By BERNARD LAFAYETTE Jr. Published: May 19, 2011
FIFTY years ago today I arrived in Montgomery, Ala., on a Greyhound bus. I was 20 years old and was there as one of the Freedom Riders, a racially mixed group, mostly college students, who were riding buses through the South to test the Supreme Court’s recent ban on segregation in waiting rooms and restaurants that served interstate travelers.
I was among 22 Freedom Riders on that bus. We well knew the dangers we faced in Alabama: other riders had already been attacked in Anniston and Birmingham. And indeed, when we stepped off the bus a group of hooligans surrounded us. Three of my friends, William Barbee, John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, were beaten unconscious. I suffered three cracked ribs.
The next evening, the Freedom Riders and 1,500 other people gathered at the First Baptist Church on Ripley Street, in downtown Montgomery. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offered us words of encouragement and support on our journey for equality.
As the sun set, a mob of whites began to gather around the church. As the crowd grew in number — eventually as many as 3,000 people appeared — it also grew in vitriol and hostility. The crowd began hurling rocks and bricks through the stained-glass windows, and tear gas drifted through the sanctuary. While outside people flipped over cars and set them on fire, inside Dr. King tried to reach Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to request federal protection.
All of us gathered in the church were uncertain about our safety; I certainly felt in danger. Many feared that the church would be bombed. After all, not only had Dr. King’s house been bombed with his wife, child and a family friend inside during the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, but the very church where we were gathered had been bombed in 1957.
There was little we could do but wait and pray. We sat in the church and sang freedom songs and hymns that strengthened our spirits and soothed our fears. Occasionally, I took a deep breath to get a little relief from the pain of my fractured ribs. At times I wondered whether it would be better to be safe in jail or to be there, in the church, surrounded by a vicious mob.
Eventually Dr. King announced that he had a special mission for which he needed volunteers. The main qualification, Dr. King said, was a commitment to nonviolence. He didn’t need hotheads, or people overcome by anger. Needless to say, no one rushed the pulpit. After my experience at the bus station, I didn’t feel I could handle another mob, so I held back, too.
However, about 10 or 12 people eventually did volunteer for the mission, which Dr. King then explained. Reports had come in over the phone that a group of black men, led by armed cab drivers, were mobilizing at a nearby service station with plans to attack the mob and rescue the people trapped in the church. Some of them, no doubt, had relatives and friends in the church.
Black cab drivers were an important part of the local civil rights movement. They had helped out in the car-pooling efforts during the bus boycott. When the boycott ended, some of them formed their own cab companies to serve black customers. But they were more than just drivers: they saw themselves as part of a security force as they moved passengers around the segregated city.
Some of these men were war veterans; some were experienced hunters, and were probably more experienced with weapons than their white antagonists. Had these men attacked the mob surrounding the church, the story of the Freedom Rides would have had a much different ending.
Dr. King’s mission, then, was to persuade the cab drivers to abandon their rescue attempt, lay down their weapons and go home. His small group gathered at the front door of the church, lined up in twos. Then they walked out the doors, as if they were marching.
There was an unforgettable silence as they passed out of the church. We watched as they walked through the howling crowd; I was sure I would never see them again. And yet, for all the yelling, the mob didn’t touch them — such is the power of nonviolence.
About an hour passed. Suddenly, out of the darkness, they all reappeared, unharmed. Dr. King had convinced the cab drivers to abandon their mission. This was no small miracle. Dr. King showed through this act of courage in this most harrowing moment of the campaign that fear was not a factor for him. It was, at that point in the Freedom Rides, the greatest lesson he could have offered.
Early the next morning, with the help of the Alabama National Guard (which arrived after hours of pressure from Mr. Kennedy on the Alabama governor, John Malcolm Patterson), we were able to leave the church unharmed. Dr. King’s courageous mission to our would-be rescuers prevented great bloodshed and kept the Freedom Rides on its nonviolent course. And it showed us what the Freedom Rides, and the movement overall, were about.
The man and the movement were behind the decision by each of us to stand up and take action, even if it required extraordinary courage. If we were ever in doubt, he reminded us why we had chosen to leave the comforts of our homes, college campuses and family and friends to travel to unknown places fully aware of the possibility that we’d never return. Dr. King showed how quiet strength can overcome violence, how courage can overcome fear, how peace can overcome the most awful hate.
Bernard Lafayette Jr. is a distinguished senior scholar in residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.