Congressman Filner, the Freedom Rides, and Three Generations of Civil RIghts Activism
“I was 18. We did this thing, and we changed the whole legal structure of America. The sense that change is possible has been with me since."–Congressman Bob Filner
For the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Rep Bob Filner (D-San Diego) shares his memories as a Freedom Rider and of enduring two months in jail to take a stand during the tumultuous Civil Rights movement.
by Ron Logan
May 4, 2011 (San Diego) – Fifty years ago today, seven black and six white activists stepped aboard two buses (one Greyhound and one Trailways) in Washington, D.C. Led by James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the plan was simple – to ride through the Deep South and eventually arrive in New Orleans for a rally. The 13 Riders vowed nonviolence – and changed American history.
Leading the Charge
In 1944, Irene Morgan, a 27-year-old black woman from Baltimore, refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Greyhound interstate bus. The bus driver fetched the sheriff and when he attempted to arrest her, she fought back by kicking him in the groin, and then she fought her conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1946, her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, was argued by Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel for the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Instead of arguing the case based on the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, he based his strategy on the Constitution's Commerce Clause.
The Court ruled 7-1 in favor of Morgan. Justice Stanley Reed wrote that “seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single uniform rule to promote and protect national travel.” Marshall got the victory.
Then in 1958, Bruce Boynton, a black law student from Montgomery, Alabama, took a Trailways bus home from Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. During a stop in Richmond, Virginia, he chose to eat at the segregated restaurant at the bus terminal and sat in the white section to order lunch. Although Boynton thought that he was protected by the federal anti-segregation laws as an interstate passenger, he was arrested for trespassing and fined $10.
After further investigation, nothing could be found in federal law, nor in the U.S. Constitution, that gave Boynton any right to service.
The NAACP again petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court suggesting that Boynton should be protected under the Constitution. The Boynton v. Virginia case was accepted in October of 1960, and was once again pled by Marshall.
In December of the same year, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Boynton. The decision stated that racial segregation in restaurants and waiting areas of terminals that served interstate lines was also in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act, and expanded the original Morgan decision to include interstate bus terminals.
Although federal laws trumped regional laws, the archaic state and local Jim Crow laws, which mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities, had become the accepted decree, thus federal laws were widely ignored. Although the idea was that black Americans would be treated "separate but equal" under Jim Crow, the reality is that the facilities for black citizens were considerably inferior to those for whites. On buses, blacks were limited to seating at the back of the bus and no black passenger could sit in a more forward position than a white passenger.
Farmer Fights for Freedom
James Farmer's bus journey, known as the Freedom Rides, tested the mettle of the Supreme Court's rulings. The rides were carefully orchestrated so that at least one black passenger rode in the section reserved for whites, an interracial pair of Riders sat next to each other, and the others were dispersed throughout the bus. One Rider, who remained detached from the group, acted as an observer. By adhering to the South's accepted rules of segregated travel, the observer could avoid arrest and would contact CORE to arrange legal representation for those who were arrested.
Although they were in compliance with federal law, the Freedom Rider's rights were discarded and they were charged with criminal acts throughout most of the South.
At first, the Riders encountered only minor trouble, but later they were confronted with intense violence. John Lewis, who is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a well-known civil rights activist, and two others, were attacked in the cotton mill town of Rock Hill, South Carolina. And in Winnsboro, some of the Riders were arrested for violation of the local Jim Crow laws.
On Mother's Day, May 14, just outside of Anniston, Alabama, things began to turn ugly. A mob of more than one hundred people, organized by the Ku Klux Klan, attacked the Greyhound bus, slashed its tires, tossed a bundle of burning rags through a broken window, and as it became engulfed in flames, held the doors shut so as to burn all the passengers alive.
Of dubious good fortune, an exploding gas tank caused a retreat by the mob which allowed the passengers to escape the burning bus. As the people fled the bus they ran straight into the crowd--where they were beaten with fists and clubs.
The first Rider to exit the bus was Hank Thomas. A white man approached him and asked "Are you okay?" The man then proceeded to hit Thomas on the side of the head with a baseball bat. The Riders would have been lynched right there if not for the intervention of the state highway patrol.
An hour later, when the Trailways bus arrived at the Anniston terminal it was boarded by eight Klansmen who savagely beat the passengers and left them injured and bleeding in the back of the bus. When the bus later arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, similar violence occurred, again by the hand of the KKK.
Due to the heightening threat of violence and having fallen behind schedule, the original Freedom Riders chose to fly directly to New Orleans for the rally. And as such, the first Freedom Rides had come to an end – or had they?
There were many people intently following the Rides who didn't want to see them fail, and on May 17, after a group of 10 riders, students from Nashville, arrived in Birmingham, the Rides continued. Although they were arrested and jailed, new people continued to join the cause.
On May 19, the Rides were delayed when a KKK mob surrounded the bus depot in Birmingham and the bus drivers refused to drive. As public pressure grew, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy applied pressure, Greyhound was forced to provide a driver and the governor of Alabama promised to provide safe passage for the Riders from Birmingham to Montgomery.
The next day the bus was escorted to Montgomery, unharmed, but was left unprotected at the edge of town. When the bus pulled in to the station the Riders were attacked again by white supremacists and, like previously experienced, the local law enforcement allowed the beatings to continue without interruption.
On May 21, there was an event to honor the Freedom Riders at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. The speakers included Farmer and Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 1,500 people were in attendance inside the church, while outside, more than 3,000 angry whites surrounded the building preparing to attack the congregation. Only after President Kennedy threatened to send federal troops did the governor choose to call in the Alabama National Guard to control the situation. And, the continuing press coverage of the Freedom Rides violence was creating a public relations nightmare.
The Rides reached Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24, and when the Riders entered the "Whites Only" facilities at the bus depot they were arrested. This became the new modus operandi of the Freedom Rides – Riders would travel to Jackson, get arrested, and more Riders would follow in an attempt to fill the jails. As the Jackson jail filled, the Riders were sent to Hinds County jail, and when that was full they were transferred to Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary, where they were housed in the Death Row block of the prison.
Filner Joins the Ride
In Nashville, on or around June 10, Bob Filner, an 18-year-old student at Cornell University, joined the Rides. On June 16, he, too, was arrested in Jackson, where he remained for two months. Filner spent much of that time at Parchman Farm. Like Lewis, Filner is now a U.S. Congressman, and represents California's 51st District.
The Rides continued into September. The result was that on November 1, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) put new policies in place that allowed passengers to sit wherever they wanted on interstate buses and trains, the "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs were removed from terminals, separated facilities were consolidated, and restaurants began serving people regardless of race.
A total of 438 people participated in the Freedom Rides, and it was their effort and sacrifice that brought about pivotal change in segregation law in our country.
The Man with Two Mothers: Filner Recalls his Ride—and Time Behind Bars
In the summer of 1961, a young Bob Filner was finishing up his semester at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Being the son of an accomplished civil rights activist, Filner took immediate interest in the Rides.
"Obviously, very early I had this sense of civil rights," Filner said during a recent interview. "When the Freedom Rides started in '61, and I saw some of the TV coverage, I said that that is where I have to be. I had this background that sort of set that this is what I had to do in life anyway."
Filner recalls the impetus for his journey, "I was studying for my finals at Cornell and the picture of this burning bus in Anniston, Alabama, on Mother's Day in '61, with the firebombing of the bus, people pushed out, forced out, almost beaten to death, the incredible picture of the bus on fire, I mean I said I was going to take the next bus. And so I did. I was 18."
Having been raised to fight for racial equality his entire life, his parents were supportive of his choice to join the rides. Filner remembered fondly, "Well, they were the ones that raised me like this, so, they couldn't really [oppose my decision] … my father said when I got back, he said, 'well I'm proud my son went on the Freedom Rides, but did he have to use my credit card to do it?'"
Filner traveled to Tennessee in early June where he underwent CORE's preparation prior to joining the Rides. "So I went to Nashville, and they gave me a few days of training in nonviolence," he said. "The guy who trained me was the head of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] at the time, Marion Barry, who later became mayor of Washington."
The CORE training taught both the physical and the mental aspects of nonviolence. Filner explained how the training worked.
"Mainly, on two levels. One, physical hints, how to roll up into a fetal position so you could minimize, supposedly, any physical beating. That doesn't take long. But more importantly, psychologically, how do you respond to taunts."
The training included role-playing in which the prospective Riders would be treated in a manner consistent with what they would encounter on the Rides. "Mainly it was to get your head into a nonviolent sense, that no matter what happened … you tried to minimize the harm, but more importantly the psychological taunting," said Filner. "You knew you'd get mad but how to put that into a more positive way. I remember this story, they used to say if someone spits on you, what's your reaction – to push 'em back or spit back – the legendary response, and I don't know how true this was, we would learn to ask him for his handkerchief, to wipe off the spit. And we were told that people would just give you their handkerchief. I never tested it. But the idea was to turn something negative into a more positive human reaction, that you weren't going to get mad at him, you were just going to ask them to help you out to get rid of the spit."
As more Riders arrived in Nashville and completed training, new Rides would be formed. "What happened is when enough people arrived there, whether it was five, six, ten or fifteen, they would send that group off," said Filner.
He then boarded a Greyhound bus and traveled to Jackson where he and the other Riders were summarily arrested. Filner continued, "I was arrested on June 16. When we got off the bus, we were an integrated group, there were about five of us, a couple whites and three blacks. There were mobs around that would've attacked us, but the city and state officials decided basically to arrest us right away so there wouldn't be physical violence. So we walked into the bus terminal, we went into, I don't remember which, either the white or the black waiting room – there were two – and as soon as we did that we were violating the law. They said 'you know you are violating the law and you better move on,' which we didn't. And then we had a trial – well we had a judge sentence us to six months for breach of peace and inciting a riot."
The CORE policy was "jail – no bail." Riders would be arrested and they would accept that arrest. If there was violence, they would accept that too. They did, however, refuse to pay fines so as not to pay money to any state that endorsed segregation.
"Under Mississippi law you had to appeal your case within 60 days or you couldn't appeal it," Filner said. "So the idea was stay as long as possible, and then appeal it so you could get it to the courts. A few people stayed there the whole six months, I don't know how many, just a few, some people got out early because they couldn't take it. My original cellmate went stir crazy, they had to take him out of there. Most of us stayed until the day of the legal limit of our appeal."
As news of his arrest got back to his family, Filner's mother began to inquire about the status of her son. Filner remembers, "My mother had the stereotypical Jewish mother response. First she wrote letters to all the Rabbis in Mississippi, there were four of them, said to come and visit me. None of them had the courage to do it. Then she wrote to the warden, we still have the letters he wrote back. She wrote 'How's Bob doing? Is he eating enough? Does he have access to a doctor?' He wrote back, 'Bob is doing fine, he's eating well.' So, she was always worried whether I was going to be okay. They were, I guess, proud but nervous 'cause kids were being killed and beaten up badly."
"My mother would be calling CORE headquarters every day 'what do you know, how's it going?' said Filner. "And I had a step-mother who didn't want to explain she was a step-mother so she just said she was my mother. So every day they would get two calls from my mother. They would say 'Oh, you're the guy with two mothers.' They were worried, but my mother probably more worried. My father taught me I ought to do this."
But there were risks, Filner explained. "I think we didn't really understand, and frankly, the potential – all the violence that did occur and could've been, and was used against me, but not in the same fatal way – that I think we didn't know the full risks involved maybe."
"No one knew where we were going to end up … Alabama had all this trouble with Anniston so they wouldn't let us stop in Alabama." he said. "Jackson ended up arresting us so we wouldn't face any violence. So everyone ended up in the Jackson jails and the state penitentiary, almost by accident. Nobody knew, and nobody knew we would be there for a couple months. Nobody prepared us how to keep intellectually stable, physically stable, when you're in jail for a long period of time. I mean, nobody had any sense of what would happen. They figured we would be stopped or cited and then move along to New Orleans, I think, was the situation. And then when they realized we were going to be arrested in Jackson, then the cry became to fill the jails as best they could."
The Riders were moved from facility to facility as the maximum capacities were met. "At first we were sent to a city jail in Jackson, then when they got too many of us they moved us to the county jail, and then there was too many of us there so they decided they wanted to keep us separate and together, because they didn't want us to contaminate the rest of the prisoners. So they found, basically death row at the state penitentiary [Parchman Farm] as a place that had enough room, that could keep us separate," Filner said.
Although the original reason to move the Riders to Parchman Farm may have been to accommodate the growing population, the purpose seemed to shift over time.
"Then it became a psychological thing," said FIlner. "While we were there, they decided we could never have anything to read or write, we never got out for exercise, or anything. So the idea was to try to destroy us psychologically. Which worked with some people, not all of us obviously. It was more a way to keep us together, and separated from elsewhere that they moved us there. And by then it had, it had become psychological, this history of tough treatment, and work gangs. But they didn't make us work, they didn't let us work, we would have liked to work, or just get out of there."
At Parchman Farm, the Riders turned to singing to keep up their spirits, to pass the time, and to torment the prison guards. The prison staff attempted to quell the singing by removing the mattresses from the cells, removing the screens from the windows, flooding the cells with water and using fans to cool the temperature to freezing. The singing didn't stop, and when the warden apologized to the Riders for the petty torments and returned their belongings, the Riders viewed it as a victory.
It was commonplace for the inmates to change the words of the civil rights songs to fit their own situation. Since Filner was viewed to be more affluent than many, the inmates paid homage to him with lyrics of their own.
"It was sort of obvious that I was more well off than others, and we sang freedom songs all the time," Filner said. "There was this one, you make up your own verses, and one verse they made up said – this was the freedom song "Keep your Eyes on the Prize" – My father was a member of the Bourgeoisie, and I will fight for freedom while he's supporting me. But they said it out of respect, I mean I didn't have to be there, as their sense was, I was rich enough."
After two months, Filner was released from prison. He explained, "When our 60th day came up, some lawyer in Jackson would bail us out. Or the organization would bail us out. If we forgot, somebody came and got us. And we had to be transferred down to Jackson and be released." Jackson is 110 miles south of Parchman Farm.
After his release, Filner returned to Cornell, but the Mississippi courts continued to fight back. "The whole summer was taken up by [the Freedom Rides] and I headed back to school," Filner said. "Over the next year we had to return three or four times to Jackson. I had a jury trial, some kind of bail bond thing, I had another bail bond thing. There were quite a few of those things. They wanted us to personally appear, basically to try to financially break the organization [CORE], more than anything. And because they did it alphabetically, James Farmer and I were always together. I mean, F-A, F-I, we would have our trials the same day, so I got to know him a little, he was the head of CORE at the time."
But the damage was already done. The Rides had set in motion a wave of civil rights activism, and as a direct result of the Freedom Rides, the ICC officially ruled, on November 1, 1961, that all segregation in interstate travel was illegal.
Still only a teenager, Filner had already partaken in something really amazing – something life-changing – something epic. He recalls, "I thought, wow! Here we are, I was 18. We did this thing, and we changed the whole legal structure of America. The sense that change is possible has been with me since."
Like Father, Like Son
Congressman Bob Filner's father, Joseph Filner, was the catalyst, role model, and motivation for his son's civil rights activism.
"My dad, through labor unions, always taught me that you've got be part of a group effort, an organized effort, [because] change, that is hard to do on your own."
"My dad was a steel worker, a Teamster, and he got involved in labor organizing in the '30s. When Hitler came along dad realized 'You gotta beat him.' He wasn't draft-able because he had a baby, me, and I think he was too old, he was 30 almost, but he enlisted and ended up in North Africa and Italy. In '44 he was in Italy, they were about to liberate some of the prison camps in Germany and they sent back a call to ask 'who can speak Yiddish?' My dad raised his hand so they brought him up to the front."
Filner continued, "The prison camps were obviously incredible scenes of tragedy, and violence, and everything. He was so moved by it that he wrote these letters to me – I was 2 years old – these long letters about – which I still have – the way that you have to, that we have to fight racism wherever it appears, because otherwise, this kind of thing happens. If you take it from a Jewish perspective, then Jews are always next. So you have to fight racism whether it's black Americans, Hispanic Americans, gay Americans, whoever. Your life has to be dedicated to fighting on the side of those people fighting against it, otherwise, we're always next."
When Joseph returned from World War II, he realized the value that stainless steel scrap metal would have to American industry and so he founded the Stainless and Alloy Corporation of America. But he continued to fight for civil rights and raised his sons to do the same.
"He devoted his life to that, and he sort of put my brother and I on the same path, that racism is evil and we have to fight it." Filner stated. "So, he very early got associated with Dr. [Martin Luther] King. He never told me this story but I heard it from Andy Young [the former Mayor of Atlanta and former U.S. Congressman from Georgia's 5th District] when he was campaigning for me for congress, that in '55 or so my dad heard about this minister in Montgomery named King. My dad calls him up and says 'How can I help?' King says 'well I have to raise my own salary, and I gotta make sure my kids have some college money put aside.'"
He continued, "My dad was on his way to a Reform Democratic meeting and got pledges for $100,000 in one night, called King and said 'okay, we've got some money, go to work.' So dad became a fundraiser and an advisor for King. I met King when I was 13, I think. That money became what led him into the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which was King's organization that he set up to try to bring in this money."
Having been raised in this environment, Bob Filner was also destined to live his life devoted to the fight for civil rights.
Filner entered politics at the faculty level while working as a professor of history at San Diego State University. When the school board planned to close the elementary school that his children, Erin and Adam, attended, he first organized a parent committee to fight the closure, and in 1979 challenged and defeated Dorothea Edminston for her seat on the school board.
"What has stuck with me most is the optimism of political change," Filner said. "I mean, if people get involved we can do things. We didn't make America perfect [during the Freedom Rides] but we significantly changed it, and that optimism stays with me. I ran for the school board because I was trying to stop the closing of Erin's elementary school and I figured let's run for election and try to stop it, and we did. It's still open today."
In 1987, FIlner was elected to the San Diego City Council, and in 1993, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he continues to serve and is Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. He is currently considering a Mayoral run in San Diego, but is still undecided.
Like Father, Like Daughter
Filner's daughter, Erin, is a middle school school teacher in New York state. Having been raised in a home that fought for civil rights, she too has immersed herself in civil rights activism. She runs two after-school programs, CATCH, and Pride in Purple (PIP).
Erin was close with her grandfather and recalled fond memories. "From a very early age, my grandfather taught us that we had a responsibility to leave the world better than when we came into it," she said. "He used to drive us through Harlem when he would pick us up from the airport … he would point to the homeless people and say, 'There is another defeated man!' – It was clear that we were not allowed to accept such conditions in our country."
She was also inspired by her father, who she looked up to as a role model. "I continue to be amazed when I think of my father as a young (nerdy!) white boy risking his life for a cause greater than himself, said Erin. "I am amazed at the whites who were not directly affected and yet still travelled down south to put themselves directly on the front lines."
Congressman Filner provided a little back story about how his daughter was inspired to start the CATCH program. "John Lewis, who I met in jail, a fellow congressman and, of course, a great hero of the Civil Rights Movement, used to take annual pilgrimages back to Alabama, to relive the days," said FIlner. "Then he started taking people with him, he started taking members of Congress. And so I went, with my daughter, on one of these trips. It is just fascinating to see the civil rights stories through his eyes and go to the actual sites. And she came back inspired to do something on her own and formed these clubs that are still centers of discussion on issues they don't want to take up in the classroom … So I'm pretty proud of her for doing that."
Erin's perspective mirrored her father's. "We were asked to reflect on how we could take our experiences from the weekend back into our 'real worlds.'" said Erin. "For a very long time, I had felt that my generation was missing a unifying cause greater than ourselves – like the fight to defeat Hitler or the Civil Rights Movement. I figured that if I was feeling this way, there were kids that were feeling this way, too. CATCH (Conversations About Tolerance Civility and Humanity) was my attempt to begin a 'movement' to promote peace and tolerance starting with my school community."
Her other club addresses LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) issues, and, although somewhat controversial in her community, it has become a very successful program. "To me, PIP is the modern day Civil Rights Movement," Filner noted. "While we have made great strides toward reducing legalized racism in our country today, institutionalized homophobia is still a norm in far too many places. It is so inspiring to see these kids feel a part of this movement."
Erin is now the third generation of Filners to fight for civil rights. After doing the research for this article, and conducting the interviews, I now realize how poignant Joseph Filner's comment really was, "Your life has to be dedicated to fighting on the side of those people fighting against [racism], otherwise, we're always next."
Progress comes through the hard work of the people dedicated to their cause. The selfless drive to fight for others is truly a gift, a calling. Becoming part of a larger faction, working together with others, I see how mountains can be moved.
"That is why I ran for political office," the Congressman added. "To try to make a difference working with other people to change things. If you compare those of us who were in the Civil Rights Movement with those who first became politically aware during the Anti-War Movement, the Vietnam Movement, we were far more optimistic because we won. The kids who came in later didn't see a victory, they became more cynical, they became very frustrated with the lack of response. See, we were lucky, we got a change. So I think we were far more responsible of trying to bring change."
On Monday, May 16, PBS will premiere the documentary "Freedom Riders," directed by Stanley Nelson, and produced by American Experience. Check local listings for time. www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders