‘Freedom Riders’ tell audience they felt compelled to act
Ellen Ziskind recalled walking down a main street in Lowell, Mass., with an African-American friend when she was in high school in the early 1950s and suddenly noticing people staring at her. It felt like “my last moment of innocence.”
Paul Breines remembered the time his family tried to enter an inn in the Catskill Mountains of New York with their African-American nanny and being told they were not welcome. A lad of about 10 at the time, he said the episode made him wonder “what kind of white person do I want to be.”
Ziskind and Breines, two members of the “Freedom Riders” of 1961, shared anecdotes and their perspectives on race relations in riveting presentations at Providence College’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture.
Sponsored by more than 30 campus partners, including the Student Multicultural Activities Office, the Department of History, and the Black Studies Program, the lecture drew a capacity audience to the Ruane Center for the Humanities’ Great Room.
The presentation was part of the College’s National Endowment for the Humanities’ Created Equal grant — an initiative in the humanities called “Bridging Cultures.” The goals of the program are to highlight the achievements of remarkable individuals, to create a deeper understanding of civil rights in American history, and to convey civil rights as a central and ongoing element of American history.
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses in the Deep South in 1961 to protest the lack of enforcement of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that outlawed segregation in interstate travel, particularly buses, and in public places like restaurants and waiting areas of terminals. Their actions sparked fire bombings, riots, and other acts of hatred and violence. In most cases — like Ziskind’s and Breines’ — Freedom Riders were jailed for their actions.
Ziskind and Breines were welcomed by College President Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80, who acknowledged their roles in “this sad and inspiring chapter” in American history. He praised them for their “grassroots, galvanizing efforts,” and noted that their presentation underscored the College’s commitment to social justice and civil rights.
Ziskind and Breines, who donated their honoraria for the lecture to the College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Fund, responded to questions from the program’s moderator, Dr. Margaret M. Manchester ’83G, assistant professor of history and department chair, and from the audience.
Another Freedom Rider who was expected to join them, Jean Denton-Thompson, was unable to participate because of a family emergency.
Sitting by wasn’t an option
The two panelists said their involvement in the Freedom Rides was not planned. Ziskind, now a psychotherapist in Brookline, Mass., said she was shy and not the activist type as a youth. She said she always identified with the “underdog” and was influenced by her mother’s frequently- voiced belief in equality for all people.
The summer before her senior year of college, Ziskind decided to volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality, a sponsor of the Freedom Rides. It was that experience, particularly her listening to the stories of three African-American males associated with the movement, that spurred her to get involved.
“Suddenly, the kaleidoscope turned and things fell into place,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I’m working here and believe in the Freedom Rides, I’m going.’”
Similarly, Breines said his participation wasn’t so much a decision as it was a moral compulsion. As a youth, he recalled his mother despising the use of the “N word” and, in retrospect, said she was like a Freedom Rider in her time. As he grew older, Breines became more sensitive to the treatment of others, particularly African-Americans, and he closely followed the 1960 story of the four freshmen at North Carolina A&T University who staged a sit-in at a whites-only restaurant.
When Jim Zwerg, one of the first Freedom Riders, was nearly beaten to death at a bus terminal in Birmingham, Ala., it spiked passion in him, and he knew he had to literally board the bus.
“If I wanted to be who I wanted to be, I knew I had to go,” said Breines, a retired Boston College history professor who recalled that some of his University of Wisconsin classmates were upset with his feelings and decision. “There were about 400 (Freedom Riders) involved at the time, and I thought, ‘Where is everybody else?’”
His bus ride from Nashville, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., was his first visit to the South and a frightening, eye-opening ordeal. In Jackson, he experienced “unbridled hatred” for the first time when a group of whites, brandishing sticks and using angry, abusive language, confronted several other Freedom Riders and him.
Although not seriously injured, he remembered thinking, as the crowd surrounded them, “we were actually challenging the world and a culture.”
Ziskind’s most vivid recollections of resistance on her bus ride with fellow Freedom Riders came in Selma, Ala., at a rest stop and a small market for whites only. At the rest stop, they had barely arrived when an announcement came over a loudspeaker that a crowd was forming to harm them and that they should immediately re-board the bus.
At the market, she remembered two police cruisers driving up to her group, which was protesting the exclusion of non-whites. The officers put their lights and sirens on and walked away from their vehicles — “an open invitation for people to do what they wanted to us,” she said. The angry mob showed knives, screamed, and threw objects at the Freedom Riders, and Ziskind remembered having to clean egg out of her hair.
Not there yet
Ziskind and Breines said marginal, but insufficient, progress has been made in race relations in America in the 50-plus years since the Freedom Riders stirred the civil rights movement. In 2011, Ziskind was welcomed back to a 50th reunion observance at the Mississippi prison where she was incarcerated.
“I don’t know that racism can ever end … maybe it will be different for children born now,” said Ziskind. She admitted that she has “reactions that are very racist” but added that they are “irrational thoughts that I have no control over” and most importantly, she does not act on them.
Breines said African Americans are in a “very different place” than the 1960s. However, relationships between African Americans and whites remain at a “faltering” pace. He is dismayed that the “N word” continues to surface in society.
Improvement in race relations goes “one person at time,” said Breines, who referenced a recent meeting between U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was beaten in Birmingham as a Freedom Rider, and the Birmingham police chief at the time. The retired chief told Lewis he was “so sorry” for the cruelty he experienced in 1961.
“Apologize to one another,” said Breines. “Just say I’m sorry.”
Ziskind emphasized that people don’t have to go on a mission or do something public and dramatic to improve relations between blacks and whites.
“It can be a moment. … It’s how we live our lives. It’s about being kind and compassionate,” she said.
—Charles C. Joyce
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