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Freedom's Main Line

Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides

Derek Charles Catsam
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    Freedom's Main Line
    Book Description:

    Black Americans in the Jim Crow South could not escape the grim reality of racial segregation, whether enforced by law or by custom. In Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides, author Derek Charles Catsam shows that courtrooms, classrooms, and cemeteries were not the only front lines in African Americans' prolonged struggle for basic civil rights. Buses, trains, and other modes of public transportation provided the perfect means for civil rights activists to protest the second-class citizenship of African Americans, bringing the reality of the violence of segregation into the consciousness of America and the world. In 1947, nearly a decade before the Supreme Court voided school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen black and white activists embarked on a four-state bus tour, called the Journey of Reconciliation, to challenge discrimination in busing and other forms of public transportation. Although the Journey drew little national attention, it set the stage for the more timely and influential 1961 Freedom Rides. After the Supreme Court's 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia that segregated public transportation violated the Interstate Commerce Act, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other civil rights groups organized the Freedom Rides to test the enforcement of the ruling in buses and bus terminals across the South. Their goal was simple: "to make bus desegregation," as a CORE press release put it, "a reality instead of merely an approved legal doctrine." Freedom's Main Line argues that the Freedom Rides, a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, were a logical, natural evolution of such earlier efforts as the Journey of Reconciliation, their organizers following models provided by previous challenges to segregation and relying on the principles of nonviolence so common in the larger movement. The impact of the Freedom Rides, however, was unprecedented, fixing the issue of civil rights in the national consciousness. Later activists were often dubbed Freedom Riders even if they never set foot on a bus. With challenges to segregated transportation as his point of departure, Catsam chronicles black Americans' long journey toward increased civil rights. Freedom's Main Line tells the story of bold incursions into the heart of institutional discrimination, journeys undertaken by heroic individuals who forced racial injustice into the national and international spotlight and helped pave the way for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7310-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Prologue: From Bigger Thomas to Henry Thomas
    (pp. 1-6)

    In his 1941 essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Richard Wright wrote about the various “Bigger Thomases” he had come to know in his life and who served as the models for his character inNative Son. Bigger, crushed by fear that stemmed from his plight as a black man in America and the rage that manifested itself as a result of that fear, inadvertently kills his new employer’s daughter and tries to cover the evidence by stuffing her body in the furnace of her family’s home. Inevitably, Bigger’s role in the crime is discovered, and he has to go on...

  5. Introduction: How the Freedom Rides Were Born (And What They Mean)
    (pp. 7-12)

    The Freedom Rides proved to be the culmination of one of the most important series of events in the Civil Rights Movement. The movement to desegregate interstate transportation is significant for a range of reasons. First, and most important, the Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides quite literally took the Civil Rights Movement national, transforming it from a phenomenon of isolated events creating crises from place to place—here Little Rock, there Montgomery’s bus boycott, somewhere else protests against a lynching. Freedom Riders, whether known as such formally or not, went from one place to another, connecting communities, pulling...

  6. Chapter 1 “We Challenged Jim Crow”: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Emergence of Direct Action Civil Rights Protest in the 1940s
    (pp. 13-46)

    On April 13, 1947, police arrested four men for breaking Jim Crow laws requiring the segregation of passengers on a bus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The men were traveling with a group representing the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist human rights organization, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization dedicated to gaining black rights through nonviolent protest action. The group was engaged in a “Journey of Reconciliation” to test the application of the Supreme Court’s 1946 decision inMorgan v. Virginiaoutlawing Jim Crow seating for interstate passengers.

    The Journey originated in Washington, D.C.,...

  7. Chapter 2 Erasing the Badge of Inferiority: Segregated Interstate Transport on the Ground and in the Courts, 1941–1960
    (pp. 47-66)

    The years afterMorganwere characterized by the interplay between activist challenges to Jim Crow and court decisions at the local, state, and national levels. In the years beforeBrown v. Board,courts heard a number of important cases, the roots of which can be traced back even before Irene Morgan’s 1946 arrest.¹ Courts need litigants in order to have cases, but oftentimes litigants get lost in the celebration of court decisions. Before the Freedom Rides, the courts had to sort out some of the questions raised inMorgan,subsequent cases usually raising yet more questions. Despite being an architect...

  8. Chapter 3 “The Last Supper”: Preparing for the Freedom Rides
    (pp. 67-88)

    With the announcement of theBoyntondecision, the foundation for the renewed challenge to Jim Crow on the highways that CORE had envisioned since the Journey of Reconciliation ended was in place. Many Americans remained unaware of these court proceedings. Most knew aboutBrownand were aware of the civil rights struggle going on in the South. But even as the Freedom Rides progressed,Timemagazine saw the need to clarify some questions for its readers. Engaging “three questions of law,”Timerevealed the clear legal justification behind the Riders’ challenge.¹ That the law was clear, of course, did not...

  9. Chapter 4 “Hallelujah, I’m a Travelin’!” Freedom Riding through the Old Dominion
    (pp. 89-106)

    A number of transportation-related events in early May garnered as much national attention as the departure of the Freedom Riders from Washington, even in civil rights circles. Prior to the Freedom Ride, federal judge William A. Bottle fined a bus company and one of its drivers one hundred dollars each for forcing interstate passenger Marguerite L. Edwards to the rear of a bus as it traveled through Georgia on September 7, 1960. That same week managers of the Continental and Greyhound bus lines in Memphis announced that they were discontinuing their policies of racial segregation. Similar pronouncements emerged regarding the...

  10. Chapter 5 The Carolinas
    (pp. 107-134)

    If V. O. Key summed up Virginia and its politics as a “political museum piece,” he found its Southern neighbor, North Carolina, a “progressive plutocracy” seemingly at odds with the rest of the South due to its advancements in industrial and economic development, education, and race relations. Key quickly asserted that in the Tar Heel State tensions abounded beneath the surface and that on the question of race North Carolina had its share of troubles.¹ Nonetheless, these problems seemed conquerable in a state that one black observer claimed had developed “something of a living answer to the riddle of race.”²...

  11. Chapter 6 “Blazing Hell”: From Georgia into Alabama
    (pp. 135-158)

    The South Carolina experience added a new level of gravitas to the Freedom Ride. The group continued to sing freedom songs, and they could still laugh and enjoy themselves. But events in South Carolina had brought about the realization that the stakes had been raised. Violence and imprisonment were no longer the theoretical outcomes of a role-playing exercise in a Washington, D.C., Quaker safe house, but real consequences of their actions. In all likelihood, conflicts would grow more intense, menacing, and frequent as the group passed further into the maw of the Deep South.

    After their day of rest in...

  12. Chapter 7 The Magic City: Showdown in Birmingham
    (pp. 159-190)

    Birmingham in the postwar period liked to call itself the Magic City.¹ Another, more facetious observer preferred to think of it as the “city of perpetual promise,” the mocking nickname George R. Leighton had given the city in a 1937 article inHarper’s Magazine.² Civic boosters could boast of the fact that the city had nearly doubled its population in the two decades between 1940 and 1960. The magic stemmed largely from the exhaust of heavy industry, particularly steel. Overseeing the growth was an oligarchy of “big mules,” the powerful industrialists who effectively ran Birmingham. Concerned above all with a...

  13. Chapter 8 “I’m Riding the Front Seat to Montgomery This Time”: The Students Take Control
    (pp. 191-208)

    John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and the rest of the students who had been active in the Nashville campaign to desegregate public facilities were enjoying a picnic on a gorgeous Southern spring afternoon, celebrating a just-won victory over segregation in Nashville’s movie theaters, when a report about the burned Greyhound bus came over the radio.¹ The news bulletins that followed were wrenching. John Lewis remembers his reaction: “I felt shock. I felt guilt. There was my bus, my group. It was devastating to hear this news, and it was torture to hear it in only the sketchiest terms. There...

  14. Chapter 9 “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Back”: Montgomery
    (pp. 209-238)

    At about 8:30 on the morning of May 20, someone told the students to board the split-levelSt. Petersburg Expressfor their hundred-mile journey to Montgomery, the Cradle of the Confederacy. As John Lewis later wrote, “It was a surreal trip.”¹ The twenty-one Freedom Riders were the only people on the bus. A squadron of police cars with flashing lights and screaming sirens ran interference ahead and followed behind the bus as it headed toward the highway leading south toward Montgomery’s Greyhound station. Floyd Mann recalled that this initial stage involved thirty-two patrol cars, sixteen in front and sixteen behind....

  15. Chapter 10 Mississippi: “That Irreducible Citadel of Southernism”
    (pp. 239-264)

    V. O. Key perhaps best summed up Mississippi’s role in the region and nation when he wrote: “Northerners, provincials that they are, regard the South as one large Mississippi. Southerners, with their eye for distinction, place Mississippi in a class by itself.” Whereas North Carolinians might “consider Mississippi to be the last vestige of a dead and despairing civilization,” Virginians might look to the state and “rank [it] a backwards culture, with a ruling class both unskilled and neglectful of its duties.” Meanwhile, the rest of the South found “some reason to fall back on the soul-satisfying exclamation, ‘Thank God...

  16. Chapter 11 Jailed In: From Jackson City Jail to Parchman Farm
    (pp. 265-288)

    Robert Kennedy was not happy with the news he heard next. On the same day as the first arrests in Mississippi, seven men from Connecticut had departed the Nutmeg State and were bound for Mississippi. At the head of this delegation of four whites and three blacks was Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. Accompanying him were Reverend Gaylord Noyce, an associate professor at Yale’s Divinity School; Dr. John Maguire and Dr. David Swift, both religion professors at Wesleyan University; Clyde Carter and Charles Jones, theology students at Johnson C. Smith University; and George B. Smith, a Yale law...

  17. Chapter 12 Conclusion: Legacies of the Freedom Rides
    (pp. 289-316)

    They kept coming. Even as the first groups of Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson dispersed, heading back to their homes—some to regroup and return to the civil rights struggle right away, others to go back to their colleges and universities, pulpits and jobs—volunteers kept coming. Ministers came from out west. College students flocked in from Wisconsin and New York and Massachusetts and all across the North. Black students across the South joined their colleagues in the jails. Most went to Mississippi, but others found the chance to stand up to Jim Crow in New Orleans and Nashville, Tallahassee...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 317-380)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 381-404)
  20. Index
    (pp. 405-422)