50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Part II
Following the violence against the Freedom Riders on May 14th, 1961, the situation in Birmingham on the 15th became one of tension and stalemate. Fred Shuttlesworth, the 39 year old pastor of the Bethal Baptist Church in Birmingham and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), took charge of events. Headstrong, combative, and apparently fearless, Shuttlesworth had a decade of experience dealing with “Bull” Conner and the Birmingham police department. A survivor of several beatings, bomb explosions, and other threats, Shuttlesworth had vowed to “kill segregation or be killed by it.”Sheltering the bloodied and frightened Freedom Riders at his church, Shuttlesworth and his congregation were encouraged by an editorial in the Birmingham Post Herald on the 15th which concluded “to let gangs get away with what happened here yesterday not only will undermine respect for the law but will invite more serious trouble.” The mood brightened even more when Shuttlesworth received a call at 10:00 AM from Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy, alarmed by the national media coverage of the firebombing and beatings and hoping to diffuse the situation, promised to find a proper escort so that the ride could continue and asked Shuttlesworth and the riders to hold tight. He also gave Shuttlesworth his personal phone number in case additional Federal protection was needed.
However, by early afternoon with no indication from the Justice Department of a breakthrough in negotiations, the Freedom Riders decided to force the issue by returning to the Greyhound Bus depot. Finding an angry mob being restrained by the police, the riders and Shuttleworth made their way into the depot waiting room, only to be told that the 3:00 PM trip to Montgomery had been cancelled because the bus line had not been able to find a driver willing to risk additional violence. Shuttlesworth called the Attorney-General, explained the situation, and recommended that Kennedy call the Greyhound officials. At 3:15, the Attorney-General of the United States placed a call to George Cruit, manager of the Birmingham Greyhound station.
(Several copies of the transcript of the Kennedy/Cruit phone conversation were eventually made. One of these copies was sent to Raymond F. Shaffer, President of the Eastern Division of the Greyhound Bus Line, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961. This copy was recently donated to the Birmingham History Center by his son, Dr. Calvin Shaffer. It is now on exhibit at the History Center. To read a copy of the transcript go to the front page of our website at www.birminghamhistorycenter.org)
In the approximately five minute conversation, Kennedy asked Cruit why a driver could not be found, if an outside driver could drive the bus, and even if Cruit himself could drive the bus. He reminded Cruit that the Riders had purchased tickets and were entitled to a delivery of Greyhound services. Cruit explained that his drivers refused to make the trip, that no one else could handle a Greyhound bus, and that he could not drive the bus. Kennedy angrily ended the conversation by exclaiming, “somebody better get in the damn bus and get it going and get these people on their way.”
Eventually, unable to break the stalemate, the Freedom riders voted to fly to New Orleans from Birmingham to arrive in time for the celebration of the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. After another tension filled ride and wait at the Birmingham airport, the Freedom Riders boarded the plane, thus ending the first Freedom Ride. However, not wishing to admit defeat, civil rights activists eventually organized eight additional rides in 1961 resulting in more violence in Montgomery, Alabama and arrests in Jackson, Mississippi.