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Why I Rode: Henry Schwarzschild


Henry Schwarzschild was arrested with eight other Riders at the Trailways station in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 21, 1961. He was 35 years old. He died in 1996, at 70, several years before I started my project, so I never got to meet him, or even learn much about him.

But preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Rides in 2011, I came across his compelling answer to the single question most asked of the Riders: Why did you go?

I do not think that my participation in the Freedom Rides made an appreciable difference to the inevitably successful outcome of this struggle. Nor did I expect it to heal the wounds of which the white majority has for decades inflicted on the Negro. I went to the South in inadequate obedience to the Biblical demand “to do justly.” I went as a Jew who remembers the slavery of our forefathers in Egypt and who wants to obey the injunction to consider himself personally liberated from Egyptian slavery. I went as a Jew in response to the prophetic question “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel? said the Lord.” My participation in the Freedom Rides was an act of faith in the validity of a moral act. I went because I needed to go.

– From Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Guy and Candie Carawan.

Like at least two other Riders, Henry Schwarzschild was born in Europe and as a child fled with his family to the United States to escape World War II. Still, as Fred Powledge recounts in Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It, Schwarzschild’s early years must have seemed charmed:

Schwarzschild was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1925, to a family of Jewish intellectuals who traced their name back to the Frankfurt ghetto of 1425. He moved to Berlin in 1931. His home was filled with the comings and goings of politically, intellectually, and artistically active people. “Even as a young kid,” said Schwarzschild, “it was impossible to avoid being made enormously, prematurely conscious of the world around one.”

In 1939 he and his family fled to Paris, then to New York City. For the rest of his life, Schwarzschild said, he would be “very sensitive to issues of political liberty.”

In 1944, he went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for his Army basic training as well as his basic introduction to race relations in the deep south. During the sit-ins in 1960, he joined a picket line outside a five-and-dime in Lexington, Kentucky, and was soon in touch with the Congress of Racial Equality.

After the Rides, Schwarzschild remained active in the movement, working closely with SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1964 he started the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, which for six years sent lawyers south to help with civil rights cases.

Schwarzschild next turned his attention to the death penalty. He worked on the issue for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1972 to 1990, the last 15 years as the head of its Capital Punishment Project. In his 1996 obituary in the New York Times he was described as “the major architect” of the campaign to end executions in this country.

Read more about Schwarzschild: Wikipedia | New York Times obituary

James Bevel: “If you’re not going to respect policemen, you’re not going to be in the movement.”

A key organizer for King’s SCLC, James Bevel was one of the principal architects of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which put hundreds of school kids in the streets in 1963. One way or another he was also involved in most all the major campaigns in the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides, usually recruiting volunteers and educating them in nonviolence, as he did in Jackson during the Rides.

James Bevel rode on the first bus of Freedom Riders into Jackson in 1961. He quickly bailed out after his arrest and began recruiting local high school students to join the Rides.

James Bevel

In an interview for the documentary Eyes on the Prize, Bevel talked about the importance of respecting the police during demonstrations, even as they may be attacking the demonstrators. James DeVinney was a writer, director and producer of the series. The full, unedited transcript of the interview has been posted at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.

James Devinney: I have seen a photograph of you, Reverend Bevel, where you were using a policeman’s bullhorn to talk to some children because I think they started to misbehave one day. Could you tell us that story?

James Bevel: Yeah, that was the time I was referring to [in Birmingham]. We were coming off a demonstration and the police was driving the students back with water and dogs, and when we got back to the church a lot of their parents had come out to watch. The students was being playful and jovial and mocking the police, but the adults — upon seeing a lot of the students knocked down by the water and their clothes torn off by dogs — began to organize their guns and knives and bricks.

What I did, actually, was tell the students that they had to respect police officers, that their job was to help police and to keep order. That the police was there to keep order and that the people who was there throwing [things] was probably paid instigators, and therefore we had to watch them. And it was very effective. It started all the students to pointing at adults who had rocks and knives and guns, and then the adults had to start dropping them. Because it would’ve started a riot, and a riot would’ve gotten off the issue. The students was very aware of that, and the adults weren’t aware of that.

So what we did, we got the adults that day say, maybe nearly a thousand, to go into the church, and to go through the reasons why you don’t use violence. The fact that we were in control and that we were gaining because we were not using violence because the issues were being made clear. But that was like one of the spectacular events one time that this policeman with a bullhorn not knowing what to do with it to keep order, and I said, “Well, where’s Bull Connor?” And he said, “Well,” and he started looking for him. And I said, “Let me use your bullhorn.”

So he just gave it to me, and I said, “OK, get off the streets now. We’re not going to have violence. If you’re not going to respect policemen, you’re not going to be in the movement.”

And you know, it’s strange I guess for them. I’m with the police talking through their bullhorn and giving orders and everybody was obeying. It was like, it was wow! But what was at stake was the possibility of a riot and that, in a movement, once a riot break out, you have to stop, takes you four or five days to get re-established, and I was trying to avoid that kind of situation.

Judge Carlton Reeves: Resurrecting the Nightmarish Specter of Lynchings in Mississippi

Late one summer night in 2011 in Jackson, Mississippi, James Craig Anderson, an African-American, was set upon in a parking lot by ten white teenagers, beaten and murdered. The gruesome killing was recorded by security cameras, and all ten teenagers, now adults, have pled guilty to various charges. In their pleas they told the court that this incident was one of many trips into Jackson, which they called “Jafrica,” to beat up black people.

Yesterday in Jackson, the first three of the defendants to be sentenced in federal court received prison terms ranging from 5 to 50 years.

The three — Deryl Dedmon, Dylan Butler and John Rice — were sentenced by Federal district court judge Carlton Reeves. In his remarks from the bench, Reeves gave a unflinching account of the state’s violent past: “Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings.”

And he connected Anderson’s murder directly to that bloody history:

A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the City of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the Nigger hunts.

Reeves went on to contrast the state’s current criminal justice system with the past, when the system “operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call WHITE POWER.”

Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past . . . we move farther away from the abyss. . . . Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white; male and female, in this Mississippi, they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi’s inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today.

He closed with hopes for the victim’s mother and the defendants:

These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson. . . . The Court knows that James Anderson’s mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the Court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, Justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the Court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.

Reeves was appointed to the federal bench by Obama in 2010. He is the second African-American federal judge from Mississippi.

Below is his full statement, as prepared:

One of my former history professors, Dennis Mitchell, recently released a history book entitled, A New History of Mississippi. “Mississippi,” he says, “is a place and a state of mind. The name evokes strong reactions from those who live here and from those who do not, but who think they know something about its people and their past.” Because of its past, as described by Anthony Walton in his book, Mississippi: An American Journey, Mississippi “can be considered one of the most prominent scars on the map” of these United States. Walton goes on to explain that “there is something different about Mississippi; something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest.” To prove his point, he notes that, “[o]f the 40 martyrs whose names are inscribed in the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL, 19 were killed in Mississippi.” “How was it,” Walton asks, “that half who died did so in one state?” — My Mississippi, Your Mississippi and Our Mississippi.

Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent, prominent and participatory. A lynching was a public ritual — even carnival-like — within many states in our great nation. While other States engaged in these atrocities, those in the deep south took a leadership role, especially that scar on the map of America — those 82 counties between the Tennessee line and the Gulf of Mexico and bordered by Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.

Vivid accounts of brutal and terrifying lynchings in Mississippi are chronicled in various sources: Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynching and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, just to name two. But I note that today, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America: Confronting the Terror of of Racial Terror; apparently, it too is a must-read.

In Without Sanctuary, historian Leon Litwack writes that between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 Blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs.1 The impact this campaign of terror had on black families is impossible to explain so many years later. That number contrasts with the 1,401 prisoners who have been executed legally in the United States since 1976.2 In modern terms, that number represents more than those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom3 and more than twice the number of American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom4 — the Afghanistan conflict. Turning to home, this number also represents 1,700 more than who were killed on 9/11.5 Those who died at the hands of mobs, Litwack notes, some were the victims of “legal” lynchings — having been accused of a crime, subjected to a “speedy” trial and even speedier execution. Some were victims of private white violence and some were merely the victims of “Nigger hunts” — murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers and creeks. “Back in those days,” according to black Mississippians describing the violence of the 1930’s, “to kill a Negro wasn’t nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake. The whites would say, ‘Niggers jest supposed to die, ain’t no damn good anyway — so jest go an’ kill ’em.’ . . . They had to have a license to kill anything but a Nigger. We was always in season.”6 Said one white Mississippian, “A white man ain’t a-going to be able to live in this country if we let niggers start getting biggity.”7 And, even when lynchings had decreased in and around Oxford, one white resident told a visitor of the reaffirming quality of lynchings: “It’s about time to have another [one],” he explained, “[w]hen the niggers get so that they are afraid of being lynched, it is time to put the fear in them.”8

How could hate, fear or whatever it was that transformed genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers? I ask that same question about the events which bring us together on this day. Those crimes of the past as well as these have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great State.

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