Should the Riders have thought that: In 1961, Bull Connor was the arch-segregationist police chief of Birmingham, Alabama.
He became famous in 1963 for his use of fire hoses and attack dogs during the demonstrations known as the “children’s crusade.” In his book Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch relates an incident involving Connor and a group of Freedom Riders from 1961.
According to Branch, a group of seven Freedom Riders thought they spied “sparks of humanity even in Connor” during a long, peculiar car ride in which he removed them, or tried to remove them, from the state of Alabama. Here’s our question for the day:
If Branch is right in that assessment, should these brilliant young Freedom Riders have imagined such a thing?
Here’s the background:
The first Freedom Ride was sponsored by CORE, which was based in New York. After suffering terrible beatings at several place in Alabama, this first group suspended their attempt to travel by bus all the way through to New Orleans.
Deciding that violence couldn’t be permitted to defeat non-violence, an unrelated group of students in Nashville decided to continue the ride. When they arrived in Birmingham, they were arrested by Connor and taken to jail.
Branch describes what happened after a two-day hunger strike by the jailed Freedom Riders:
BRANCH (page 436-437): Justice Department telephones were still ringing after midnight when notice arrived of Bull Connor’s miracle cure. His men were dragging the limp, protesting Freedom Riders out of their cells into unmarked police cars. Connor himself assured federal officials that no harm would come to them, saying that he was taking two reporters along as witnesses. His compromise, he said, would protect the Freedom Riders in a manner consistent with Alabama law and the opinions of Alabama voters. He was going to “escort” them personally through the state, under cover of darkness, and dump them into Tennessee...The crisis in Alabama was over. Connor laughed off a cautionary question from Washington about how he would justify the forced release of the Freedom Riders from his jail. “I just couldn’t stand their singing,” he said.Needless to say, Connor didn’t take the group to Nashville. They were unceremoniously dumped just over the Tennessee state line, in the middle of the night, in a situation which was potentially very situation.
Heading north on U. S. Highway 31, John Lewis sat behind Bull Connor in one of the police cars. His fears of police beatings, even a prearranged lynching, gradually receded as Katherine Burke, one of the more outspoken Freedom Riders, launched into a friendly conversation with her fearsome captor, offering to cook him breakfast and smother him with Christian kindness if he would accompany her back to Tennessee State in Nashville. Connor responded with good-natured yarns about how much he would appreciate her cooking. As the miles rolled by, the two of them settled into a rather jolly conversation, much to the wonder of Lewis and the others.
The story of how they proceeded from there is one of the many remarkable stories of the civil rights movement. But by page 438 in Branch’s book, the group is driving back to Birmingham, determined to continue their efforts in spite of the beatings administered to their predecessors and despite their jailing.
To make a very dramatic story short, they continued their ride from Birmingham, but were savagely beaten in Montgomery. Photos from that set of beatings moved worldwide on the wires, helping drive the story of the movement.
In the 2011 PBS special, Freedom Riders, Catherine Burks-Brooks, a superb raconteur, describes her conversation with Connor that night. (We can’t account for the spelling discrepancies.) Her account of their exchange is a bit cheekier than one might expect from reading Branch’s account.
For the transcript of the PBS program, just click this.
To watch this superb documentary, click here.
That said, we’re going to ask you a question today. If Branch’s account is basically right, were those brilliant young people correct to imagine that they might have spotted “sparks of humanity even in Connor” during that peculiar post-midnight car ride?
Would they have been right to think such a thing? Remember two points:
Remember what Dr. King said about the people who bombed his house on the night his house was bombed. Also remember this: the movement which said you must love the people who bomb your home is a movement which won, becoming famous all over the world in the process.
We must love them and make them know we love them! In such ways, Dr. King joined Gandhi and Mandela as the great moral voice of the twentieth century.
If Branch’s account is basically accurate, were those brilliant young people right in what they thought they saw? Should they have imagined that they spotted “sparks of humanity even in Connor?”
We think this eternal question is highly relevant today.
Branch's fuller account: Branch describes the situation as the Freedom Riders head back to Birmingham the next day. A driver had come from Nashville to take them back into the fight:
BRANCH (page 438): Dazed by fatigue, yet brimming with zealous optimism, they were consumed by the belief that the hatred of mobs could not prevail, having seen, after all, speaks of humanity even in Connor, the archracist. When they heard the first bulletins in which a white Alabama radio announcer declared with relief that the "so-called Freedom Riders" were gone, sent packing to Nashville by Bull Connor, a thrill shot through them...Before they got to Birmingham, they learned that they were again being hunted. Were these brilliant young people correct to think that they had spotted those sparks?