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[tone] [tone] [tone] [tone] [tone] [tone] [tone] [tone] [tone] ... Speeding. Um, talk about, so you know, after this point, .. calm, you know... .. .. you know, a loud calm, but you know..... seen Martin Luther King..... ....he's kinda..... .. and even scared.... ...... um.... .. talk about what happened when you pulled into Hanson.... Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well.... .. Well, there was... there was a mob there, but I was more or less unaware of them.....(off camera speaker) Can you start out with something that says when we got to....something like that? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Ok Ok Excuse me a minute, I'm trying to think of something. (off camera speaker): ok um, hold on. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Uh, I was on the greyhound bus to (?) when we got to Anniston, there seemed to be
to be a lot of people out to greet us. But I was busy reading my book, right by Ryan Holneibre(Harbour?), a moral man, in an inmoral society. I was being a goody-goody-goody. But I was also determined to not acknowledge their presence. I didn't think it was wise to look them in the eye. It seemed provocative, and I simply chose to ignore them. So I kept on reading my book. I'm not sure I understood a word of what I was reading. And after a while, there was some wind-up breaking going on, right opposite to where I was sitting, and a man who was next to my side of the bus, reaching his pocket and pulled out a gun and sort of waved it around a little bit. I saw that, but again I was trying to to see it out of the corner of my eye, because I didn't want him to think that he was
frightening me, which he wasn't at that point. There were two men in the back of the bus white, in suits, and I didn't understand why they were there. They weren't part of our group, and one of them, at least, exited. I imagine the other one did too, although I didn't notice. And after a while, he shot a gun into the air, and the crowd backed off. They had been holding the front door shut. (off camera speaker:) Let me start us a little bit over. Do you remember when you realize that they had thrown The incendiary device, the bomb onto the bus, how did you realize that something different was happening? They weren't just breaking windows. They weren't just screaming. They weren't just just banging on the bus. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I was sitting opposite the window, which was broken, and a man shoved a bundle of something
in, which was, I realized later, burning, and it gave off a great deal of smoke right then and there. And I did not know it had the potential of burning up the bus, but it obviously was on fire, and pretty soon the whole back of the bus was black. You couldn't even see in front of your face. And I spoke to an innocent passenger who was sitting there and said, I'm sorry, I got you into this, and he said, so am I. And Jimmy Robinson yelled something to us like, "get off the bus". And I went forward, and he opened a window, and he and I both exited through that window. And I remember I dropped the book, and I hope it did somebody out there some good, because I didn't pick it up again. And we were on one side, and
most of the freedom riders were on the other side, so I did not witness anything that happened. I read accounts that said there was an attack. I was not aware of that. And I missed some of what happened, because a woman invited me into her home to wash up. I guess my face was covered with soot. (off camera speaker): So you don't remember the little girl getting the water, anything like that, you weren't Genevieve Hughes Houghton: oh no I didn't see that. (off camera speaker): So now the bus is burnt up, right, you guys were still on the ground, Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Of course, I haven't even talked about slashing the tires, but. (Off camera speaker): talk about that. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, as we left Anniston, there was a great caravan of cars behind us, and they were following us to wherever we were going. And it was just a few miles, I think, before we pulled over, because the tires had
been slashed, and the bus could not really go any further. It was on its rims. That made things a little bit more serious, because there was no protection out there. So actually, there was more protection than we knew, because this man who had been in the back, shot his rifle into the air, and the people who were gathered out there, just backed away. (off camera speaker): Do you remember, did you feel that the tires were flat? Could you hear that sound? You remember, I guess, I'm trying to describe how did you feel when you, when you, when you, these people are following you, they are an angry mob, you know, all of a sudden the bus is pulling over to the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. How did you feel? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I had to feel when the bus pulled over a certain amount of apprehension. I knew that we weren't home-free. (off camera speaker): Okay, I'm sorry. If you could say I felt rather than I had to feel, you're back there.
Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Okay. I felt when the bus pulled over that we were now in the hands of this mob, and we did not have protection. I didn't think we did. And so I was apprehensive. I wasn't frightened to death, but I knew that we'd entered a new phase, didn't look good for us. Fortunately, one of these men, who I think was a plain clothes policeman, fired his gun, and he was outside, of course, at the point where he did that, and people who had been holding the door shut, so we would all burn up, backed away. And many people got out through a door, and I got out through a window, and Jimmy Robinson told me, don't panic gently. And even at the time, I thought that was kind of bizarre. It seemed like it was time to panic, which it was.
(off camera speaker): Do you remember, what happened, how did you all get to the hospital? So you're lying, you know, you guys are all in various phases of a smoke inhalation. How did you, what happened? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I do not remember specifically who came to speak to me. I was across the street. I believe sitting on the grass, but they said that someone had come to pick us up and take us to the hospital. The someone being Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who is one of my heroes, and Ed Blankenheim and I got in the back seat, and it sounds rather cowardly of us, but we lay on the floor, so it's not to attract attention to ourselves, and the fact that we were traveling with Reverend Shuttlesworth, and he took us to the hospital. I noticed that back there, in the back of the car that we were in, was a baseball bat, and I thought, well, this doesn't seem to be in
the spirit of non-violence (laughs). But I didn't have any occasion to use it. I hope I wouldn't have. So we got to the hospital, and they admitted me into a ward-like room, not a private room, which is what they had in those days, and all the black people were kept on gurneys out in the corridor. They were not admitted to the hospital in any formal sense. Nobody had any injuries that I knew of except for smoke inhalation, which was fairly serious, but more for me because the smoke bomb had been placed in the seat right opposite mine, and I probably breathed more smoke than anybody else. Then the FBI came and interviewed me. I couldn't give him any interesting information, though. (off camera speaker): So you're at the hospital, the hospital wouldn't admit the black people? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: No,They just left the black people
on gurneys in the corridor. They were not formally admitted to the hospital at all. They really didn't do anything for me, actually. I just lay in bed. Actually, I went to sleep, I believe. When I woke up, there were these FBI agents there to gather information. (off camera speaker): Was the FBI of any help in while the riots' going on? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Oh, no. The FBI were not involved in any sense, but somebody must have called them because they came to the hospital. They certainly were not involved in protecting us. (off camera speaker): I want you to give me more of a sense of the FBI back then because the FBI, you know, part, partially because of the TV show and other things, you know, everything's .....the FBI, you know, but the FBI knew about this. The FBI was aware that this was going to happen. The FBI had an agent who had infiltrated and was part of the Clan, part of the mob, at least one. The FBI
knew what was going to happen, but the FBI didn't do anything. So give me a sense of what the FBI was like, right then. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, I wasn't acquainted with too many FBI agents, but they ignored the entire trip. (off camera speaker): Can you start out with the FBI? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: All right. (off camera speaker):Just say the FBI. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, the FBI ignored the entire trip. The first time I saw an FBI agent was when I was in the hospital and they questioned me about the individuals, you know, the man with the gun. I couldn't give a good description. Of course, I didn't know their names. And months and months later, my wallet arrived, which they had found on the ground, and that was my only other contact with the FBI. (off camera speaker): So you couldn't expect or look for protection from the FBI as that, true? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: That is true. I could not look for protection from the FBI.
(off camera speaker:) Um, now that, can we stop for a second? Do you want some water or something? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I don't know how to get around this problem of not knowing for sure who took me when. (off camera speaker): Rolling, speed. Okay, so we're back at the hospital. Tell me about your physical condition. What about, what condition were you in? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I was having a good bit of trouble breathing and I was coughing up black stuff. So I was not otherwise hurt. In fact, I think I took a nap in the hospital. And when I woke up, there were two FBI men who wanted to question me about
who had been there. And they did question me, and they left, which is very FBI-ish. (off camera speaker): Let's talk about Shuttlesworth. And I think that Shuttlesworth helped you all get out of the hospital. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: So who took me to the hospital? (off camera speaker): I don't know, but let's tell the story about Shuttlesworth. I don't think he comes in until after you guys are in the hospital. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, I'll take your word for it. (off camera speaker): Tell me what you would remember about escaping from the hospital. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Somebody came and informed me that we were leaving. And although I was quite interested in staying in bed, I got up, put my clothes off, and went outside the hospital. And there was the savior Reverend Shuttlesworth who had come to pick us up and take us away from there. And I believe there were a few mobsters around too,
but they were being quiet and not causing any disturbance, that I can remember. So we went in Reverend Shuttlesworth's car or someone else's, I'm not sure. Ed Blankenheim and I were in the back, and we were lying on the floor. And they were chatting up front as if nothing had happened. We did notice a baseball bat back there. So I had to think that there were limits to Reverend Shuttlesworth's dedication to nonviolence. But I don't think nonviolence came naturally to Reverend Shuttlesworth at all, (chuckling). (off camera speaker): Who was Reverend Shuttlesworth? You can give me just a thumbnail. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, he was an activist. Reverend Shuttlesworth was an activist. (off camera speaker): I'm talking over you. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Oh, okay. Sorry. (off camera speaker): go Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Reverend Shuttlesworth was an activist whose base was Montgomery. And he had appeared before judges and been scolded as if he were a small child and told by
a judge that he needed to be good. And Reverend Shuttlesworth said to the judge, I am being good, judge. (chuckles) That is sort of his attitude. And he always projected confidence that he could do what he wanted, whether he chose to or not at that particular moment. He was a very brave person, in my opinion, and not the great orator like Martin Luther King or even James Farmer, but person who never gave up, always persisted, and always, in the most unfavorable situations, Reverend Shuttlesworth was there. Now, he was not a member of CORE. He was connected to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and although the two outfits were rivals, he didn't let that stand in his way.
So we were very glad to see Reverend Shuttlesworth. (off camera speaker): You said. You mentioned that day he was your savior. What do you mean? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, I think we were on the verge of being thrown out of the hospital, actually, and there were people gathered outside. And as usual, I don't believe there were any any forces of law and order out there to restrain them. So I think in a very real sense he did save us. (off camera speaker): Talk about the.... you guys had, a vote, the next day, to go on. Talk about that. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I can't remember where we met. I have a feeling that it was a motel room, but it probably wasn't, but the central figure was Jim Peck, and Jim Peck, looked like a mummy. His head and face were
covered with bandages and only his eyes were obvious, and his mouth could move. And we did have a debate at this occasion about whether to go on. Jim Farmer was not with us. He was back home taking care of a family situation. Jim Peck said we should go on. And after that there was no longer any debate. If he could be beaten as he was and still say we should go on, we certainly felt we could go on. So we all voted unanimously that we would go on. And I felt very appalled at seeing Jim Peck, but I felt out of admiration for him, too. (off camera speaker): I told you to give me a, start that again.
Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Oh, I know. I did the usual thing. I'm not an experienced interviewee. (off camera speaker): No you were good, I want you to say, after we got out of the hospital. We had a meeting to vote. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: We'll do it over again. I'll just say after we got out of the hospital we met the next day. And I saw Jim Peck for the first time since we had been traveling to Birmingham. And he was covered, his head was covered with bandages. Only his eyes show. And I felt like crying, but didn't. And he proposed that we should continue with our freedom ride. And nobody there was going to tell this person who had been beaten the way he had been that we
weren't going to continue with our freedom ride. So we all voted to continue on. (off camera speaker): I just want to go back a little bit. So Jim Farmer left when you were in Atlanta, right? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I haven't even covered that. No, I think he left before we reached Atlanta. I don't remember him at that meeting with Martin Luther King. So it must, I think it was the night before, but maybe, do you want to get into that? (off camera speaker): Atlanta, we lost Jim Farmer because, you know, he informed us, whatever. And what that meant, you know, that you're now kind of without a leader. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: That's true. (off camera speaker): Okay. Try to look at me as much as possible. Genevieve Hughes Houghton:All right. In Atlanta, Jim Farmer heard that his father was gravely ill. And he felt he should go back. And in fact, his father died. We felt a great loss. He was definitely the leader.
And I'm sure he wanted to be there with us. So we didn't see him again really until we got to New Orleans. (off camera speaker): Okay. I want you to flash forward. I want you to go forward. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Never go forward. (off camera speaker): I know, you are back there in Atlanta. So talk about again the fact that your leader is leaving. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: All right. (off camera speaker): And what that means to you as, as, as a Freedom Rider. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: All right. Jim Farmer had to leave us in Atlanta because his father was gravely ill. And that meant that the leader was not there to lead. And we would have to lead ourselves. And automatically, the leadership shifted to Jim Peck because of his wide experience. And especially when we saw him the next morning after Anniston, he had been beaten. And no, you don't want that.
(off camera speaker): Go over it again. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, I thought I should get into that. But no, it's all right. (off camera speaker): You can say, it's Jim Peck. But also, and I'd like you to talk about, not only does does does Farmer leave, but it's also, he's leaving as you're about to cross into Alabama. And you could put Jim Peck in there, because that's good. Once again. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, Jim Farmer had to leave us in Atlanta because there was a serious illness in his family. And that meant we were getting into the so far, most dangerous part of the trip, although we didn't know what the danger was. And Jim Peck, kind of took over at that point. And it really was not as difficult as one might think, because there were no instant decisions to make. Ours was rather a passive role. In fact, but it was a bit of a shock. And I'm sure Jim Farmer wanted to be with us for the whole trip.
(off camera speaker): But it meant that as you were going into the deepest south, you're now without the organizer, the main organizer and the leader of the trip, right? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Yes. But you're giving an interpretation that is not one I really feel. He was the leader. There was no question about it. But his style of leadership was, you know, not giving orders at all. It was being there and knowing you could rely on him. (off camera speaker): But he wasn't going to be there. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: right. But you know, you're kind of making things up. I really didn't feel it. We were devastated by his loss, or anything like that. I just felt, well, we got make some decisions. I mean, it turned out one of them was to keep on going. (off camera speaker): Okay, well, you could tell me that then. As Farmer left, you didn't feel devastated by
the loss, as long as you thought you could continue. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: That's closer to what I think to being accurate. (off camera speaker): Give me that as a statement. My problem is that Farmer is there, then he's not there. So we have to say that he left. Do you know what I mean? So you hear Farmer, Farmer has to go. How did you feel? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, Jim Farmer had to go because his father was ill. And that meant, of course, that we did not have his leadership, which was always evident, although not overbearing in any sense. And we felt, I think, that we could go on and complete the trip. And I think that his leadership was there in spirit, even though he wasn't there physically. (off camera speaker): Beautiful. Thank you. Sorry that took so long. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I finally said what you warned me to say.
More or less. (off camera speaker): So you decide to, you just said you decided to continue the rides, you know, even though you guys are all beat up. Some of you have, you know, smoke your lungs and coughing up black stuff. Some of you like Jim Peck and others have been beaten. I know I want to go back a little bit. Was that the first time that you saw Jim Peck, and the first time you saw the riders from the other bus? When you saw them, the next....? When you saw them, where you shocked, at the condition? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: I did not, I had not seen Jim Peck since we had started off for Anniston. And he was on another bus, as you know. And that evening, after we left the hospital, I was placed in someone's home and did not meet with all the rest of the freedom riders, so I didn't see him then. But the next day,
I saw him, and he looked like a mummy, had bandages all over his head, and only his eyes and his mouth showed. And he proposed that we continued with the freedom ride. And once he did that, there was no question we were going to continue with it. Nobody was going to tell this man who had been beaten as severely, as he had been, that they did not want to continue on, but I think they did want to continue on, actually. So we voted, and everybody voted to continue. (off camera speaker): Talk about what happens next. You're in the Birmingham bus station, and I don't know why, but you couldn't get a bus out. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: First, we tried to leave via bus, which had been our method of transportation, but the bus drivers were not in a mood to drive a bus full of
freedom riders, or two buses full of freedom riders. So after a while we realized we could not get out of Birmingham that way. We were taken to the airport. I don't remember who took us or how. (off camera speaker) Let me just stop, because you guys made a decision. (stand by please, let's wait for....) Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Yeah. I really don't know how that decision was made, actually. I was not consulted. We weren't having group meetings at that point. (off camera speaker): Do you remember being trapped, or being in the Birmingham bus station, and not being able to get a bus out do you remember that? What was the feeling like? Was there tension? What was it like in Birmingham? Genevieve Hughes Houghton: Well, we wanted to take a bus out of Birmingham and continue our trip as planned, and it got to be very frustrating when bus driver after bus driver refused to drive the buses. And so we were stuck there, and God knows there was no one who was going to come and make
the bus drivers drive the buses. In fact, I don't think you could make them do that. So I don't know exactly how the decision was made, but we decided we would have to fly out, and we moved over to the airport and spent, I think, six hours there, and no planes would fly out, either. So we were stuck there too, and gradually the airport began to fill with people. I knew what was coming. Anybody could have figured that out, and although I hadn't been afraid the day before, I'd learned to be afraid overnight, and I was very uncomfortable. Gordon Kerry arrived from the National Office, and Gordon Kerry was a strong pacifist, and I said to him, aren't you afraid, Gordon? And he said, no, he wasn't, and I thought, well, that's the spirit, so I'm not going to be afraid either if you're
not afraid. (off camera speaker): What was it that scared you in the airport, and you can be animated, you can be animated. Genevieve Hughes Houghton: It seemed to me that as the airport began to fill with people, there was basically the same crowd we had seen the day before, and when it reached a critical point, we were going to get beaten to smithareens. So yes, I was quite nervous about this, and I remember I went up to Joe Perkins. He was looking out at the field, and I said to Joe, how can you turn your back when everybody here, making it easy for them to attack you? He said, I can see them in the glass as they approach. So I thought, well, he's got that under control, and I went up to Jim Peck, and someone came with a sandwich bag, and I thought it was a bomb in this bag. See, I would already gone into my fearful mode, and I said something about it to Peck, and he just looked at me
like I was crazy. But I had no idea who this man was. He was not anybody who was familiar to me, and why he went out and got Jim Peck, a sandwich, and put it in a brown paper bag, and gave it to him, I have no idea of that either. So I guess around the last time a plane refused to fly, we were told to go out and get our baggage off the plane. Well, it was dark out there. There were no lights, and this crowd was fairly large at that point, and I knew that we would have to pass through the crowd, and through a gate, and until that gate was closed, and we were all on the other side of it, we were in danger. Well, we went and did it, and nothing happened, and then came back, and I, um, (off camera speaker) Can you hold that thought? We need to change tape.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 2 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
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 2 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 2, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 2 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 2, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 2 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from