I started writing a book a couple of years ago inspired by the Freedom Riders and how many of them tried to live out their Christian faith in a way that brought freedom to others. John Lewis, one of the leaders of the Freedom Rides said, "Faith in God was at the heart of all I did." Many of the Freedom Riders were divinity students. They came to Montgomery, the city I live and pastor in, and were beaten and viciously attacked. Montgomery is a city full of churches. Why wasn't Christianity strong enough to stop this violence? Why wasn't it strong enough to lead a people to repentance? How can we recover Biblical faith in the midst of a lot of bad history and continuing division that has affected our whole nation and damaged our witness?
Below is an excerpt from my book that tells the story of the Freedom Riders. Part two will come tomorrow. We honor them and pray prayers of reconciliation Friday night at 5:30 at First Baptist Church on Ripley St. Our prayers will become a part of the story. At least they will become a part of my story and how the Freedom Riders have shaped me.
In retrospect, it becomes hard for us to imagine the opposition of educated, supposedly civilized people to something as simple and innocent as having people of different races ride busses together. But, bus rides were important symbols of the segregated South. So were lunch counters, the voting booth, water fountains, department stores, public schools, and churches. Basically, every place in the South where whites and blacks could potentially come together had to be regulated and division had to be enforced. These symbols had to be protected because if segregation failed at even one point socially, it could potentially fail at every point, radically changing life in the South. The segregated South was a culture built on lies – lies about what life was all about, lies about what God expected of His people, and lies about how people different from one another were to be treated. Identity was based on outward expressions like the color of one’s skin, instead of matters of the heart and the content of a man’s character. When lies become accepted in society and even institutionalized in the Church, it is very difficult for people to see the truth. It often takes a traumatic event to wake people up to the falsehoods that they have believed and built their lives upon. One such event was about to take place.
After several days of negotiations and attempts at resuming the Freedom Rides, a Greyhound bus pulled out of the Birmingham bus station on Saturday morning, May 20. It appeared as though the police and state authorities in Alabama were finally willing to cooperate with the Kennedy administration in guaranteeing the safety of the Freedom Riders as they traveled to and arrived in Montgomery. It had been difficult to find a driver for the bus as the designated driver, Joe Caverno said that he had only one life to give and he didn’t want to give it to CORE or the NAACP. Finally, after pressure was placed on them by the Federal government, Greyhound provided a bus driver to take the Riders on to Montgomery, the Cradle of the Confederacy and a hot bed of Klan activity and racial division mirroring Birmingham.
As the Freedom Riders wound through the countryside on Highway 31, they were escorted by state highway patrol cars and a highway patrol plane flying overhead. There was a convoy of cars with them, full of FBI observers, detectives, and reporters ready to cover another national news story. Overall, the Riders felt relatively safe, as it seems that for the first time, things were beginning to go smoothly.
At 10:23 am, the bus pulled into the Greyhound Bus Station on Court Street. Expecting to find the terminal swarming with police for their protection, they were surprised to see few people there. But, in reality, as many as two hundred protestors were waiting in the shadows, ready to attack the Freedom Riders as soon as they emerged from the bus. This was all a setup. Public Safety Commissioner L.B. Sullivan was the man responsible for providing security for the Freedom Riders. He had promised Federal officials that he would do so and told them that the bus station would be full of police. Actually, he was aware of what was to come and pulled his police officers away from the bus station so that the growing mob led by Klansmen would be able to have their way with the defenseless Freedom Riders.
The Freedom Riders exited the bus to a throng of reporters waiting with television cameras and notepads. Just as the first reporters began to ask questions of John Lewis, the leader of the Riders at this point, a mob of “white men armed with lead pipes and baseball bats rushed toward them.” The mob began attacking the reporters first before turning on the Freedom Riders, who were holding hands and attempting to follow non-violent protocol. John Lewis explains what happened next:
Out of nowhere, from every direction, came people. White people. Men, women, and children. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. Out of alleys, out of side streets, around the corners of office buildings, they emerged from everywhere, from all directions, all at once, as if they’d been let out of a gate. To this day I don’t know where all those people came from.
They carried every makeshift weapon imaginable. Baseball bats, wooden boards, bricks, chains, tire irons, pipes, even garden tools – hoes and rakes. One group had women in front, their faces twisted in anger, screaming, “Git them niggers, GIT them niggers!” 
The crowd attacked, beating anyone that they could get ahold of. Some of their greatest fury was directed toward Jim Zwerg, a young white divinity student traveling in solidarity with the Freedom Riders. He bowed his head in prayer as the mob descended upon him. Zwerg attracted special attention from the mob because they could not believe that a white man would attach himself to black Freedom Riders trying to integrate the bus lines that ran through the segregated South. They saw this as a supreme act of racial betrayal and determined to give Zwerg a beating for it. As they beat him, screams of “filthy Communists, nigger lovers, you’re not going to integrate Montgomery!” could be heard from the crowd. Fred Leonard, one of the Riders said, “It was like those people in the mob were possessed. They couldn’t believe that there was a white man who would help us . . . It’s like they didn’t see the rest of us for about thirty seconds. They didn’t see us at all.” The beating of Zwerg became increasingly savage as the hate and rage of the crowd continued to be poured out on him. Another Rider, Lucretia Collins later said, “Some men held him while white women clawed his face with their nails. And they held up their little children – children who couldn’t have been more than a couple of years old – to claw his face. I had to turn my head because I just couldn’t watch it.”
The attack and beating of the Freedom Riders, including John Lewis, at the Greyhound Bus Station by a mob of several hundred whites continued uninterrupted for several minutes. The police stood by and did nothing, just like in Birmingham, although some said that the attack in Montgomery was worse. Eventually, the Freedom Riders were able to escape by running away or by jumping into cabs. Zwerg was transferred to St. Jude’s Catholic Hospital for treatment. But, the escape of the Freedom Riders did not deter the crowd. Gathering the Rider’s baggage, they constructed a bonfire in the middle of the street. Raymond Arsenault, in Freedom Riders, explains what happened next:
Sporadic violence continued for more than two hours as the mob broke up into small gangs that spread the mayhem into surrounding streets. Several parked cars were overturned and set ablaze, and less than a block from the terminal a band of whites assaulted two black bystanders – dousing one with kerosene and setting him on fire, and breaking the other’s leg. Both survived, but their attackers avoided arrest or even passing notice from the police.
All of this happened a block away from the historic, white, First Baptist Church of Montgomery. It happened in the same block as the Federal Building. The irony of this is that black and white people were beaten viciously for trying to live up to the ideals that this nation was founded on. Divinity students John Lewis and Jim Zwerg were beaten unconscious for trying to bring freedom to millions of people, Zwerg while he was kneeling in prayer. This happened in the Bible Belt South that was infused full of “Old Time Religion.” Readers might object to this connection saying that it was the Klan who initiated these attacks and good, Bible-believing Christians of the day should not be held responsible. Perhaps. And, it is true that many Christian people in Montgomery and Alabama later regretted the violence that took place. But, it is also true that the attitude of racial prejudice infected not just Klan meetings but also church services and in reality, the two groups were one in their opinions and attitudes, if not in their methods.
If the beatings at the bus station were the end of what happened in Montgomery that weekend, it might have slipped my notice, blending in with attacks that happened at lunch counters, restaurants, bus stations, and in city streets all over the South during those days. All of those things were horrible, but they were the manifestations of a system imploding on itself. Violence resulted because those in control wanted to keep control and protect their old way of life and those who were oppressed wanted freedom. It is an age-old story and while it is dramatic in the courage required to stand up to oppression, it is not a new story to anyone with even a smattering of knowledge of history. But, it was what happened next that drew my attention in ways that few things have. When I learned about what occured the next day in a city full of churches and Christians and Bibles and Sunday School classes, I was shocked enough to begin to think things through more clearly – including my religion and much of what I had been taught about the gospel, human life, how we see others, and social justice – and to begin to write this book. The stark division between the stated belief of a majority of inhabitants of a city in the American South in the early 1960’s and the behavior that was allowed was jarring enough to cause me to rethink much of what I had been taught about the “good old days” of American religious and cultural history.
How could THIS have happened in a city that claimed to know Jesus – even a little bit?
How could THIS have taken place in a city that claimed to be full of Christian virtue and righteousness?
Where did all of this anger come from and how could things have gotten so bad?
Finally, why wasn’t Jesus and His teachings a regulating force on the behavior of a mob of white Montgomerians gone mad?