Columns » Ernest Dumas

Remembering Civil Rights battles

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As golden jubilees go, the gathering of the '60s Freedom Riders and lunch-counter demonstrators over the weekend was unexceptional: the usual hugs, mutual compliments, nostalgia and jokes about the ravages of age.

But someone lifted straight from the hot streets of 1961 or 1965 — maybe even Amis Guthridge or Rev. Wesley Pruden, the white supremacists who led the counter-demonstrations — would have to remark how forbearing and tender were these "outside agitators" and "communists," as even newspaper editors in those days sometimes called them.

Soft and mellow were not qualities anyone would have associated with William W. Hansen Jr., John Curtis Raines, Howard Himmelbaum or any of the others, except perhaps by people who actually knew them, but you could detect no hardness or rancor in the reminiscences of the men and women who had come south and west to provide a cover for young African Americans who were demonstrating for their right to show up where only white people were allowed and to cast a vote and have it counted.

No one could fail to be impressed by John Raines's affecting accounts of how his first freedom ride and his first destination, the Trailways bus waiting room at Louisiana and Markham Streets, on July 10, 1961, had changed his life. He was a young minister, the son of immense privilege, but vague stirrings of altruism caused him to sign up for a freedom ride. The Congress on Racial Equality figured that to get the attention of the country, including the media, Northerners and Easterners, principally white, should be brought to the civil rights struggles. The media ignored the efforts of black Southerners, even their murders, but they would not ignore the misfortunes of the white students and ministers from the East.

Raines offered no hard words but only gratitude for the city, the cops and the judge who jailed him or the townspeople who jeered him. It seemed heartfelt. People owed him nothing, he said, but he owed everything to Little Rock and the other Southern cities on his journeys and especially the young African Americans who were in real peril for educating him on what the world was like for people who by mere accident of birth faced far different lives from his own.

What would have surprised those who hated them is that these "outsiders" were scared. Laura Foner, who left school in New York to go to Gould to teach at a freedom school, said she was frightened and naïve. She was not apt to get much law-enforcement protection. J. Edgar Hoover had the FBI watch her because her father was a labor historian.

But Bill Hansen, the child of a Catholic working couple in Cincinnati, was not so afraid. He had his jaw crushed and ribs broken in a Georgia prison, where he was tossed for demonstrating. Arkansas, which had a smaller reputation for violence, was solace for him.

Before last weekend, the last image Arkansans had of Hansen was a picture on the front page of the Arkansas Gazette on March 12, 1965. It was of a crowd huddled around his crumpled form on a sidewalk outside the state Capitol. He had been whacked by troopers, dragged up the basement steps by his heels and tossed on the concrete outside the southern portal.

A few weeks earlier, Gov. Faubus and the secretary of state, Kelly Bryant, had the cafeteria in the Capitol basement turned into a private club to keep blacks out. White people were automatically members, but a black person could not join.

Hansen, Himmelbaum and a band of students, mostly from Philander Smith College, marched to the Capitol soon after noon on March 11, the last day of the legislative session, to have lunch and maybe visit the governor.

The governor's executive secretary told the group they were not members and could not enter. They returned later to try again. Maj. Mack Thompson of the State Police and a cadre of troopers met the group when they wedged into the hallway outside the cafeteria.

Thompson, recalling the beatings in Montgomery and Selma, told the students: "We don't want to have no Alabama here and I don't think you people do, but we propose to have one if we have to."

Hansen was knocked cold in the melee that followed, Himmelbaum was burned by mustard gas and a newspaper reporter whom the troopers mistook for a demonstrator had to have a few stitches in his chin. A young Gazette reporter whose office policy was to wear a suit and tie went unscathed.

What is not much understood is that the protests worked. The next round of freedom riders were allowed to integrate the waiting room at the Greyhound station. The lunch-counter sit-ins produced secret negotiations with merchants, who quietly agreed to integrate the downtown stores, including the lunch counters, and to hire a few African Americans. One month after the Capitol melee, a Republican federal judge, J. Smith Henley, ruled that the private club was a fraud. The 14th amendment, he said, does not allow the government through any ruse to open its facilities to white people but not to black.

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