Bob Filner’s Freedom Riders legacy

by on June 22, 2011 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights, Election, San Diego

By Lucas O’Connor/Two Cathedrals

“I’ve always felt that, if you think something should be changed, it’s your responsibility to actively pursue that change.” – Bob Filner

Bob Filner, Freedom Rider arrested in Jackson, Mississippi 1961

Bob Filner’s accidental announcement in March that he was running for mayor didn’t shock too many local insiders. That it took place at an airing of a recent 50th anniversary Freedom Riders documentary was perhaps more provocative, mostly along the lines of ‘I had no idea he was a Freedom Rider.’ Most people still have no idea, though that’s likely to change in the next year. Usually though, it comes with a vague idea of what the Freedom Riders did, but not a deep understanding. So what’s the full breadth of what it meant to be a Freedom Rider?

The first wave of 13 Freedom Riders left Washington, DC in early May, 1961. They headed south on two commercial buses, testing a Supreme Court ruling that required integration of interstate bus stations. When they reached Alabama, they were met with violent, murderous mobs. One bus was attacked and firebombed, with the mob attempting to hold the doors shut and burn the riders alive inside. When riders did escape the bus, they were savagely beaten by the mob, organized by the KKK and infamously hyper-violent Police Commissioner Bull Conner.

Those riders, both white and black, were mostly denied care at local hospitals before being kicked out entirely for fear of violent mobs. The second bus reached Birmingham where Bull Conner and his police gave the KKK free reign to beat riders with bicycle chains, baseball bats, and iron pipes. After white riders were especially targeted for violence, riders were again initially denied medical care at the local hospital.

A second wave of Freedom Riders arrived several days later to replace many of the injured, led by Diane Nash into the fire. The second wave of riders all signed their wills before embarking from Tennessee, and just to get from Birmingham to Montgomery, the bus traveled with police escort at 90 miles an hour to protect from mobs and snipers. They were abandoned in Montgomery though, and local police allowed the KKK to again savagely beat the riders, again specifically targeting the white riders and even beating into unconsciousness John Seigenthaler, a Justice department official sent by the Kennedy Administration.

Kennedy and the governors of Alabama and Mississippi organized National Guard protection for the riders into Mississippi, but when the Freedom Riders reached Mississippi, they faced a new tactic. In place of violent mobs, the police simply arrested them outright. Hundreds of new Riders — including Filner — mobilized from across the country to overwhelm the jails. Every one of them signed up having to expect that they were walking into savage violence that could kill someone at any moment. But as one rider said, “We were past fear. We can’t stop. If one person falls, others take their place.”

Part of the strategy was to reject bail or plea deals and remain in jail as long as possible, and when the local jails hit capacity, the Riders were transferred to the State Penitentiary at Parchman.

What was it like at Parchman Farm for Freedom Riders?

Once the Jackson and Hinds County jails were filled to overflowing, Freedom Riders were transferred to the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary (“Parchman Farm”). Their abusive treatment included placement in the Maximum Security Unit (Death Row), issuance of only underwear, no exercise, no mail, and, when Freedom Riders refused to stop singing freedom songs, they took away mattresses, sheets, and toothbrushes and removed the screens from the windows. When the cell block became filled with mosquitoes, they hosed everyone down with DDT at 2 AM.

The experience at Parchman was a galvanizing experience for the riders, who came from all corners of the country, different backgrounds, races and politics. As Freedom Rider and civil rights superhero John Lewis put it, the experience “created an unbelievable sense of ‘Yes we will make it. Yes we will survive. Nothing but nothing was gonna stop this movement.’”

Those few hundred Freedom Riders like Filner braved unspeakable violence, firebombing, unimaginable prison conditions and the threat of death and outright lynching. To accomplish what? As one rider explained, “the Freedom Riders introduced the notion that there were fair minded white persons who were willing to sacrifice themselves — their bodies and their lives — because they too believed that the country had an obligation to uphold its constitutional mandate of liberty and justice for all.”

And through that fire… it worked. As the documentary notes:

There’s a direct line from the Freedom Riders to the speech that President Kennedy made in June of 1963 calling on Congress to pass legislation to get rid of Jim Crow and to give civil rights protections to all citizens.

But it isn’t as though Filner was done after the Freedom Rides. He went on to teach at the Tuskegee Institute, and later braved unspeakable violence in the South again, participating in the incredibly violent Selma marches in 1965 where civil rights activists were attacked by state and local police wielding billy clubs and tear gas. Starting with “Bloody Sunday,” it took marchers three tries to make it through the violent throngs of police and get from Selma to Montgomery. All this before Filner got into politics proper.

We can say any number of things about Filner’s politics since — good, bad or indifferent. But he was willing to put his life on the line and accepted unconscionable punishment to stand up against injustice in this country. In a country that increasingly struggles to find heroes, Filner was instrumental in pressing this country to accept fundamental civil rights that most now take for granted. It’s a record that San Diegans — all Americans — should be proud of. And while it doesn’t translate 50 years later into anything like a free pass to the mayor’s office, it’s important as we wade into election season to consider what’s driven Filner to this point and made him who he is. And not to let San Diego’s peculiarly low political expectations overshadow those pieces of true greatness that our elected officials have managed through the years.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar mr.rick June 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm

I was reading this article and before I got down the page a ways I had to butt-in . In ’69 I hitched from Va. Beach to Cocoa Beach, looking for surf, along the coast and the only rides we could get were from black folks. Maybe our hair had something to do with it. but it sure was a world apart from Ocean Beach


avatar Patty Jones June 22, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Thanks for writing this Lucas. It’s an important bit of history.


avatar Marilyn Steber June 22, 2011 at 7:41 pm

We owe so much to these young people who got on the buses.
Bob Filner is a modest man who rarely mentions his part in history. In fact, I think it is we who tell the story about him. He has moved on to Congress and worked for Veterans and working people. I have worked for his Congressional campaign in the past and one day I hope to call him Mr. Mayor.


avatar Nancy June 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm

I was recently in Memphis and went to the National Civil Rights Museum which is a gem, although very thought-provoking, sobering and sad. Most think of it as the Martin Luther King Museum, as it covers much of the Civil Rights Movement that he was so much a part of. It’s situated in two buildings: formerly known as the Lorraine Hotel and the Rooming House across the street. It is where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and where the killer, James Earle Ray, stayed. The room MLK, Jr. stayed in and the one next to his where his aides stayed, are the only two that remain as they did the day he was killed with a big wreath on the deck where he was standing when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

It goes into why MLK, Jr. was there in the first place which was to march peacefully in support of fired black sanitation workers. He had devoted his life to peacefully fight for the dignity of his fellow black citizens, and the strike brought him to his fate.

The NCRM also gives the background of what black people went through living in the South, which resulted in the Freedom Riders peacefully trying to get the dignity they deserved. You see the horrible newspaper pictures and newsreels of the clubbed white and black people who participated, and you read about the department and dimestore food counters that would not allow black people to sit down to eat. There actually also is a bus with statues showing black people sitting in the back.
Those who participated in these fights for their rights were spit upon, had their hair pulled and endured horrible epitaphs yelled at them.

Reading about this in a history book doesn’t have the impact, especially when I read about it so long ago in a lily-white rural Midwestern town, but seeing the newsreels and the blown up newspaper articles and pictures in this museum of what the actual participants endured brought the horror home to me. It made my stomach boil that so many ignorant people lived in the South.

I wondered if I could have had the courage to do what these brave people did. Congressman Filner and all the others are heroes in my book.

I cried after the 6 hrs. of reading about and feeling the hatred of the Southern whites and for the hurt our fellow black citizens endured as a result of the Jim Crow laws that should never have happened. But they did.

It is a horrible part of our history, and to think it was going on as long as it did is unconscionable in our so-called “Christian” nation.

Thank you so much, Lucas O’Connor, for writing this wonderful article. The story needs to be told over and over again.
Cong. Filner’s quote and actions show what a courageous man he was to do what he did.


avatar ss June 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Great article.
The freedom riders were the first in a movement to bring freedom to all. They were the foundation behind the anti war movement, the stone wall riots and most other events where people began demanding human rights. Thank you to all who dare to question authority.


avatar sam minervini June 27, 2011 at 8:20 am

The reaction of many white citizens during the “civil rights era” was anger that they lost the Civil War thus imposing our will that slavery was illegal and immoral . Though a hundred years had passed , the anger had not . When you see a Confederate flag , they’re telling you ” OK we gave you the slavery thing , now stay out of our business ” .


avatar Nancy June 27, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Many Southern whites treated blacks like crap before and after they lost the war, and passed the Reconstruction laws and started the KKK. You’re right in that they had anger, and yes, the civil rights movement gave them the opportunity to blatantly show their hatred and anger.
We should never stay out of their business when they or anyone else treats minorities less than they do their fellow white counterparts.


avatar Marilyn Steber June 28, 2011 at 9:22 am

In re: the Confederate Flag, the Stars and Bars, the one that doesn’t have any white on it. That flag has become an international symbol of “in your face”; I saw it in clips the night the Berlin Wall fell. WTF! The Southern sympathizers and descendants of Confederate soldiers insist it is a flag of “heritage not hate”. I see red every time someone flies it because it is more “heritage Of hate” in my view. As someone born below the Mason Dixon line and raised in Alabama, I think I am somewhat qualified to talk about how confusing it was to a kid when everyone stood and sang Dixie instead of the National Anthem. When I went to Kentucky to research the only confederate in my Kentucky family, one archivist said to me that many people come to the Frankfort Archives and leave disappointed (!) their ancestor was in the Union Army.


avatar John P. Falchi November 27, 2011 at 10:42 am

I am glad this bit of history, and Bob Filner’s part in it, is coming out early in the campaign, so more people could be exposed to it. I happened to know about it, previously, but when a group of Veterans for Peace were in Bob’s Congressional Office some months ago, one of us who had no idea that Bob was a “Freedom Rider” asked about a picture from that period. Bob, modestly, mentioned this at that time. It certainly gave Bob a perspective on racial problems in this country that he might not have learned about in this first hand way, if he had not taken this active a role in the civil rights movement of that time. That is the kind of person I would like to become Mayor of our city.


avatar Anna Daniels April 27, 2012 at 10:08 am

The U-T ran an interesting story recently: “Fletcher’s Iraq firefight led to sense of purpose” Fletcher is revealed as courageous, patriotic and deeply committed to the people he was fighting alongside. We tend to value these qualities as signs of unimpeachable character and they influence our overall judgment of someone.

The U-T, however, has not seen fit (yet) to run an in-depth article about how the Freedom Rider experience reflects Bob Filner’s sense of purpose. Lucas O’Connor’s account is one of the few places where we have an opportunity to see Filner’s courage, patriotism and deep commitment.


avatar Frank Gormlie April 27, 2012 at 10:13 am

That sounds like such an interesting tread to pursue….


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