thumbnail of American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 2 of 3
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?inaudible? [Interviewer] Uhm Talk about uhm so you know after this point it had been fairly calm. You know Atlanta was calm ?inaudible? ?inaudible? Uhm talk about what happened when you pulled into Anniston [Hughes] Well there was a mob there but I was more or less unaware of them - [Interviewer] Can you start out with something that says "When we got there" something like that [Hughes] Ok Ok - Excuse me a minute I am trying to think of something [back and forth with interviewer] I was on the greyhound bus as I usually was and when we got to Anniston there seemed to be a lot of people out to greet us but I was busy reading my
book by Reinhold Niebuhr called Moral Man and Immoral Society. I was being a 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 am not sure I understood a word of what I was reading [laughs] and uh after awhile there was some window breaking going on right opposite of where I was sitting and a man who as uh next to my side the bus reached in 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 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 [Interviewer] Let me start start this over do you remember when you had realized they had thrown the incendiary device the bomb on the bus. How did you realize that something different was happening? They weren't just breaking the windows. They weren't just screaming. They weren't just banging the bus [Hughes] 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 small 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 to you into this and he said so am I and Jimmie 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 and I remember I dropped the book and I hope that it did somebody out there some good becuase I didn't pick it up again and uh 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 were
there was an attack I was not aware of that and I missed some of what happened because a woman invited into her home to wash up I guess my face was covered with soot. [Interviewer] So you don't remember the little girl getting the water or anything like that ?inaudible? [Hughes] No I didn't see that [Interviewer] Uhm so now the bus is burned up right you guys are uh there on the ground [Hughes] Of course I haven't even talked about slashing the tires [Interviewer] Talk about that [Hughes] As we left Anniston there was great caravan of cars behind us and they were following us to wherever we were going and it was just a few miles before we pulled over because the tires have been slashed and the bus could not really go any further. It was on its rims. Uh 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 uh shot his wife on into the the air and the people were gathered out there backed away [Interviewer] Do you remember. Did you feel that the tires were flat? Did you hear that sound? Do you remember I guess I am trying ?inaudible? [Hughes] I am not sure [Interviewer] How did you feel when you because these people are following you Now all of a suddent the bus is pulling over to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. How did you feel? [Hughes] I had to feel when the bus pulled over a certain amount of apprehension I knew that we weren't home free [Interviewer] Okay I am sorry - If you could say I felt rather than "I had to feel" [Hughes] Okay [Hughes] I felt when the bus pulled over that we were now in the hands of this mob and we did not have protection uh I didn't think we did and so I was apprehensive. I wasn't frightened to death but I was
I knew that we had entered a new phase and it didn't look good for us and fortunately one of these man who I think was a plainclothes policeman fired his gun and he was outside of course at the point that 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 to a window and Jimmie Robertson told me don't panic Genevieve think even at the time i thought that was kind of bizarre it seemed like it was time to panic [laughs] which it was [Interviewer] Do you remember what happened how did you all get to the hospital? Uh ?inaudible? so you guys are in various phases of smoke inhalation. How did you what happened [Hughes] I do not 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 or someone being Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth who is one of my heroes and Ed Blankenhein and I got in the back seat and it sounds from the cowardly of us but we lay on the floor so as 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 and in the back of the car that we were in was a baseball bat my thought well this doesn't seem to be in the spirit of non-violence [laughs] but I didn't have have any occasion to use it. I hope I wouldn't have so we got to the hospital and they admitted me
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 in the corridor they were not admitted to the hospital in any formal since 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 of mine and i had probably breathed more smoke than anybody else and the FBI came and interviewed me I couldn't give them any interesting information though [Interview] So you're in the hospital and the hospital couldn't admit any black people [Hughes] No they just left the black people in gurneys in the corridor uh they were not formally admitted to the hospital at all they really didn't do anything for me actually I just lay in bed and actually I went to sleep I believe
when i woke up there were these FBI agents there to get information. [Interviewer] Was the FBI of any help in while the riots were going on or after [Hughes] Oh no the FBI were not involved in any sense but somebody must've called them because they came to the hospital they certainly were not involved in protecting us. [Interview] I want to you to give me more of a sense of the FBI back then because the FBI you know partially because of the TV show and other things ?inaudible? the FBI knew about this and the FBI was aware that this was going to happen and the FBI had an agent who had infiltrated who was part of the Klan part of the mob at least one the FBI knew what was going to happen but the FBI didn't do anything give me a sense of what the FBI was like back then [Hughes] Well I wasn't acquainted with too many FBI agents but they uh ignored the
entire trip. [Interviewer] Can you start out with the FBI? [back and forth] Can you just say the FBI [Hughes] Well the FBI ignored the entire trip and the first time I saw an FBI agent was when I was in the hospital and they questioned me about the individuals 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 later my wallet arrived which they had found on the ground and that was my only other contact with the FBI [Interviewer] So you couldn't expect or look to protection from the FBI [Hughes] That is true I could not look for protection from the FBI [Interviewer] Let's cut for a second. Do you want some water?
[silence] [Hughes] I don't know how to get around this problem of not knowing for sure who took me when [back and forth among interviewers] [Interviewer] So we're back at the hospital so tell me about your physical condition what condition were you in? [Hughes] 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 when i woke up there were two FBI men who wanted a question me about who had been there and they did question me and they left which is very FBI-ish [laughs] [Interviewer] Let's talk about Shuttlesworth and I think Shuttlesworth helped you all get out of the hospital
[Hughes] who took me to the hospital [laughs] [Interviewer] Because I don't think Shuttlesworth comes in until after you guys are in the hospital [Hughes] Well I will take your word for it [Interviewer] Tell us what you remember about escaping from the hospital [Hughes] 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 on 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 at that I can remember so we went and reverend Shuttlesworth's car or someone else's I am not sure and Ed ?inaudible? I were in the back and we were lying on the floor
and they were chatting up front as if nothing had happened but 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 [Interviewer] Who was Reverend Shuttlesworth? You can give me just you know a comment or two [Hughes] He was an activist [back and forth with interviewer] Reverend Shuttlesworth was an activist oh ok sorry Reverend Shuttlesworth was an activist whose base was Montgomery and he uh had appeared before judges and been scolded as if he were a small child and told by the judge that he needed to be good and Reverend Shuttlesworth said to the judge I am being good judge [laughs]
that was sort of his attitude and he always projected confidence that he could do what he wanted whether he had chose to or not at that particular moment he was a very brave person in my opinion uh 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 [Interviewer] You said you mentioned that that day he was your savior. What do you mean?
[Hughes] 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 [Interviewer] Uh talk about the you guys had a vote the next day to go on. Talk about that [Hughes] I can't remember where we met I have a feeling that it was a motel room is 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 couldn't 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 uh Jim Peck said we should go on and after that there was no any debate if he couldn't 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 a lot of admiration for him too. [Interview] I just want you to give me start that again [Hughes] Oh I know I did the usual thing [back and forth with interviewer] I am an experienced interviewee [Interviewer] I just want you to say that you know that after you got out of the hospital to vote on what to do [Hughes] Alright we'll do it over again.
[silence] 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 showed 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 in that we weren't going to continue with our feedom rides so we all voted to continue on [Interviewer] I just want to go back a little bit and just you know
so so Jim Farmer left when you were in Atlanta, right? [Hughes] and 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 [Interviewer] ?inaudible? what that meant you know without a leader [Hughes] That's true [Interviewer] Now try to look at me as much as possible [Hughes] Allright. In atlanta Jim Farmer heard that his father was gravely ill and uh 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 uh so we didn't see him
again really until we got to New Orleans. [Interviewer] So I want you to flash forward ?go forward? [Hughes] Never go forward [Interviewer] So you're back there in Atlanta so talk about again that your leader is leaving and what that means to you as a freedom rider. [Hughes] Alright. 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 [Interviewer] Okay. [Hughes] No you don't want that [Interviewer] We'll go for it again... [Hughes] Well, I thought I should get into that [Interviewer] No, no, no, you could say, you could say, Jim Peck
but also 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 can put Jim Peck in there, 'cause that, that, that's good, once again... [Hughes] Uh oh, um, 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, um, Jim Peck, uh, 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. Um, so, but it was a bit of a shock and I'm sure Jim Farmer wanted to be with us for the whole trip. [Interviewer] But it meant as you were going into the deepest
South you're now without the main organizer and the leader of the trip, right? [Hughes] Yes, but you know you're giving an interpretation that is not one I really feel. He was the leader. There's no question about it. But, his style of leadership was not giving orders at all. It was being there and knowing you could rely on him. [Interviewer] But he wasn't going to be there. [Hughes] Right. But, you know, it's, you're kind of making things up (laughs). I really didn't feel it we were devastated by his loss or anything like that, I just felt, well, we gotta make some decisions and it turned out one of them was to keep on going. [Interviewer] Okay, well you can tell me that then. As Farmer left, you didn’t feel devastated by his loss. You felt you could continue. I mean we just gotta get... [Hughes] That’s closer, I think, to being accurate. [Interviewer] That's fine. Give me that as a statement. I just... My problem is
that Farmer is there, then he's not there. So, we have to say that he left you know what I mean. [Hughes] Mmhmm. [Interviewer] So, so, you hear Farmer has to go, how did you feel? [Hughes] Well, uh, Jim Farmer had to go because his father was ill. And that meant, of course that we did not have his leadership uh which was always evident although not over overbearing in any sense. And, uh, 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. [Interviewer] Beautiful. Thank you. Sorry that that took so long. [Hughes] I finally said what you wanted me to say. [laughs] [Interviewer] Can we stop for a second. [Hughes] More or less.
[Interviewer] So you decide to, um, you just said you decided to continue the rides, you know, even though you guys were all beat up. Some of you have, you know, smoke in your lungs and are coughing up black stuff. Some of you, like Jim Peck and others, are, have been beaten. [Hughes] Mmhmm [Interviewer] Um, uh, I I I wanna 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 ne-, when you make this..I mean, when you saw them, were you shocked at the condition? [Hughes] I did not, had not seen Jim Peck since we uh 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 was, uh, looked like a mummy. Had bandages all over his head, and only his eyes and his mouth showed. And he proposed that we continue with the Freedom Ride. And once he did that, there was no question that 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. [Interviewer] Um, the- Talk about what happens next. You're in the Birmingham bus station, and, and, I don't know how much you remember, but you couldn't, you couldn't get a bus out. [Hughes] Uh, 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, and we were taken to the airport. I don’t remember who took us or how. [Interviewer] Let me, let me just, just stop, 'cause you guys made a decision -- (cut off) We're rolling. Standby please. [Hughes] Yeah-- [Interviewer] Hold on one second. you just have to wait for the - just wait, go ahead [Hughes] I really don't know how that decision was made actually. I was not consulted. [Interviewer] I see. [Hughes] We weren’t having group meetings at that point (laughs). [Interviewer] Do you, do you remember being trapped in the or, or, or, being in the Birmingham bus station not being able to get a bus out? Do you remember that? [Hughes] Yes. [Interviewer] What was the, what the feeling like? Was there tension? What was it like in Birmingham? [Hughes] 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 (th) 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. [laugh] So, uh 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, and 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 Carey arrived from the national office, and Gordon Carey was a strong pacifist. And I said to him, uh “Aren’t you afraid, Gordon?” And he said, “No.” [laugh] 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. [Interviewer] What was it that scared you in the
airport, [Hughes] Oh, [Interviewer] and if you end up being animated, you can be animated if you like. [Hughes] Okay. uh It seemed to me that as the airport began to fill with people, that it 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 smithereens. Uh, So yes, I was quite nervous about this. And I remember, I went up to, uh, Joe Perkins. He was looking out at the field. And I said to Joe, “How can you turn your back on everybody here, making it easy for them to attack you?” He said, “I can see them in the glass as they approach.” [laughs] So I thought, well, he’s got that under control. And I went up to Jim Peck, someone came with a sandwich bag, and I thought it was a bomb in this bag. See, I had already gone into my, my fearful mode. And I said something about it to Peck, and he just looked at me like I
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.
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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 Genevieve Hughes Houghton, 2 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 31, 2023,
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. January 31, 2023. <>.
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