American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with John Lewis, 1 of 3
Silence. Okay, John, how did you first hear about the Freedom Rides and decide to go? In the fall of 1960, I heard through some of my friends that had been involved in the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, that CORE, the Congress for Racial Equality, was sponsoring something called the Freedom Rides. I knew it was something that I had to go on because I 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 Rides. When I got word that I had been accepted to be part of the Freedom Rides, 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. So the goal on the Freedom Ride was a dream come true.
Can we change the shot? How many times does it do that? For each vote, it's one buzz. We're going to get another buzz when it gets down to ten. You were talking about the joy of being accepted. I was more than happy, more than pleased when I was accepted to go on the Freedom Rides. 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, banning discrimination in public transportation. I have seen it. I have 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, or 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, talk about how it was for a black person back in 1961 to travel, interstate travel in the segregated South. How was it to travel? Before 1961, it was not easy for people of color to travel. As a matter of fact, it was very dangerous. If you got out of place or got out of what people called out of line or you got in the way, you could be arrested, jailed, 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.
You've got to stop for a second. Yeah, yeah. It's going to do it five times or whatever. Well, he's going to be gone. Okay, let's start again. Start again, if you can, John. What I remember traveling. 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. He pushed his seat back on us. He tried to squeeze us or squash us. 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 I 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, and to see those signs that said colored waiting, white waiting, colored men, white men, colored women, white women. Why was that so upsetting? To see the signs, to see the symbols of racism, of segregation, and discrimination was an affront, 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. Okay, let's cut. Lorenz, give me his application. All right, 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'm a senior at American Baptist Theological Seminary and hope 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 the most important decision in my whole life to decide to give up all if necessary for a freedom ride, that justice and freedom might come to the deep south. Your fellow freedom fighter, John R. Lewis.
Okay, let's cut. Is there any way to blow this up a little bit? I think that would help. We're trying to also get this part of this blown up. Again, I'm sorry, John, but I'm trying to jump around because I just 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 D.C. and you go through this training, and then that first day of becoming a freedom rider and going on this bus, you're getting 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, Hallelujah, I'm a Traveler. So talk about how you felt. 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, D.C. to go through a period of training,
and then on the morning of May 4th, 1961, a group of us 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 shoe shine in a so-called white waiting room that had a so-called white barber shop. 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 Hill, South 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 when 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 if we wanted to press charges, and we said no. The next day, I left the ride. Why did you refuse to press charges? 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. 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 that said white waiting, colored waiting,
and end discrimination in public transportation. Okay, so let's cut. Okay, I will run. So how long do you think this will be? Do we have any idea? Yeah. How's the frame look to you, Steve? I can't remember if the chair was there or not. We'll just leave it there for a minute. Over here, but I wouldn't stop. We're fine. We're fine. Okay, we're going to start, John, with saying when I applied, I had to write an essay, and then you'll read that. And then if you could add something at the end and say whatever you want. This is how I felt at the time, or this is the essay I wrote, or this is whatever. When you finish, just maybe add a little whatever you want to add to it. Are we ready? I'm rolling. 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, May 1961. I had to write an essay. And I didn't know that much about trying to write an application or 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 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 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'd 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., when we were eating, someone said, you must eat well. This may be like the last supper. Great, great, great. I just want to ask you again, John, this doesn't have to be long,
but talk about for people now, young people now, and people who didn't 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 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. In 1961 and even before 1961, any time that you traveled in the deep South and used 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 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 of the black people or people of color had to go to the same waiting room. And in some bus stations, there was just a little hole in the window where you could buy a ticket and you had to stay in and sit in the so-called colored waiting room.
Okay. Let's cut for a second. Hey, Brenda, come here a second. Okay. We got some pictures we want to show you. Maybe you can help us. Tell us what they were. I want to ask this question again, and I want to talk about that joy. So you go through this kind of training, but I want to talk about the joy that you must have felt that first day. Because we have these pictures of you guys just kind of standing in line, getting on that first bus to go down and be a Freedom Rider. 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 almost like the first time I got arrested when I had been sitting in Nashville at a lunch counter. 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 there were certain places you couldn't stop along the way to get something to eat. You couldn't use the restroom. 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 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, 21 years old, to board a Greyhound bus to travel through the South with the possibility of putting my life on the line for something I believed, I was ready.
I was like a soldier in a nonviolent armory. I was ready. So you weren't scared? There comes a point with your nonviolent training, through the nonviolent 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. Great, great. In Rock Hill, you had the first sign, for you, of violence. Tell me that story. On May 9th, 1961, when my seatmate, a white gentleman named Albert 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 individuals 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. We accepted the blows. Our struggle was not against these young men. Our struggle was against unjust laws, against customs and tradition. When these men attack you in Rock Hill, did it make you think,
Well, maybe this isn't going to be so easy, so simple? Because until that time, you had kind of been free of violence. And you had gone through a good portion of the Upper South, at least, without this violence. Did that change your thinking about what was going to come? After we had been attacked in Rock Hill and suffered the abuse, the violence, I knew that this was more 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. Somehow, in some way, I felt that it was not going to get any better. It was probably going to get worse.
Because along the way, a great many people didn't know about the Freedom Rides. And so after one incident occurred, more people heard about the Freedom Rides. And more people would turn out to a bus station and observe what was happening. And that's exactly what happened. So in a way, there's this good and bad, this push and pull that happens because now more people know about the Freedom Rides, which is what you want. But on the other hand, more of the white racists, of the mob, know about the Freedom Rides. 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 Rides. You know, what happened during that period is a very long story. And I shouldn't tell you the entire story, but I had applied to go abroad.
I was graduating from American Baptist Seminary that June. And I applied with the 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— Can I cut you, John? Let's cut for a second. John, if it's okay, I don't want to interrupt. Don't roll yet. No? No. I got word that I had to leave. And also how you felt leaving. Oh, yeah. I think that's also important. That you left, all the details of leaving aren't that important. What's important for us, I think, is that you left and how you felt leaving the Freedom Ride.
Okay, are we rolling? Yes. Okay. 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. Okay, let me interrupt because I don't—we can stop for a second. What I'm trying to do, John, is I don't want you to jump forward. Back there in Rock Hill, we don't know what's going to happen to the bus. We don't want you to tell us now because we're going to tell it more dramatically with the people who were on there. Tell me that you had to leave and how you felt. 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. 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 riots have gone on. They've gotten the buses burned in Anniston. The people have been beaten 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 Nashville who 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 adults to make available to us $900.
We only needed $900 to buy ten tickets for ten 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 to us the $900. They told us if we go, we're committing suicide. We said no, we want to go. And on Wednesday morning, May 17th, 1961, at 6.30 a.m., 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 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 was Jim Spurr, and the other one was Paul Brooks. 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 passenger 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 side, and kept us inside of the bus for more than an hour and a half.
Then he said, I'm going to place you all under arrest or protected custody. He said, no, I'm going to place you under unprotected custody. I just want to go back. Why did Bull Connor put the cardboard and the newspaper up on the bus windows? Bull Connor placed the cardboard and the newspaper over the windows. He didn't want the people on the outside, 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, 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. 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, how did you feel when you heard that the bus had been burned?
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with John Lewis, 1 of 3
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- 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
- American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
- (c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
- Media type
- Moving Image
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: barcode357646_Lewis_01_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-tx3513w36f.mp4 (mediainfo)
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- 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 December 4, 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. December 4, 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