American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Lewis, 1 of 3
. .. .. .. .. ... .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... It was something that I had to go on. Of course, I'd traveled through the South,
and I've 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. Talk about, in your book you have a great passage about the joy of being accepted on the freedom of it. When I got word that I had been accepted to be part of the freedom of rights, I was more than excited. I wanted to do what I could to bring down those signs, the segregation, those signs, those symbols, the toll people. They could not take a seat any place on the bus, say any place on a train or couldn't use any waiting room or any restroom. So I was more than happy. I was more than pleased. I've been a participant in the sit-ins in 1960. I stood in at the theaters in the early part of 1961.
So the goal on a freedom ride was the dream come true. Yes, sir. Can we change the shot? We're times to do that. And we're going to get another buzz and what about when we get down to 10? OK. You're talking about the joy of being accepted. 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 the decision of the United States Supreme Court that we were testing, ban and discrimination in public transportation. I've seen it. I've felt it in traveling for almost four 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. I wanted to talk just a little bit about and just get this separately about, talk about how it was for a black person back in 61 to travel, to illustrate travel in the segregated cells. How was it to travel? Before 1961, it was not easy for people a color to travel. As a matter of fact, it was very dangerous. If you got out of place, got out of what people call out a line or you got it in the way you could be arrested, jail, beaten, maybe even killed. I remember in 1960, traveling home for the Christmas holidays
with one of my schoolmates. We tried to take a seat right behind the Greyhound bus driver. I remember traveling in 1960 during the Christmas holidays with one of my schoolmates. I was traveling from Nashville to Troy, Alabama, about 50 miles south of Montgomery. And he was traveling to Tampa, Florida. But 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, splash 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 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 they had a colored waiting, white weighting, colored men, white men, colored women, white women. Why was that so upsetting? To see the signs, to see the symbols, the racism, the segregation, and discrimination was in the front. 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 arrive with a sense of dignity and with a sense of pride. Let's cut. Lorenzo, give me his application. That's why I'm doing it. Are you ready? We roll in a recipe. When I applied to Via Frida Ryder in a fall of 1960, I had to write an essay. I said in my essay. I'm a senior at American Baptist Theological Seminary and hope to graduate in June. But on the hand, Frida Ryder 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 right, that just isn't freedom might come to the deep south. Your fellow freedom fighter, John R. Lewis. OK, let's cut. I think we're going to, is there any way to blow this up a little bit? I think that would help. There's also, we're trying to also get this part of this. So I just want to, again, I'm sorry, John, but I'm trying to jump around because I want to make sure we cover some things. One of the things I want to talk about is your memory of getting, after you go to DC and you go through this training. And then that first day of becoming a freedom rider and going on this bus for the, you know,
you're getting on the bus for the first time, head it south, and how you felt. One of the things that we're thinking of it, just so you'll know for the film, is using that song, you know, Hallelujah, I'm a traveler, you know. So tell me about how you felt. Now you're a freedom rider, you're getting on that bus, and you're going to be a freedom rider through the south. We arrived in Washington, DC to go through a period of training. And then on the morning of May 4, 1961, a group of us boarded a Grand Bus to travel from Washington, DC to Virginia to North Carolina. And the first major problem, my incident occurred in North Carolina in Charlotte. When a young African-American man attempted to get a shoe shine in a so-called white waiting room that had a so-called white barbershop,
he was arrested and taken to jail. And in the next day, he went to trial and the jury dismissed the charges against him. We continued to a little town called Rock Hill, South Carolina. My seat made 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 start beating us and left us wine and a pool of blood. The local police officials came to us and wanted to know that we won the press charges. And we said no. The next day, I left arrived. What, what, what did you refuse to press charges? We believed in the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. 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 to the United States Supreme Court. We didn't have anything against these young men. Our fight was not with them. We were against 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, they said white waiting, colored waiting, and end discrimination in public transportation. Okay, so that's cut. Okay, I will run. So how long do you think this will be that we have? Yeah. Yeah. How's a framework for you, Steve? I can't remember what the chairman said right now.
Which is in the middle of the minute. All right here. I would stop. We're fine. We're fine. Okay. We're going to start John with, you know, saying, you know, when I applied, I had to write an essay and then you'll read that. And then, and then if you want to, if you could add something at the end, you know, and say, you know, whatever you want, the desire for time, or this is the essay I wrote, or this is, you know, whatever. When you finish, you just maybe add a little, whatever you want to add to it. Are we ready? I'm running. Okay. We're rolling. So tell me about the letter that you wrote. When I applied to go on the Freedom Ride in 1960, the fall of 1960, the Freedom Ride was scheduled for 1961, late 1961. I had to write an essay. And I didn't know that much about trying to write an application essay, 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 you're going to agree. 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 old, if necessary, to the Freedom Ride. The 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 to last meal at a little Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. when we were eating. Someone said, you must eat well. This may be like the last couple. Great, great, great. 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 had an experience segregation. They say, so what's the big deal? So what's the big deal?
You had to ride in the back. So what's the big deal? You had separate bathroom, you had a bathroom. What's the big deal? Told about why it was so terrible in the segregated south to try to travel from one place to the other interstate on these buses. 1961, and even before 1961, any time that you travel in the deep south and use public transportation to use a 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 further back
and take the seat as farther to the back as possible. More than anything else, it was on the front to our south respect. To sense a 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 said no to segregation and to racial discrimination. The signs was there saying interstate waiting, white. And all of the black people, or people of color, had to go to the same waiting room. And then some bus stations was just a little hold in the window where you can buy a ticket and you have to stay in and set in the
so-called color waiting room. Okay. Let's go for a second. Hey, Brenda. Can we, a second? Okay. We got some pictures we want to show you. Tell us what they were. I want to ask this question again because, and I want to talk about that joy. So, 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. So, because we have these pictures of you guys and you're just kind of standing in line, getting on that first bus to go down and be a freedom writer. How did it feel on that first day as you head out to the south? On that first day, boarding 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. When I had been sitting
in, in Nashville, I have a lunch kind of. I felt free. I had never traveled outside of the deep south, except for once. When I traveled by car from South Alabama to Buffalo. And it was in place that you can stop along the way to get something to eat. You can use the rest room. And so, this was the first time in my life that I could do something in addition to the sit-ins in addition to the standing that it's the first time in public transportation all across the South. I had never been in Washington, DC before. I've never seen the United States capital before. But to come to Washington, DC in May of 1961, 21 years old, to board a Greyhound bus to travel
through the south with the possibility of putting my life behind with something I was ready. I was like a soldier in a non-violent armory. I was ready. So you are scared. That come a point where if you're nonviolent training to the nonviolent workshops that you lose all sense of fear. And even you may have some reservation of some hesitation but you're prepared to go on and face it. Thank you. Great, great. In Rock Hill, you had the first sign for you of violence. Tell me that story. Well, May 9,
1961 when my seat mate white gentleman named Abba Bigelow from Connecticut that two of us will see it together we get off of the bus and approach a waiting room that said white waiting and the moment we started through the door a beat us and left us line and we were able to get up local law enforcement individuals came along and said do we want to press charges and we said no we believed in non violence we accepted non violence as a way of life as
well was not against these young men I struggle against unjust laws against customs and tradition when when when these men so easy so simple because until that time you a good portion without violence that change you're thinking about what was going to come after we have been attacked in rock hill and suffered abuse devile and we had to make it through Alabama and we had to go into Mississippi
and we had to go to New Orleans some high and some way I felt that it was not going to get worse because alone a great many people didn't know about the world and what people turn out to the bus station and observe what was happening and that's exactly what happened so in a way there's this good and you know what you want but you have a particular incident such as
the incident and rock heal and by the time we made it through Georgia and later in Alabama the nation has a whole knew about the world I was graduating from American Baptist seminary that June and applied with American Friends Service Committee to go to East Africa or to India for two years and I had to fly from shallow North Carolina to Philadelphia for three and the great house that I would have been on the the the the the
the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the the III and and But they never made it to Montgomery because of the violence that took place between Atlanta and Birmingham, the people in the Greyhound bus. Okay, let me interrupt because I don't, because what I'm trying to do, John, is I don't want you to jump forward back there and rock you.
We don't know what's going to happen to the bus. And we don't want you to tell us now, we're going to tell it more dramatically, you know, what the people who were on there, tell me that you had to leave in how you felt. I had to leave the freedom ride and rock your cycle on it and I felt really bad, leaving my friends, leaving my colleagues and not being able to go on the ride, on into Georgia and Alabama. It was a very difficult decision to make, but I had been waiting to go to India, go to East Africa for two years. Great, great. Okay, can we cut? Did you end up going to India? Not until a lot of time has passed, you've gone to Philadelphia, the rides have gone on, they've gotten the buses burned in Aniston, the people have been beating in Birmingham, they can't get out, they finally decide we're going to suspend the rides.
Tell me about the decision in Nashville to continue the rides. It was a group of students in Austria who have been part of the city investment, part of the Nashville effort. We met on a Sunday night and we begged and we pleaded with the adults to make available to us $900. We only needed $900 to buy 10 tickets, for 10 individuals to have tickets and food to travel, because 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 tests, $900. They told us if we go, we are committed suicide, we said no, we want to go. And on Wednesday morning, May 17, 1961, at 6.30 am, the 10 of us, 7 young men and 3 young women, boarded a Greyhound bus and we traveled from Nashville, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama.
And when we arrived at the city limit 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 with gymspered and the other one was Paul Brooks. He told them to move. They refused to move. He arrested him, 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 passionate get off the bus. He kept
us on the bus. Then he ordered the local police officials to place newspaper, cardboard, to cover all of the windows, the windshield, the back, on the slide, and kept us inside of the bus for more than an hour and a half. Then he said I'm going to place all of the arrests of protective custody. He's a no-no application in protective custody. So I just want to go back. Why did Bull Connor put the cardboard in a newspaper up on the bus windows? Bull Connor placed the cardboard and the newspaper over the windows. He didn't want the people on that side and especially the news people, 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. I just want to go back a little bit, John, if I can, because I think that we've talked to a number of people from Nashville, from 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 want to talk about how you felt when you heard that the bus had been burned and that the people had been beaten in Birmingham. If you can set it up by, because as far as we know, the last we've heard about you, you've gotten off the bus and you've gone to Philly. So if you could start by saying something like, you know,
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with John Lewis, 1 of 3
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- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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- Episode Description
- 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
- Race and Ethnicity
- American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
- (c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
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- Moving Image
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
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Identifier: barcode357646_Lewis_01_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-tx3513w36f.mp4 (mediainfo)
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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 June 9, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-tx3513w36f.
- MLA: “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. Web. June 9, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-tx3513w36f>.
- 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 http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-tx3513w36f