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Winonah Beamer, 1941-2018

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.

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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.