What the Freedom Riders thought about Bull Connor!


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.

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.
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.

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?


  1. Hmmm... Well, judging by the blogger who usually takes this space, who will often judge those whose work he dislikes as "terrible people," who seems to remember the hippies of the sixties as "devil worshippers" , who had raged endlessly at two tiresome but finally silly op ed writers for the NY Times as if their every dumb joke was a crime against humanity, I would have to say, NO, they were not correct in seeing some spark of humanity. On the other hand, said blogger does seem to extend this other cheek treatment when it comes to any and all right wing bullies, no matter how noxious their pronouncements, so perhaps the answer is YES

    1. The "devil worshippers" comment was obvious snark on Bob's part.

      But otherwise, I agree with you entirely. It's also beyond me that Bob doesn't grasp the difference between superficial friendliness and evilness of intent and action both. Even Hitler had friends.

    2. You said "Bob" doesn't grasp the difference between superficial friendliness and evilness of intent and action -- I'm trying to decide if there's any way to tell that you wouldn't willingly substitute "Dr. King" or "the Freedom Riders" just as casually.

    3. gyrfalccon, would you include those Freedom Riders in that summation too?

      Afterall, their faith in the basic humanity of their fellow citizens is what animated their conviction and persistence.

    4. Greg, please consider that this might be so precious and dear an example and a touchstone, that it renders such perspective-free sniping a coldcock to the soul.

    5. Actually, it is you who wish to view the post with no perspective.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Dear Blogger,

    Practice what you preach. Go find those sparks. Show us how to do it.

    1. He does nearly everyday in his decision not to cartoonish his political opponents into cartoon villains and to hold the argumentation if his fellows to the same standards he holds for opponents.

      Your beef is that he DoES do this, not that that he doesn't.

    2. Right on, CeceliaMc.
      You nailed it.

    3. CeceliaMe, I will attempt to treat your comment seriously, just this once. Nearly every day he renders those he dislikes on the left into cartoons and excuses the worst of the far right. In the case of the former, he will often misrepresent what they say, in the case of the latter, he will misrepresent or just plain ignore what they've said. This conforms nicely to your own dopey prejudices, so it's O.K. in your book. But it also allows to nail it, exactly wrong. If it's so precious and dear a touchstone, he would have to admit how often he himself falls short. He is a preacher, as I long ago pointed out. It's destroyed any ability to size up the events of the day. His shameless attempt to excuse Romney's class warfare, for instance, led him to mostly miscall the last election, which he managed to do along with most of the rest of the Press he supposedly hates so much.

    4. Greg,

      Could you give me an example of how TDH presents people on the left as cartoons? TDH"s shtick is to quote the actual words of people he contemns.

      Could you give me an example of TDH's misrepresentation of what those on the left say?

      Could you give me an example of the worst on the right that TDH excuses?

      Whose ability to size up the events of the day has TDH destroyed? Yours?

      Could you quote the blog in which TDH excused Romney's class warfare? On 9/18/12, he called Romney's 47 percent remarks "unfortunate" and "foolish."

      Could you quote the blog in which TDH "miscalled" the 2012 election? Assuming he did so, what do you think that implies?

  4. Bob,
    Everything is easy when you don't have to do it yourself. If someone tried to kill me, my children or my grandchildren, I would try to kill them.

    Apologies, but that is what I would try to do.
    I will not look for their "good" qualities.
    How "sympatico" they seem to be? I don't care.

    As the Old Testament says: Vengeance is mine.

    How could the Jews forgive the Germans?


    1. Er, Bob?

      Your text is faulty. Get a new one. What the Old Testament says is "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

      How could Jews forgive "the Germans"? I don't know, but perhaps by honoring some of their number at Yad Vashem.

    2. Forget that. Germany should look at Israel's treatment of Palestinians as "the highest form of flattery".

  5. That's OK Lionel. Bob loves you.

  6. Regarding Bull Connor and a spark of humanity - probably no less than in Al Sharpton or the Black Panthers or Kwame Kilpatrick, or Coleman Young, etc. etc. etc. I think Obama wanted to bomb Syria just to save face for himself so I'd say thats LESS humanity than Bull Connor and everyone who believes Obama wanted to bomb Syria to save his own face believes that. Eric "my people" Holder persecuting Zimmerman --- not much humanity in him, either.

    1. Lionel,

      Wasn't there something about nerve gas used in Syria? Nah. I'm sure it was all about Obama saving face. Didja know that Obama is black? Shocking isn't it? Now the White House is a high crime area.

      Speaking of facts that you're so fond of, George Zimmerman wasn't persecuted. He was prosecuted by the state of Florida. No federal charges have been brought against Zimmerman. Didja know that the AG is black too? Shocking, isn't it?

      By the way, have you met David in Cal?

    2. Lionel and David in Cal once popped a cap in the biggest baddest cow in a water buffalo herd over at the happy hunting grounds at Penn, and in the hushed silence that restored white cultural order, resumed their studies for Accounting 301.


    3. deadrat - And Clinton bombed the aspirin factory and killed a janitor --- less humanity than Bull Connor. (I put it in Democrat-Republican terms because it sure looks like the "civil rights era" is a partisan thing now.)

      Holder is persecuting Zimmerman. Name another local shooting incident that he's investigated AFTER a jury verdict. Let alone one that he sent investigators to waste taxpayer money on BEFORE a trial or an indictment. Local shooting incidents happen every day, many times a day.

      There is no proof that Assad or the Syrian government used chemical weapons per the United Nations and Obama doesn't want to show whatever it is he claims as proof. No, he'd just like to kill a few hundred people in Syria so the neocons won't criticize him. Bull Connor had more humanity than Barack Obama and its a fact now. If you were honest, you'd deal with that.

      Bull Connor's mentality was the same (though less bloodthirsty) as Samantha Power, Bill & Hillary Clinton, etc. etc. They all think its ok to sacrifice some innocents for a greater good. Look what Obama and crew did in Libya with their bombs, leave the country ruled by armed gangs. Certainly lots worse in Libya today than in the South under segregation in the 60s.

    4. Lionel,

      Whatever Bill Clinton did or didn't do and whatever his mental state was when he did or didn't do it is irrelevant to the judgment sensible people make about Bull Connor. Mostly because Bull Connor was operating before Clinton came to office.

      Likewise for Barack Obama's policy on Syria and his motivations for that policy.

      The DoJ investigates killings that might also be violations of a victim's civil rights. That's their job. The Rodney King case comes to mind. I'm sorry you think that kind of action is a waste of money. When Zimmerman faces a federal indictment, get back to me about "persecution." Until then, why not just save your sympathy for Bull Connor?

    5. There are shooting every day of the week and Holder ignores them but he's got a real bee in his bonnet about Zimmerman. If you believed in equal rights, that would bother you. Seems unlikely that Zimmerman will be charged with anything but who knows. The cruelty of narcissists like Holder and Obama is boundless.

      No, no, no. We are not obligated to let the Clintons and Obama off the hook for their murderous inhumanity!

      Thats whats so weird, people still running around like that person in the painting "The Scream" over Bull Connor when they know very well about all the horrors that dwarf water cannons and dogs. Dwarf them to insignificance.

      What kind of person still shrieks about water cannons and dogs 50 years ago when they know that a black man wanted to bomb Syria a couple weeks ago?

    6. Lionel,

      I'll repeat the question that's been asked of you before: does it hurt you to be this ignorant? If the answer is no, then that's too bad.

      Most shootings are not motivated by race, so the AG and the USAs have no jurisdiction. The FBI investigated Zimmerman and concluded there was no reliable evidence that race was a motive in the killing. The only one with a bee in his bonnet about this is you.

      All Presidents' actions in support of their foreign policy are open to examination. In case you missed it, this a blog entry about some events in American history. If you don't think these events are worth remembering, move on.

      I'm sure that black people everywhere are pleased to hear that the history of Jim Crow has been dwarfed into insignificance.

      You're the only one metaphorically shrieking about water cannons and dogs loosed on children 50 years ago. Other people think this is an episode worth remembering. If you don't think so, move on.

      It wasn't so much that a black man wanted to bomb the owners and deployers of nerve gas against children. It was the President of the United States. He happens to be black. Thanks for reminding us. This fact of race seems to have deep significance for you. Get help.

    7. Yes, the federal government wasted money investigating Zimmerman before the verdict and then Holder said after the verdict that he was going to investigate some more. You honestly think that if the FBI investigated EVERY shooting involving more than one race that they wouldn't come up with some shooters having friends and acquaintances who say the shooter said something that could be construed as having a racial something or other? Come on.

      They just don't waste money like that on local shooting incidents.

      Obama has no proof that Assad or the Syrian government did it or you would have enumerated it. Saying doesn't make it so. If you've read anything about the UN report, its got some weird quirks. Obama wants to bomb Syria the same way he has no compunction about droning little boys collecting firewood in Afghanistan. He'll go out and play a round of golf right afterwards or rent a house in Martha's Vineyard or Hawaii for $100,000 a week.

      Any rational person would put Obama on a much lower level regarding their "humanity" than Bull Connor. Honest question: Did Bull Connor kill any kids?

    8. Lionel,

      I'm sorry you think investigating racially-motivated crime is a waste of time. But that''s no surprise. No, I don't honestly think that the FBI would consider "friends' and acquaintances'" claims of a suspect's racist statements. These aren't admissible in court. You didn't know that? No surprise either.

      Is there proof that Assad used poison gas? Probably not. Is there evidence? Probably so. Your saying anything doesn't make it so either. What's the relevance to Bull Connor?

      That you think Obama is at a "lower level" on the humanity scale than Bull Connor? Third time a no surprise. Probably a charm.

    9. Lionel,
      I was going to write about how you're a shitty conservative if you care about the government wasting money (checkout their track record). Then I remembered, you're probably a great conservative because you are here making believe you give the tiniest shit about the government wasting money.
      Carry on with your schtick. It's a hoot.

  7. Lionel,

    Birmingham an Memphis are majority black cities. St. Louis is split evenly. Los Angeles is less than 10% black.

    So, those are the facts, but don't let them get in the way of your life-long prejudice. At least you meet "many" black people, who are not just nice, but "very nice."

    Is is worse to have the government involved in violent attacks on the citizenry? Probably doesn't matter that much to the victims.

    Were black southerners in 1960 more afraid than you'd be in a black neighborhood? History tells us they weren't afraid at all or at least they'd learned to conquer their fear. Your post tells us the opposite story.

  8. I went to this exhibit at the Metropolitan last winter http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/regarding-warhol
    One of the pieces was a big wall photo of the water cannons and the dogs and the cops and the black people from the 60's and it seemed so trite, really, that some artist thought dogs and water cannons was such a terrible thing (and we keep getting told that). In the same decade, the US was bombing Vietnam and 2 - 3 million Vietnamese died and oh, what horrors have happened since. Dogs on leashes and water cannons don't kill anyone but right now we have pat-themselves-on-the-back "humanitarians" like Samantha Power, etc. who love, love, love the idea of bombing people.

  9. OMB

    An excellent post and probing question. Just one small problem. Theo. Eugene "Bull" Connor
    was not the police chief of Birmingham, Alabama
    in 1961. But other than that BOB might be basically right in his recounting of the recounting of Taylor Branch.

    1. In 1961, Bull Connor was Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, which meant that the police chief reported to him.

    2. As did the Fire Chief.

      Bull was an elected official.

  10. And, of course, the deadly black riots in Detroit, Newark, etc. in the decade of the 60s were much, much worse than the dogs and water cannons.

  11. Well, then dogs and water cannons were OK.

    Who knew?

  12. deadrat,
    Maybe the dogs and water cannons were better than dropping bombs as Obama and the Clintons like so much???

    People who themselves believe in the use of maximum violence still tsk tsking about dogs and water cannons should tell you something: You are being gulled.

  13. Lionel,

    Maybe we should do something to stop people who use nerve gas on children. Maybe there's nothing effective we can do.

    People who still remember the American apartheid of Jim Crow think it's an episode in American history worth remembering.

    I hope you don't mind if I refuse to take a lesson on my gullibility from abyssal ignoramuses like you.

  14. You do know that Carla del Ponte, UN inspector, said the rebels used gas in March. You can look it up.

  15. Yeah, maybe so. Carla's got "strong, concrete suspicions." Her words. No evidence though. Not even her inspectors will back her up.

    This has to do with Jim Crow how?