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’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.