'Getting into trouble:' Freedom Riders take a beating in Birmingham, spark others to join

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May 20—This is Part 3 in a series on the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders.

In 1943 and then again in 1960 the United States Supreme Court had ruled that segregated interstate travel was illegal. It didn't matter, though, what 12 white men in black robes wrote on paper. The reality was, all across the South, Black men and women were not allowed to sit with white passengers or use the same facilities.

The 1961 Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans were designed to bring attention to this injustice.

Earlene Johnson was well aware of the situation. A resident of Colony, Cullman County's predominantly Black community, she and her sister boarded a Greyhound bus in Hanceville once a week to make the trip down to Montgomery, where they were enrolled at Alabama State University. At the end of the week, they'd take the bus back.

And each time they boarded, "We were told, 'go to the back,'" she said. "I often thought, 'why?' Why do I have to sit at the back?" But even as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were asking the same question and doing things to change it, Johnson was warned by her parents, "don't go getting into trouble."

It was a warning many young Black people heard from concerned parents, said Dr. Charles Person, author of "The Buses are A-Coming," and the youngest of the original 13 Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Riders.

Even though he'd been involved in civil rights protests in Atlanta, his mother didn't want him joining the Freedom Rides. "She didn't really understand what the Freedom Ride was all about," he said.

His father and grandfather, however, were more supportive, and the 18-year-old boarded the bus in D.C. with the 12 other Freedom Riders. They had an over-night layover in Atlanta and Person used that time to convince his mother that he should continue. He said he fully explained to his family what they were doing and trying to accomplish and the potential danger they faced. He received his mother's blessing to continue.

"I'm glad I did level with them because I don't know what would have happened if I had not leveled with them and then what happened the next day," said Person.

What happened the next day, May 14, 1961, was that the Trailways bus Person was on was attacked by a white mob in Anniston and boarded by members of the Ku Klux Klan who forced the Freedom Riders to the back of the bus and taunted them all the way to Birmingham. They learned from the Klansmen that the Greyhound bus, which arrived in Anniston about an hour before the Trailways bus, had also been attacked and fire bombed.

When the Trailways bus reached Birmingham, another mob was waiting for them. Bull Connor, Birmingham's notorious police commissioner, told the Klan he'd give them 15 minutes to do what they wanted before officers would step in. When the Riders stepped off the bus, they stepped into hell. They were beaten by a mob brandishing metal pipes.

"When we left DC the worst thing that we thought could happen to us was someone might yank you off a stool, squirt you with ketchup or they might pour milkshake on you or they might event put a cigarette out on you," said Person. "And that was about the extent of the violence we anticipated. We had no idea the Klan had other things planned for us."

Photos of the Freedom Riders being attacked made headlines and got the nation's attention. It also got the attention of Person's family back in Atlanta.

His family did not have a phone, so he had listed his next of kin as the leader of the Atlanta movement. "So CORE had to contact him and then he went and told my family what had happened and that I was okay," said Person.

Meanwhile, 35 miles away from the violence taking place in Birmingham, Colony residents watched events unfold. "It was unmerciful, I remember that," said Johnson. "It was a dangerous time. It was a fearful time."

Black parents worried about their children in the civil rights movement. "They didn't want you to do things like that because of the fear," said Johnson.

She knew of Cullman's reputation as a "sundown community," a place where Black people were not allowed after dark, but said she'd never seen the signs reportedly warning Black people to leave by nightfall. She heard her great-grandfather say that there was one such sign on the property of a rural Cullman County resident but she never saw evidence of one in Cullman.

There was segregation — she couldn't drink from the same water fountain as white residents, sit at lunch counters with them or use white-only restrooms in town — but the violence inflicted upon the Freedom Riders was something the residents of the small community had never seen, said Johnson.

For Person, the beatings he and the other Freedom Riders took in Anniston and Birmingham on May 14 would mark the end of the Freedom Ride for the CORE group.

No bus driver was willing to take the Freedom Riders and President John F. Kennedy, who made civil rights a part of his campaign, wanted the Freedom Riders safely out of Alabama. Arrangements were made to fly the group to New Orleans. Even that was risky, though.

"We had two bomb threats, and finally, after the second bomb threat, an agent of the Kennedy administration was able to expedite our flight out of Birmingham to New Orleans," said Person. "But if he had not been there, I don't know what would have happened. It was beginning to get very, very worrisome because the same crowd that met us at the bus station had followed us to the airport and their numbers were increasing."

The CORE Freedom Ride was over, but it was not the end of the Freedom Riders. The nonviolent movement to ensure equal treatment for all races had sparked a fire in the youth, and they would be the next ones to pick up the cause of the Freedom Rides.

Johnson, who heard Dr. King preach in Montgomery, was also stirred to action despite her parents' fears. "It took a lot of effort, but I made up my mind," she said. She walked into Kuhn's Five and Dime in Cullman, headed straight for the lunch counter. A white woman she knew was sitting there, and Johnson took the seat next to her. The white woman got up and left.

"Then I saw this tall, skinny man come and sit beside me," said Johnson. She was sure he was about to try to throw her out. Instead, "He told the lady behind the counter, 'Take her order and serve her her food.' To this day, I don't know what I ordered or what I ate.'"

The man — she believes his name was Red Conley — was the manager of the store. After that, they would occasionally pass each other on the street.

"He'd just smile, and I would, too," she said.

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