I had the honor of meeting a group of Freedom Riders last week, as they convened at the Omni Hotel in Chicago in preparation for a taping of the Oprah show to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. I was invited by Rabbi Philip Posner, who commissioned me to make a painting (above) as a commemorative gift to Oprah Winfrey. The original was signed by around 50 of the Freedom Riders before it was presented.
The youngest riders, back in 1961, were 18 years old, so the youngest members of this group were 68. Many Freedom Riders have passed on, and many are elderly. They were passing around a new book about them (Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, by Eric Etheridge)which included their mug shots from back in the day (they were all arrested for the “crime” of riding buses and trains throughout the South in integrated groups). The mug shots were coupled with photos from the present day.
They shared stories and memories. Helen Singleton (a lovely woman whose mug shot and recent portrait appear on the Etheridge book cover) was there with her husband, Robert. They were a young married couple in Los Angeles in 1961. They recruited riders on the UCLA campus for C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality), which organized the rides. Mrs. Singleton told a funny story about a young man who was at a party the night before a group was flying to New Orleans to board buses. He was, as Mrs. Singleton recalled, “totally stoned” on liquor. Mr. Singleton announced that there was an extra ticket, because one of the Freedom Riders was unable to go. This young man volunteered. Mrs. Singleton said he was on the plane to New Orleans before he had sobered up, and arrested and clapped in jail before he had recovered from his hangover. The group broke up with laughter.
I was surprised at the levity of such stories, given the danger and ugliness of what the Freedom Riders faced, as they were attacked by segregationist mobs throughout the South: with rocks, clubs and even fire-bombs. Mrs. Singleton said the lowest point for her was the night she was arrested. She was put in the women’s section of the county jail, but she was separated from the other women in her group, because they were white and she was black. She was placed alone in a filthy cell that was filled with garbage, which attracted a rat. She didn’t sleep all night, as she and the rat circled each other. Finally, the rat climbed up a pipe, and Mrs. Singleton used all the wrappers to stuff the pipe and seal the rat inside. The rat rattled around all night, trying to get out, and Mrs. Singleton sang Ella Fitzgerald songs to keep up her spirits. She found out from reading Etheridge’s book that the garbage in her cell was from the night before, when another group had been arrested and placed in the cell. A sympathetic group of townspeople had come to the barred window and lobbed in candy bars and potato chips for the Freedom Riders to eat.
Rabbi Philip Posner, who was arrested for riding a train in an integrated group, spent 39 days in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. He recalled that he was unable to swallow the boiled okra which was the only source of vitamins in the prison diet, and as a result, at the end of his stay there, he was suffering from scurvy, causing damage to his gums.
I met a man named William Leons. As a Jew, he had been a “hidden child” in Europe during World War II. He came to this country as a teenager in 1949. By the time of the Freedom Rides, he was a student at UCLA. He said when Mr. Singleton approached him with a C.O.R.E. flyer, he decided on the spot to go.
I asked them, knowing the danger they were submitting themselves to, how could they have the courage to board the buses and trains? They looked at me quizzically, and said, “How could we not?”
The painting I made was signed by 53 Freedom Riders who were present at the Oprah show, and presented to Oprah Winfrey, in recognition of her courage and leadership. It may be purchased, as an archival digital print, on my website.