thumbnail of American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Seigenthaler, 1 of 3
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[Long signal tone] [Female speaker] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. [Interviewer] The question was, how did you learn about the Freedom Riders and you know, did you get information about the Riders in the day? [John Seigenthaler] The first information that came to the Justice Department was a form of press release. And this issue has been raised so many times that I went back and researched it. That press release was sent directly to Ed Guthman's office. Now I know Jim Farmer may have written a letter that covered it if so, it went with the press release to Ed Guthman's office. And so we read about it in the press.
The Attorney General read about in the press before he knew that the press release was-- had arrived at the Justice Department. Before the Freedom Riders left, Simeon Booker, who was working for Johnson Publications, Jet, and Ebony, came in to see the Attorney General. We went in and sat down and had a conversation. And he 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] So that in some ways, I think Harris Walker kind of said that there was a little warning or a little thought about it. But then it kind of was forgotten, would that be--? [Seigenthaler] Well, I don't, you know, it was, there were only a few days between the time the press release came out
and the riots began, and I haven't seen that press release in a long time. But the first time I think there was any real concentration on it was when Simeon Booker came to see the Attorney General. And I don't know how far in advance that was, but it was right on the cusp of their departure. And I don't think that there had been-- I know there had not been conversations between the Attorney General and Burke Marshall, the head of the Civil Rights Division, or John Doerr, who was in the Civil Rights Division, until Simeon came in. And I think Bob talked to both, to both Burke and John about it, but only to say Simeon had been in. And now, it well may be that Jim Farmer had been in touch with Harris Wofford in the White House,
but the Attorney General heard nothing from Harris, nor did I. We knew it was going to occur. And once it began, of course, you followed press reports of what was happening when there was an incident. [Interviewer] Let's cut for a minute. [Seigenthaler] I think from the time that alert came from Simeon Booker, when there were press reports of trouble, of course we tracked it. And it would be a few days before you'd get an FBI report on it. But to the extent that the Attorney General personally tracked it, it was largely through the press. Now it well may be that Burke Marshall and John Doerr on their own independently were tracking it more closely. But there was one incidence, one incident of violence that was rather serious.
And I don't mean that any attack was not serious. But it was amazing that they made as little news as they went through the Upper South. Because, you know, you would have thought that the towns where they were stopping, there would be crowds out to meet them, to protest, and to threaten and to intimidate. So, it was not day to day tracking by the Attorney General or by me. My guess is that Burke Marshall and John Doerr, both through the FBI field offices, may have heard something about it. [Interviewer] But let me ask you just a little bit, because I wanted to have you just talk about the fact that they made little news as they were doing the Upper South. One of the things I say is, you know, we should cut.
We're going to ask you that there was not a lot of press as they were going through the upper-- [Seigenthaler] It was very little-- [Interviewer] I'm sorry, I'm going to have you-- [Seigenthaler] Yeah, sure. There was very little press on the rides. If there were an incident, and there were incidents, and somebody was attacked, somebody was arrested, then there would be a local news report. The AP would pick it up. Perhaps it would show up in the Washington Post or the New York Times. Beyond that, as far as the Attorney General and his office were concerned, there was no tracking. In the Civil Rights Division, it may well have been that Burke or John Doerr tracked on a regular basis. But insofar as the Attorney General was concerned, insofar as I was concerned, the only information we received came from occasional press reports of incidents along the way. [Interviewer] Can I just ask you one thing that is just to start that again, because I think you need to say as they were in the Upper South, you know, so then we understood it.
Because of course, as it went on, it was huge press. Yeah, so just want to kind of give it a time back there. [Seigenthaler] As the Freedom Riders began to move across the Upper South, there were occasional incidents that caught the attention of the press. Occasionally, someone would be attacked, someone would be arrested, the victim who was attacked would be arrested. That would make news. But there were only one or two of those, as I recall. And so throughout that-- early days of that trip, there was-- the Freedom Riders didn't make much national news, and therefore, there was a very little attention paid to the fact that the rides were underway. [Interviewer] Great, thank you.
[pages turning] One of the things that was interesting to me is that one of the Riders said that "we felt that we were being protected, that Justice Department had to be watching us. But even more," he said, "we felt that we were being watched and protected by the FBI." So, you know, talk 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 what Dr. King knew, and that was that J. Edgar Hoover was unsympathetic and considered civil rights matters outside the jurisdiction of the FBI. If there was an assault, if there was a murder, if there was arson, if there was 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, but 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, and I think their relationship was marked from-- with tension from the outset, because-- simply because Hoover 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, the FBI had to move in. And beyond that, Hoover knew that his agents in the South, and there was one or two 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 Director of the FBI on the other, his subordinate, was palpable and continuous. [Interviewer] So this kind of protection, this web of FBI protection that some of the Freedom Riders thought was there--? [Seigenthaler] There was no protection from the FBI for the Freedom Riders,
and I would go so far to say that with those agents assigned to the South, there was no interest in providing protection. Which is to say Mississippi Burning-- Mississippi Burning is largely mythical, in terms of my experience in the Justice Department. [Interviewer] Okay, let's cut. We probably won't be able to use that. So you did know something about the Freedom Riders. What was it that you thought or wished or hoped would happen? [Seigenthaler] I hoped that the Freedom Riders would make their trip from Baltimore to New Orleans, and that they would arrive with minimal danger, with minimal difficulty. 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-- some incidents of violence, major violence. But of course I hoped. Simeon Booker, his expression, when he came in to see us, was an expression of fear. He was going to take this assignment on as a journalist. Johnson Publications had given him the assignment, but he wanted the Attorney General to know that if there was trouble, he didn't have any faith in the FBI, and he was looking for somebody he could call. And so I had hoped day-to-day the Rides would go successfully. And frankly over the first several days, when there were not press reports of problems, my confidence built a little bit.
Perhaps they would get through. Perhaps people would simply turn their backs on it. The last thing 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 yes, that was a political concern. They had carried five southern states. President Kennedy had carried five southern states with the help of Lyndon Johnson, then seen as a segregationist. If they could have avoided a major blow-up in the area of civil rights, there was some possibility that the President could maintain some popularity in the South. And so they were hoping against hope that there would not be that sort of explosive outburst of violence that forced federal action.
Part of that was concern about just how committed the FBI and its agents were to the cause of civil rights. And so it was almost, for them, it was almost a catch-22. On the one hand, you can't move Hoover. On the other, can't control the movement, the movement is going on. And so all you could do was hope. And that's all I did was hope. [Interviewer] Great. You know, if you could just start, just give me the first couple sentences of that answer, because I actually think that they might have left from Washington, not Baltimore. [Seigenthaler] I believe they left from Baltimore. That's where Farmer's headquarters were. But I'll be glad to say it. [Interviewer] I'm not sure. Yeah. I thought I knew, but-- [Seigenthaler] Well, I know the press release came from Baltimore. But I'll say Washington, you pick and choose whichever one's accurate.
I'm almost certain that, yeah. [Interviewer] That way when we get in the edit room and we see-- just say from Washington. [Seigenthaler] Yeah. When the Freedom Riders first left from Washington, we had no immediate notice that the bus was pulling out. We knew from the press release that it was Greyhound. But no more than that. [Interviewer] Great. That's great. Let's cut. Okay. Okay. What was the reaction when you all heard about the bus burning and the riots in Birmingham? [Seigenthaler] Well, the first notice of it, I guess, was on Sunday evening. The bus had been stopped just before they got to Anniston, Alabama. The Klan put up a roadblock and bombed and burned the bus.
And, of course, there was news about it. But as I recall, it was Sunday night. I know that sometime Sunday night, Simeon Booker called me. And I called the Attorney General. And I guess the first thing I felt, and I'm sure he, that the Attorney General felt, was shattered hope. We should have known it couldn't have gone like this. And the full impact of it really didn't dawn on the Attorney General, I think, until the next day when we sat down in the office and began to talk about what was to be done. Burke Marshall immediately was on top of it.
He was milking the FBI for any information that they had. And all of the reports were tragic. There were people who were beaten, a man named Peck literally had his brains scrambled. I mean, he was never the same until his death. They bombed the bus, set fire to it. Some of the Freedom Riders couldn't get off, suffered smoke inhalation. And the next day, Burke Marshall, by that time, did get information that they had voted among themselves, not to continue on the bus. They physically were not able to.
I mean, the beatings had been intensive, and almost all of them suffered some injury. And then after they decided that they wouldn't go forward with the bus ride, that the bus ride would end, 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. Well, the first-- my first reaction of course was concern, grave disappointment. Keen awareness that it had to be bad. You couldn't come from the South as I did and not understand what had happened.
And I remember talking to the Attorney General about that, Attorney General talked to the President. President was getting ready to make a trip out of the country at that moment. And 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 flight resulted in a bomb threat, calls would come and Delta Airlines would cancel the flight. And so they couldn't get out. And the Attorney General and the President talked about it. So I was sent down. The decision was made that morning to send me to Birmingham to help them get out of New Orleans, get out of Birmingham into New Orleans. Attorney General and the President talked together and I talked then with them.
And our strategy was simply go to Alabama, go to Birmingham, get those Freedom Riders to New Orleans. One of the disappointments I think from the President was that John Patterson, 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. So by the time I left that midday, the Governor still had not responded to the President's call. [Interviewer] Let's cut. --airport in, where was? [Seigenthaler] Birmingham. [Interviewer] Birmingham, and you're in DC, you get sent down there. [Seigenthaler] After talking to the President and Attorney General, I take a Delta flight to Montgomery. Even through Atlanta, it's a long flight, but by the time I get there, they're still trapped in that airport.
They are frightened to death. They go to the restroom in pairs. They can't get served any food. They're visible because they've been so badly beaten. 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. But I got with the manager of Delta and they got on the telephone and said a representative of the administration is here. And I suggested to them that there would be no bomb threats if they checked everybody's luggage, who's passing through Birmingham to New Orleans.
And if they checked all of 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. That's the way we got out of there. If you represent the President of the United States and you're talking to officials of a regulated airline, and they were very regulated in those days, we were out of there on the first flight. I think it was a great relief to those Freedom Riders who had suffered near death. A couple of them, near death. And all of them, great danger. And all of them, intense pain. And the flight down was uneventful. When we arrived in New Orleans, state police lined-- there were no jetways that pulled right up to the terminal in those days,
you came down a ladder. State police formed a corridor from the steps at the bottom of the plane to the terminal. I will say they were cursed and condemned with racial slurs from the bottom of that ladder until we walked into that terminal. They and I, by this time, the fact that I was there was in the news. And 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 delivered them to their friends who had come out to meet them. And there were tears and there was joy. And I went to a motel to spend the night. And, you know, I thought, what a great hero I am. I, you know, how easy this was. You know, I mean, I just took care of everything the President, the Attorney General wanted done.
Mission accomplished. [Interviewer] Great, that's great. That's great. You guys must have tried to get Governor Patterson involved in some protection, what was Governor Patterson's reaction? [Seigenthaler] Governor Patterson was incommunicado. President of the United States could not reach the Governor of Alabama because he didn't-- 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. And now he was furious. 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 the President of the United States before the President left the country. [Interviewer] The FBI, is clearly there in Birmingham. [Seigenthaler] The FBI. The FBI, I'm sure, was in the air terminal when I arrived.
They never identified themselves to me. They never identified themselves to the Freedom Riders, to my knowledge. It sort of indicates to me the attitude of the FBI, reflecting the views of J. Edgar Hoover, knowing that I'm reflecting the views of the Attorney General who had this tension. This grave misunderstanding. And so I guess looking back on it and in light of what happened after it, I'm not surprised that they did not identify themselves. But certainly they knew I was going. And certainly they should have 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. It was as if the FBI had ice water in its veins. [Interviewer] What, just real quick, that is the tension like in that airport? [Seigenthaler] Inside the airport, the first thing I found was the fear that was palpable. The Freedom Riders were afraid. And they had right to be afraid. They had narrowly escaped death on the highway. And everybody in the airport 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. As I think back on it, if they went to the bathroom they were jostled. I'm sure the number of curses directed at them casually by passing travelers, the number would have been enormous. It was-- they were in limbo. They were in a frightened state of limbo. And as I said, I think when I arrived, there was some relief. I don't mean that suddenly they thought the Messiah had arrived. But there was some indication that the federal government was there and that help was going to be forthcoming. And that they were going to get out of there finally and get to New Orleans where their friends were waiting for them.
[Interviewer] Cut.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with John Seigenthaler, 1 of 3
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Episode Description
John Seigenthaler was a native of Nashville, TN who worked as a newspaper reporter at The Nashville Tennessean prior to working as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. As special assistant to the Attorney General, Seigenthaler initially served as the intermediary between the federal government, the Freedom Riders, and white segregationist state officials.
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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 Seigenthaler, 1 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2024,
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. February 26, 2024. <>.
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