I almost found Lula White the first time around. I was pretty sure she was living in or near New Haven, Connecticut, but I never could find the right phone number for her. That problem was solved when I spoke at the the New Haven Public Library in the fall of 2008. They told me they also had a Rider for the program, Lula White. Hello, nice to meet you. It was the first but not the last time I found a Rider that way.
Lula White was born in Eufaula, Alabama, in 1938, but she did not grow up there. At six she joined the great migration, moving with her family to New Haven, Connecticut, so her father could find better work (as he did in the factories of Armstrong Rubber and Winchester, among others). Like many Riders, she was raised in a tradition of protest: In high school, she went with her family to a rally at Yale in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
After high school — and this may be my favorite thing about her — White somehow managed to find a Baptist scholarship she used to go to the University of Chicago. Those two things don’t really go together, but off she went. By her senior year she was running the campus chapter of the NAACP and staging sympathy pickets in support of the sit-ins in the south (it was 1960). She was especially fascinated by what was happening in Nashville, so off she went again, a spring break road trip to the movement’s front lines.
In 1960, during my fourth year of college, my roommate and I went to Nashville, because we were reading about the sit-ins. It was just electrifying — the idea that people would actually just disobey the law, that people would just say, I’m not going to take it anymore, I’m just not going to live this way.
So we went down to Nashville and met a lot of people — Marion Barry, Diane Nash, Bernard LaFayette. We were very excited. It was during a truce, a temporary break-off of the sit-ins, while they negotiated with the local merchants. But we got to learn about nonviolence, and how they had organized these sit-ins. We stayed about 8 days.
It was very exciting, to know that people without power — ordinary people — could do something, something as simple as going in and sitting down. It was was just thrilling.
By the time of the Rides, the next year, White was teaching elementary school in Chicago and now a member of the more-aggressive CORE (the sponsor of the Rides). She waited until the school year ended, then off she went again, this time to get arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. The act itself was still thrilling, even if the Riders’ jail-no-bail strategy guaranteed full-on encounters with white power.
When we got to Parchmam, they did a body search. It was horrifying to me to have them take our clothes off, throw us on a table, and do a body cavity search. I don’t think I had ever been naked in front of a group of people before. Even in gym class in high school and college, girls, especially back then, we just didn’t run around naked.
I didn’t really know that was going to happen. I knew they were going to give us prison uniforms but I didn’t know that they were going to do the body search. I don’t even know if the man was a doctor. If any of the men in the room were. Someone just stuck — it was horrifying.
Other white-power performances were more nonsensical and less traumatic.
On different Sundays at Parchman we had religious people come in. We had a segregationist Baptist minister, white, who came. He walked up and down the cellblock, explaining why what we were doing was wrong and that God intended the races to be separate. He was talking about that business in the Bible about Noah’s son, Ham, being cursed — stuff I had heard all before, which I didn’t believe.
We didn’t listen to him. We weren’t rude, because we were taught not to be. And that was also in a time and age when people didn’t try to drown people out just because they didn’t want to hear something. But we weren’t paying him any attention. He only came once.
After the Rides, White returned to the University of Chicago for a masters in history, a course of study that included an on-campus arrest in 1962 while protesting housing discrimination at the university. In 1968 she returned to New Haven and taught history in public high schools there until she retired in 1996. Her on-going practice in “good trouble” included a week in jail during a teacher’s strike in 1975 and another arrest in 2002 during a sit-in at Yale in support of the union workers there.
The new edition features 16 additional Riders I found (or who found me) after the first edition came out in 2008. I was especially happy to add Jesse Davis, from Jackson, Mississippi. A number of the Riders arrested in Jackson were locals — from somewhere in the state — but as a group they proved more elusive when I first went looking for them, in the mid-2000s. I missed Davis even though he was hiding in plain site just 60 miles north of me, in Dutchess County, NY. I finally caught up with him for a new portrait and interview in 2016.
On the evening of July 9, 1961, Jesse Davis attended a mass meeting about the Freedom Rides in a Jackson, Mississippi, church. It was the moment he had been waiting for.
“I remember when I first heard about the North Carolina sit-ins [in February 1960]. I said, Man! When can something like that come to Jackson?”
Davis, who had just graduated from Lanier High School, knew that change in Mississippi was going to require something more substantial than individual action, no matter how brave.
“I was fearful for my mother, that if I acted independently, without support, I would end up like Emmett Till. And it was a great possibility that that would happen.”
In church that night, he found that “something like that” had finally come to Jackson.
Shortly after the Freedom Rides came to Jackson, I went down to Blair Methodist Church for a mass meeting. I heard, I think, James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette speak.
They were saying things like, You know, guys, If you want to change things in Mississippi, you’ve got to take an active role. There are other actions that we are going to have to take but this is the initial one. This is the Freedom Rides. Your governor, Ross Barnett, has said, “Our nigger citizens don’t want to be involved in this. They don’t care. They like the way they are living.”
I said, Woah! [Laughs.] I had heard that from Barnett before, but to hear an outsider repeat it. It was a call to duty.
When the meeting ended, Fred Clark took the leading role in our little group. He said, “Look, we have to go.”
I said, “Yes, we have to go, but I want to think about.”
He said, “No, we have to go now.”
So I got in the car with Fred, Joe Watts and some of the others, and we drove to the Trailways station and got arrested.
When I first walked into that church, I felt somewhat liberated. But when they put me in the paddy wagon, I felt like the chains had fallen off. I was thinking about verses in the Bible about the chains falling off, and I was feeling free.
Like many of the riders from Jackson, Davis went from his arrest at the Trailways station to Parchman and then back to the frontline. He worked in the Jackson Nonviolent Movement as a field secretary for SNCC and participated in a number of campaigns, including the Freedom Vote, a state-wide mock election held in the fall of 1963 to demonstrate that black Mississippians wanted to vote.
In the 1964 he spent two weeks training Freedom Summer volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, before they came to Mississippi, then spent the remainder of the year working in Greenville, Mississippi, on voter registration.
In 1968 Davis moved to Milwaukee to attend law school at Marquette, but instead got involved as an organizer in Father James Groppi’s fair-housing campaign. Two years later he moved to New York and began a career in social work. Until he retired in 2005, he was employed by various public agencies in New York and Connecticut, working with people across a range of needs, including neglected and abused children, the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, homeless families, and others. Even in retirement, he continued to work part-time as a social worker. He died in 2017.
Photographed September 27, 2016
Wappingers Falls, NY
Winonah Beamer was a Freedom Rider despite the fact that both her boyfriend and mother told her no, she couldn’t be one. But she was determined that way.
Her boyfriend said no, Mississippi was too dangerous for her, as he headed out the door to Jackson, a Freedom Rider en route to getting arrested. So he was quickly out of the way. Then her mom refused to sign the parental release CORE required for younger Riders. Beamer was 19. She sad she would forge her mother’s signature if she didn’t sign it. And that was done.
Beamer continued in her persistence even after she got herself arrested and sent to Parchman. After six weeks — the time at which all the other jail-no-bail Riders were bailing out (to preserve their appellate rights; it’s complicated) — she reused to bail out.
“With all the comings and goings, [Parchman] got to feel at times like a supermarket,” she told me in 2007. Yes, it was the first time I’d ever heard Mississippi’s infamous Delta prison described that way too.
So everyone else eventually left and Beamer stayed, the only person on her cellblock, the last Freedom Rider in Parchman. For three months: September, October and November. “They would let me out to take a shower, twice a week,” she said, “and I would run down to the other end [of the cellblock] and tag and run back. That was my exercise, because other than that I was in the little cell.”
“My feeling was there needed to be a small footnote, what the state of Mississippi was exacting in terms of a punishment for this misdemeanor. This is what it cost Winonah and Pat [Bryant, a black Rider] to go into a waiting room and sit down next to one another.”
“I am here,” Gandhi once wrote, “to . . . submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.”
“Actually,” Beamer told me, “if you don’t mind your own company it’s not a bad thing.”
Beamer was finally released on Christmas Day, 1961, after serving an additional month back in Jackson (again, it’s complicated). Waiting for her outside the jail was David Myers, the boyfriend who told her no. They took a bus back to Beamer’s home in Ohio and married the next year. In their careers, Winonah worked with adolescents and adults dealing with profound intellectual disabilities, and David worked as a news photographer and TV news reporter and producer. In 2002 they retired and moved to a home on the Manatee River in Ellenton, Fl.
Beamer died in March, at the age of 76.
Below is an excerpt of my 2007 interview with them, as it appears in the book.
❋ ❋ ❋
David Meyers: I read about the Freedom Ride before it started, about the planning of it. I followed it very closely in the papers. On Mother’s Day, May 14, I was home for the weekend in Indiana. That was the day of the Anniston bus burning. I watched that on TV with my parents, and we talked a little bit about it. May 24 was the day of the first arrest in Jackson. When I read about that, it really made me mad that they arrested people who peacefully go in a place and do nothing. The police had chased everybody away, there’s no one in there to have any trouble with.
That was the day [David] Fankhauser [another Rider] and I talked about it and I talked to my constitutional law professor, because we had just done Plessy v. Ferguson in constitutional law.
Winonah Beamer: I was not involved in activist politics the way David Fankhauser was, from the cradle. I was just responding to things that were going on. First there was the horrible bus burning. Then when I heard there was a way we could get there and something we could actually do, I wanted to go. But David [Myers] and David [Fankhauser] were just kind of — this was their thing, they were keeping it to themselves.
Myers: No, that wasn’t what it was. What it was, really, I told you, I read about these things all the time. I followed them closely and I knew what the dangers were. I had a feeling from the time I left the campus until I got back in Indiana several weeks later that I might not ever come back alive. At that time I could name you all the lynchings and—Mack Charles Parker was taken out of the jail he was in and found in the Pearl River tied up with barbed wire. I knew about all those things and I knew that there is no safe place in Mississippi.
Winonah and I had been good friends from the time we met in fall of ’59, her first week in college. [They were both students at Central State University, in Wilberforce, OH.] And one day in March ’61 I had a new Leica 500 millimeter lens. I was going out to take some pictures of birds and I was on my Harley-Davidson. I saw Winonah and I said, you want to go with me to the park to take some bird pictures? And she said yes and we started walking down the path and I just reached down and took her hand. And I held her hand and we just walked and walked and we never did take any pictures. And I told her that I had loved her since the first time I had ever seen her and I wanted to marry her. I told her all that that day. So I didn’t want her to go to some dangerous place like Mississippi.
Beamer: I wanted to go. And David said no, you can’t go. And I said, whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re not the boss of me. What is this, I can’t go? He and David had by that time met the people and made the contacts and knew how they were gonna get there. And I was excluded.
Myers: David [Fankhauser] and I went around campus collecting money from people. We got in touch with some people at Antioch, where there was a professor, a sociology professor, who knew Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. And he got us in touch with them and some Antioch students drove us to the airport. We flew first to Cincinnati, then to Atlanta, then to Montgomery. A minister met us at the airport and took us to Abernathy’s home on Thursday morning, May 25.
Because of the riots the night before, there were National Guardsmen all around Abernathy’s house with machine guns and placements behind sandbags and all that stuff. When we got in the house, seated on the couch watching TV, watching the news, in their pajamas with their plates on their laps eating breakfast, were William Sloane Coffin and Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King.
We spent a couple of days there, and then went to Jackson.
Beamer: I went to my mother because I was what, nineteen. And I wanted her to write and sign some kind of release thing that CORE really wanted, especially with young people. And so I was telling Mom and my brother, David, another David, came in and he had pictures from Look or Life, I can’t remember which, of the Anniston bombing, with the guy picking his teeth out of his bloody face and the bus burning behind him. And he said, Mom, look at this, this is what she’s talking about, Mom, listen.
And so Mother said oh, oh, oh, I don’t think so. No. No.
And I said, Mother, having gone to all these schools throughout my childhood and with a single-parent mom trying to orchestrate all of this, I have written many excuses and signed your name. I said, Mother, either you write it or I’ll write it. I’ve done it before. I can do it again. This isn’t gonna make a difference.
So, she did. She finally signed something. I don’t know what it was. But it was something that made CORE feel, like, it was a disclaimer if this child doesn’t come back, you said it was all right that she could go. So I went down to Jackson, with Pat Bryant and Heath Rush.
Myers: I was in the city jail in Jackson when Heath Rush walked in the day after their arrest and handed me a note from Winonah, saying she was across the street in the county jail. That was the first time I knew she wasn’t in Ohio.
Since then, I never told her that she could or couldn’t do something.
Most Freedom Riders bailed out at forty days, which allowed them to preserve their appellate rights. Beamer decided not to bail out and serve her entire four-month sentence.
Beamer: Some people left early, some people a little later, but they all left. We had more than enough people to do legally, whatever they were going to do. Plus, each person who bailed out cost CORE and not just in terms of money but in terms of effort and time and energy and so on.
With all the comings and goings, it got to feel at times like a supermarket. My feeling was there needed to be a small footnote, what the state of Mississippi was exacting in terms of a punishment for this misdemeanor. This is what it cost Winonah and Pat [Bryant] to go into a waiting room and sit down next to one another.
I think the last Freedom Rider bailed out in late summer or early fall. I stayed in maximum security at Parchman until November—
Myers: She spent September, October, and November as the only female prisoner there in a cell by herself and saw no one except prison guards.
Beamer: Actually, if you don’t mind your own company it’s not a bad thing.
It was a long row of cells, and I was in the front next to the showers, so when they would let me out to take a shower, twice a week, I would run down to the other end and tag and run back. That was my exercise, because other than that I was in the little cell.
Even though Freedom Riders were not allowed to work in prison, since Sunday was not a work day, the authorities decided that Sundays didn’t count against Beamer’s sentence.
Beamer: They added up a bunch of Sundays and stuck it on the end. I served December in the county jail in Jackson.
Myers: Winonah was going to be released the day after Christmas. I wanted somebody to be there to greet her when she got out. I didn’t have any money. And her mother didn’t have any money. She wasn’t going down there.
I went to a church I had spoken at earlier, the Trinity CME Church on Martindale Avenue in Indianapolis. And church was just letting out and I told the minister that I wanted to be there when Winonah got out and I didn’t have the money. He stopped two of the church elders and took them in his office and they came out and one of them said how much money do you need? I told him what I had, and said another $40 would give me all I need to get me down there and both of us back. He handed me $50.
I went down about two days before Christmas. There was an organization called the Jackson Nonviolent Movement out on Lynch Street. But they had kind of disbanded. I went out there and knocked and this guy answered the door. He was living in the back room. He was one of the guys that worked with them, and he didn’t have any place to stay. We slept in easy chairs and on the couch and crawled in and out of windows because we didn’t have keys to the door.
The house had a phone that would take incoming calls but you couldn’t make outgoing calls. Anyway, Jack [Young, the black attorney in Jackson who represented the Freedom Riders] called me on Christmas morning and told me to get down to the jail right away, Winonah was being released a day early. Took a cab down there; it was a black cab that I got in the black neighborhood, where we were staying. When we got ready to leave the jail, we got a white cab to take us back out there; he didn’t want to take us.
Beamer: I was just happy to be out and breathing free air. I had met my goal, I was done. We went to this little place that David spoke of and I got to take a bath for the first time in months. And we took a train back—
Myers: No, Greyhound—
Beamer: We took the Greyhound back. When we finally got to Dayton we took a cab from the Greyhound Station to where my mother was living at the time. And we were, I don’t know, about a quarter of a mile away from her house and we were watching the meter and as soon as it hit the thing, David says, stop. And we paid the guy and walked the rest of the way. We didn’t have quite enough to get home.
How do you tell if a Civil Rights activist is crazy?
Would it help to ask him, “Why do you believe in integration?” Or, “Do you feel like people are against you?”
Or maybe this question would do the trick. “Do you think I hate colored people any more than I hate northern Yankee bastards?”
About a year after his arrest in Jackson as a Freedom Rider (right), the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker was arrested in Shreveport, LA, at the Little Union Baptist Church.
It was the evening of June 8, 1962. Inside the church, Martin Luther King was speaking about voting rights. Outside, Walker was imploring the police to guard the rear of the church as well as the front. King and Walker had flown to Shreveport earlier in the day from Atlanta, despite a death threat against King if he came to town.
According to Walker, J. E. Downes, the Commissioner of Public Safety, refused to discuss any security details. “G’wan inside!” was all he would say. But Walker kept asking and soon enough Downes arrested him and Harry Blake, an SCLC associate. The charge? Loitering.
So far, so typical. Louisiana officials, however, were not always content with the standard misdemeanor charges for activists. Earlier in the year Baton Rouge had charged three SNCC organizers with “criminal anarchy” — trying to overthrow the state of Louisiana. Shreveport went a different way: they asked the Caddo Parish coroner to conduct a lunacy test.
The coroner, Dr. Stuart DeLee, explained to New York Times reporter Claude Sitton that Walker and Blake had to be examined for “mental competency” because they “had acted so peculiar about their arrest.”
Dr. DeLee said he did not know when he would have a decision. He explained that “sometimes you can tell at a glance that a person is psychotic, and then sometimes it takes considerable time to study a case.”
As it turned out, DeLee would need two rounds of questions. The first lasted about 40 minutes. According to an affidavit Walker wrote afterward (PDF), DeLee’s line of questioning went something like this:
Do you believe in integration?
Why do you believe in integration?
Have you always believed in integration?
How long have you believed in integration?
Did you serve in the military?
Why weren’t you called up?
If your country called you in the service, would you fight?
If you had the choice to defend the state of Georgia or the United States, which would you choose?
Are you nervous?
Have you ever been in a mental institution as a patient?
Do you feel people are against you?
Do you think I hate colored people any more than I hate northern Yankee bastards?
Are you a drinking man?
Have you had anything to drink tonight?
What do you think of the Freedom Riders?
Have you ever been a member of a party that was connected with the Communist Party?
Would you join the Communist Party?
What do you think of the reverse Freedom Riders?
Why do you say that the White Citizens Council is un-American?
Do you think I would take advantage of you?
Why do you say I’m a moderate segregationist?
You really do believe what you say, don’t you?
The first round ended inconclusively, at least for Delee. He said he “just couldn’t tell,” according to Walker’s affidavit. “Although,” Walker added, “I seemed to have all the answers.”
Of course he did. What’s harder to imagine is Walker having the patience to sit through the questions even once. On a second pass, he didn’t.
At approximately 3 P.M., my name was called and once again I confronted the coroner, Dr. DeLee. This time he seemed halting and confused as to what to ask. When I ignored a question that he had asked me the night before, he wanted to know what was wrong with me. I replied that I was tired of him playing games with me. He asked me what I meant. I answered by reminding him of our last change of words the night previous. He said he couldn’t remember. I had said to him that his attitude toward my mental competence would be exactly the same as it was on our initial meeting, no matter when he saw me again, tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. He flushed under my direct approach.
I then said to him that he was a part of the tragedy of the south. He knew what was right and couldn’t or wouldn’t do it; either because someone controlled him or because he lacked the courage. The fumble defense of his position prompted me to say I sympathized with him because he was caught up in the evil system (of segregation). He was sick, I asserted, and perhaps I should be questioning him. At this juncture, the examination abruptly ended.
Walker and Blake were out of jail by the end of the day.
Despite the new psychiatric angle, for King it was an all-too-familiar encounter. “The lesson of this account,” he wrote in article a few weeks later in the New York Amsterdam News, “is but to demonstrated once again the absurdity of the lengths to which the racist opposition will go to thwart the Freedom Movement in the South. Will they ever learn that is as vain as trying to hold back the tides of the sea?”