewis] There come a point with your non-violent training, through the non-violent workshops that you lose all sense of fear. And even you may have some reservation or some hesitation
but you're prepared to go on and face it [inaudible dialog] [Interviewer] In Rock Hill you had the first time for you of violence. Tell me that story. On May 9th 1961 when my seatmate white gentleman named ?Abba? Bigelow from Connecticut. The two of us were seated together. We got off of the bus and approached a waiting room that said White Waiting and the moment we started through the door a group of young white men attacked us beat us and left us lying in a pool of blood. And when we were able to get up local law enforcement ?innovators? came
along and said do we want to press charges and we said no. We believed in nonviolence. We accepted nonviolence as a way of life as a way of living. We didn't strike back with [inaudible] accepted the blows cause our struggle was not against these young men. Our struggle was against unjust laws, against customs and traditions. [Interviewer] When these men attack you in Rock Hill did it make you think well, you know maybe this isn't going to be so easy so simple, because until that time you had kinda been free of violence and you had gone through you know a good portion of the upper South at least without this violence. Did that change your thinking about what was going to come? [Lewis] After we had been attacked
in Rock Hill and suffered the abuse the violence I knew that this was more of the upper South and we had to go much farther. We had to make it through Georgia. We had to make it through Alabama and we had to go into Mississippi and we had to go on to New Orleans. Some ?high? and some way I felt that it was not gonna get any better it probably gonna get worse because along the way a great many people didn't know about the freedom ride and so after one incident occured more people heard about the freedom ride and more people would turn out to a bus station and observe what was happening and that's exactly what happened. [Interviewer] So in a way there's this good and bad this you know push and pull that happens because now more people know about the freedom ride which is what you
want but on the other hand you know more of the white races of the ?mob? know about the freedom ride. [Lewis] Well, after a particular incident such as the incident in Rock Hill and by the time we made it through Georgia and later in Alabama the nation as a whole knew about the freedom ride. You know what happened during that period it's a very long story and I shouldn't tell you the entire story but I had applied to go abroad. I was graduated from American Baptist Seminary that June and I applied with American friends Service Committee to go to east Africa or to India for two years and I had to fly from Charlotte North Carolina to Philadelphia for an interview so I left the freedom ride and was supposed to rejoin the ride in Montgomery. They never made it to
Montgomery. The Greyhound bus that I would have been on [Interviewer] [inaudible] let's cut for a second. John if it's ok I don't wanna in- don't roll yet. [Voice] No? [Interviewer] No. I got word ?they had? to leave and that so - and also how you felt leaving [Lewis] oh yeah oh yeah right. [Interviewer] So I think that's important you know - that you left - all the details of leaving aren't that important. [Lewis] OK [Interviewer] What's important for us is that you left and how you felt leaving the freedom ride. OK. Are we rolling? [Voice] Yes. [Interviewer] OK. [Lewis] I had to leave the freedom ride. I got word from an organization in Philadelphia that I had been accepted and I needed to do a last interview and a physical to go to India or either to east Africa for two years. And I was supposed to rejoin the ride in Montgomery Alabama. But they never made it
to Montgomery because of the violence that took place between Atlanta and Birmingham. The people on the Greyhound bus [Interviewer] OK lemme interrupt cause i don't - you can stop for a second - what I'm trying to do John is I don't want you to jump ?fall back? there in Rock Hill. We don't know what's going to happen to the bus [Lewis] Right. [Interviewer] OK. We don't want you to tell us now [Lewis] Right. [Interviewer] because we're going to tell it more dramatically yo the people were on that. [Lewis] Right. [Interviewer] Tell me that you had to leave and how you felt. [Lewis] I had to leave the freedom ride in Rock Hill South Carolina and I felt really bad leaving my friends leaving my colleagues and not being able to go on the ride on into Georgia and into Alabama. It was a very difficult decision to make but i had been waiting to go to India or go to east Africa for two years. [Interviewer] Great great. OK could we cut?
Did you end up going to India? [Lewis] Not until-- [Interviewer] A lot of time has passed and you've gone to Philadelphia, the rides have gone on, they've gotten-- the bus is burned in Anniston, the people have been beaten in Birmingham, they can't get out, they finally decide "we're gonna suspend the ride." Tell me about the decision in Nashville to continue the rides. [Lewis] It was a group of students in Nashville, had been part of the sit-in movement, part of the Nashville effort. We met on a Sunday night and we begged and we pleaded with the ?dots? to make available to us $900. We only needed $900 to buy ten tickets for ten individuals to have tickets and food to travel. We couldn't allow the threat of violence, of violence itself, to stop the freedom ride. So they made a decision, this adult
group, made a decision to give us, to make available to us, the $900. They told us if we go we're committing suicide and we said "no, we wanna go." And on Wednesday morning May 17th, 1961 at 6:30AM the ten of us, seven young men and three young women boarded a Greyhound bus and we traveled from Nashville, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama and when we arrived at the city limits of Birmingham, Bull Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, met the Greyhound bus and boarded the bus, got on the bus and saw a young black man and a young white man sitting on the front seat right behind the bus driver. One of those young people was Jim ?Spur? and the other was Paul ?Gross? He told them to move. They refused to move. He arrested them,
took them to the city jail. He ordered the bus driver to drive the bus to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Birmingham. Then Bull Connor asked the other police officials to look at our tickets and our tickets read from Nashville to Birmingham, Birmingham to Montgomery, Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi, from Jackson to New Orleans. He let the regular passengers get off the bus. He kept us on the bus. Then he ordered the local police officials to place newspaper, cardboards, to cover all of the windows, the windshield, the back, on the side. He kept us inside of the bus for more than a hour and a half, then he said "I'm going to place you all under arrest or protective custody." He said no "I'm going to place you in protective custody." [Interviewer] I'm sorry I just want to go back. Why did Bull Connor
put the cardboard and the newspaper up on the bus windows? [Lewis] Bull Connor placed the cardboard and the newspaper over the windows. He didn't want the people on the outside and especially the newspeople, the photographers, to see that we were on the bus. They wanted to make it difficult for the media to get word out for the press to see that we were still on the bus and that we were part of the freedom ride. [Interviewer] I just want to back a little bit John if I can-- [Lewis] Yeah. [Interviewer] Because you know I think that we talked to a number of people from Nashville, students from Nashville, but I think that you have this special place because you were on those buses earlier. You knew those people on that bus. So I just wanna felt-- talk about how you felt when you heard that the bus had been burned and that the
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with John Lewis, 1 of 3
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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John Lewis was a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary on the CORE Freedom Ride, May 4-17, 1961 and the Nashville, Tennessee, via Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, May 16-20, 1961
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American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Lewis, 1 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 2, 2022,
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APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Lewis, 1 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from