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A forgotten freedom summer

Fifty years ago, the Freedom Riders came to Little Rock.

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At 7:45 p.m., on Monday, July 10, 1961, a bus bound for Houston carrying five Freedom Riders pulled into Little Rock's Midwest Trailways station at Markham and Louisiana Streets. The Freedom Riders were all on a sponsored journey by the St. Louis branch of the civil rights organization the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) from St. Louis to New Orleans to test court-ordered desegregation in Trailways bus and Illinois Central Railroad terminal facilities. The Riders' journey had begun that morning, with an itinerary that wound from St. Louis to Little Rock, then on to Shreveport, and finally on to New Orleans, with a planned return leg by train through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Illinois, arriving back in St. Louis on Sunday, July 16.

The head of the CORE Freedom Riders group was 30-year-old African-American Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, a native of Whiteville, Tenn., a minister at Pilgrim Congregational Church in High Point, N.C., and a CORE field secretary. Cox was a veteran of the very first Freedom Ride, which had been held in May earlier that year. Cox's fellow Riders were 23-year-old Bliss Ann Malone, an African-American public school teacher from St. Louis; 18-year-old Annie Lumpkin, an African-American student from St. Louis; 27-year-old John Curtis Raines, a white pastor from Setauket Methodist Church in Long Island, N.Y., a former Fulbright scholar; and 23-year-old Janet Reinitz, a white artist and homemaker from New York City.

In December 1958, Bruce Boynton, an African-American Howard University law student, had been arrested for refusing to leave the white section of a bus terminal restaurant in Richmond, Va., while on an interstate bus journey from Washington, D.C., to Alabama. When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, the Court extended its earlier Morgan ruling to include the desegregation of interstate transportation terminal facilities as well as interstate carriers. James Farmer, national director of CORE, proposed to revisit an earlier Journey of Reconciliation after the Morgan ruling with a "Freedom Ride" to test the new law at Southern bus terminals.

The five St. Louis CORE Freedom Riders headed to Little Rock on one of a number of further Freedom Rides held in the summer of 1961 aimed at testing bus terminal facilities across the South and keeping the issue in the headlines. News of their arrival, publicized in advance, had already provoked discussion and debate in the city.

The bus company said that it would make no special provisions for the Riders' arrival. Little Rock Police Chief Robert E. (Bob) Glasscock ambiguously stated that his men would uphold law and order. Gov. Orval E. Faubus, who had made international headlines in September 1957 when he had called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School, was questioned by the press about the Riders' imminent arrival. Faubus recommended simply ignoring them, saying that would "be the worst disappointment they could have."

The advance warning of the Riders' arrival encouraged a crowd of 300-400 people, many of them teenage boys and girls, to gather at the Midwest Trailways bus station. At first, people began to line up on a wooden catwalk on Louisiana Street across from the bus station. As the crowd grew it spread out onto the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Marion on Markham Street. Police Chief Glasscock cruised the area in a patrol car, with two uniformed officers and five plainclothes policemen dotted about the station. The crowd was largely silent in anticipation, but as the time drew near for the arrival of the Riders' bus, a crush of cars and people in the area ratcheted up the tension.

When a bus pulled in to the station just a couple of minutes before the Riders' bus was due, the crowd surged in, mistaking it for the vehicle they were waiting for. Around a dozen uniformed officers who were now on the scene ushered them back, but the performance was soon repeated when the Riders' bus pulled into bus terminal Dock 3 shortly after. Several minutes elapsed as other passengers were allowed off the bus to collect their luggage. Only then did the first of the Freedom Riders, Cox, emerge. A white teenage girl rushed toward Cox, mockingly thrusting a pencil and paper at him and asking for his autograph. Police Chief Glasscock sternly ordered the girl back. A more menacing cry of "nigger" pierced the air.

The Riders were dropped off just a few feet from the bus terminal doors, which were guarded by police officers. With the help of a police cordon, the Riders pushed their way through the crowd to the terminal.

The Freedom Riders all headed for the white intrastate waiting room. Bliss Malone and Janet Reinitz took seats in the terminal and lit cigarettes while Rev. Cox placed a call from a nearby payphone to St. Louis. The police guarding the bus terminal doors managed to keep most of the white crowd outside, although some people did manage to slip inside. After placing his call, Cox held an impromptu press conference, telling gathered reporters that the Riders intended to stay "one or two nights" lodging with a local African-American family before continuing their journey on to Shreveport.

Police Chief Glasscock approached the now four seated Riders (the fifth Rider, Annie Lumpkin, was standing just outside the terminal observing the proceedings) and told them, "You are ordered to leave because you are threatening the peace." The four silently remained where they were. Glasscock asked them to move a second time. They refused. Glasscock announced, "I'm going to arrest all of you." Whites inside and outside the bus terminal broke out in cheers and applause. As he had already previously agreed with city prosecuting attorney John Jernigan, Glasscock arrested the four Riders under Arkansas Act 226, passed in the 1959 Arkansas General Assembly, which forbade threatening to breach the peace or an actual breach of the peace. The Act had been drawn up specifically to deal with direct action protests and had already been used against African-American student sit-in demonstrators from Philander Smith College the previous year.

The four Riders were booked at the Little Rock City Jail in the Police and Courts Building with their bonds set at $500. Little Rock African American attorney Thaddeus D. Williams arrived to confer with Cox. Afterwards, Williams told the press that the Riders intended to stay in jail overnight and to plead not guilty to the charges in Little Rock Municipal Court.

At the trial, Judge Quinn Glover admonished the Freedom Riders for having "traveled a long way to disregard our laws and customs." Glover continued: "Some people in Little Rock are tired of the turmoil and tumult we have had and want to return to a peaceful way of living. The most embarrassing aspect is the premeditation which preceded this whole affair. You deliberately came this way, which amounted to waving the flag in the face of our people. It is my honest opinion that the people of Arkansas are debating in their hearts and minds whether to accept the new and if it is accepted to find out how to lay aside the old. That will not take a matter of moments." Glover then criticized the crowd as an "unlawful assemblage in violation of the law," and expressed his sympathy with the police who, he said, were placed in a difficult situation.

Glover dismissed the Freedom Riders' attorneys two main arguments that their clients' arrest violated the U.S. Constitution's interstate commerce clause and that Act 226 was unconstitutional. Glover pointed out that the Riders were arrested under Arkansas Act 226 and that therefore the case was a local and not federal matter. But, Glover said, the Riders did not appear willing to "wait until the Arkansas Supreme Court [has] ruled on the validity of [Act 226]." Glover handed each arrested Freedom Rider the maximum allowed fine of $500, together with the maximum allowed six-month prison sentence. Nevertheless, mindful of community sentiment outside the courtroom, Glover offered to cut the Riders a deal. If they agreed to "leave the state of Arkansas and proceed to their respective homes" he would suspend their sentences. The Riders discussed the deal with their attorneys for almost an hour in the judge's conference room, where they also placed a long-distance call to the St. Louis CORE branch. When they finally emerged, the Riders accepted Judge Glover's deal and they were released.

Later that afternoon, after further consultation with the St. Lois CORE branch, the Riders decided that they could not accept Glover's deal. There had been, Cox told reporters, a "misunderstanding as to our destination after we were released." While they were happy to leave Arkansas and continue on their journey to New Orleans, they had not fully comprehended that Glover had intended for them to literally return to their own doorsteps in St. Louis and New York respectively and to abandon the Freedom Ride altogether. John Raines noted that press coverage of events appeared to convey the message that, "We came here, got spanked and are going back home." They could not countenance that since, he said, "We don't feel that way. We don't want to create that impression."

At 6:20 p.m. that evening, attorney Thad Williams phoned Judge Glover to tell him that the Riders could not accept his deal. Glover responded that if the Riders couldn't accept his terms and wanted to go to jail instead, "that's all right with me." Glover revoked the agreement and ordered the Riders back into custody.

The Freedom Riders were in a defiant mood when they faced the press. Cox told them, "Before I will be a slave to segregation, I would much rather be dead and in my grave and for my spirit to go home to God. And because the judge is putting us back in jail, I shall go on hunger strike of only one cup of water a day in protest to this injustice." Cox further explained that, "We will be glad to leave Arkansas as we had planned anyway. The judge only had jurisdiction to make us leave Arkansas and not to make us go home."

At 6:57 p.m., less than seven hours after they had left, the Riders returned to Little Rock City Jail. As they were checked in by the desk sergeant, Cox continued in his dialogue with reporters saying that, "This is not a struggle between black and white — it's a struggle between justice and injustice." Just then, an officer referred to Cox as "Boy," further infuriating him. "See what I mean — injustice?" Cox said. "A grown man, 30-years-old —'Boy!' "

After conferring with Police Chief Glasscock in court for 10 minutes, Glover spoke with the Freedom Riders. He admitted that he did not have the legal authority to prevent them from continuing on the Freedom Ride and told them that they were free to go. "I have turned the other cheek in this matter, hoping it to be for the good of all," Glover declared magnanimously.

At 4:15 the next morning, Friday, July 14, the four arrested Freedom Riders quietly left town on a Trailways bus. They went on to become the first group of Riders to successfully desegregate bus terminal facilities in New Orleans.

Fifty years after the Freedom Riders came to Arkansas, their story has been largely forgotten. Very likely, in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Freedom Rides this year, what happened in Arkansas will remain an obscure footnote to the events in Alabama that garnered national headlines. Remembering the local story helps to remind us that Arkansas had an important role to play in the civil rights movement beyond those more-publicized and fateful events of the 1957 Little Rock school crisis.

Bus terminal facilities finally desegregated in Little Rock and in many other cities after an Interstate Commerce Commission order came into effect on Nov. 1, 1961.

John A. Kirk, Ph.D., is Donaghey professor of history and chair at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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