Look inside the book | ☞ Buy it now!

Freedom Riders Return to Parchman

_MG_1555

On May 25, 2011, as part of a week-long commemoration in Mississippi of the 1961 Freedom Rides, many of the Riders who had been incarcerated in Parchman that summer returned to the prison and toured Unit 17, the maximum security building where they had been locked up.

_MG_1473

David Fankhauser

_MG_1435

In 1961 Unit 17 was also the site of death row and the gas chamber, which was located in the rooms off the main cell block to the right in the diagram above. Unit 17 no longer houses any prisoners, but inmates are still executed here, now by lethal injection.

_MG_1720

Bill Harbour

_MG_1697

Ellen Ziskind

_MG_1625

Larry Hunter

_MG_1595

Rick Sheviakov. In the background is David Baer, son of Rider Byron Baer, who was Sheviakov’s cellmate and died in 2007.

_MG_1676

Judith Frieze Wright

_MG_1797

Joy Reagon-Leonard

_MG_1450

Dion Diamond

_MG_1485

Dion Diamond

Dodie Smith-Simmons

Freedom Rider Dodie Smith-Simmons

In 1961 Dodie Smith-Simmons wanted to be a Freedom Rider. A native of New Orleans, she had joined the local youth chapter of the NAACP at age 15. Now she was 18, a member of CORE and a veteran of marches and sit-in. But instead of going to Jackson and getting arrested, she worked behind the lines. New Orleans was an important staging city for the campaign, a way-point for Riders coming from the west coast and elsewhere. Smith-Simmons and her CORE colleagues housed and fed the Riders on their arrival, trained them in nonviolence, then put them on trains and buses into Jackson.

When the federal government announced on September 22 that it would finally enforce the law, abolishing segregation in southern bus and train stations, it appeared that Smith-Simmons had lost her chance. But Mississippi provided nothing if not opportunities for Civil Rights activists. Many cities continued to segregate their stations, so New Orleans CORE began sending Riders back into Mississippi.

On November 29, 1961, Smith-Simmons and four others road a Greyhound bus to from New Orleans to McComb, Mississippi. On arrival they were denied entrance to the station’s waiting room due to a supposed gas leak. They returned a bit later and successfully integrated it, at which point they were attacked by a gang of whites and driven from the station. Claude Sitton, the New York Times reporter who had covered the Rides all summer, described the scene as a repeat “on a smaller scale [of] the riots that greeted Freedom Riders last May in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala.”

The Riders managed to escape without any help from the McComb police, who were nowhere to be found, or the FBI observers on hand, as always, to observe and nothing more. But if they were paying attention that day, they did get to see Dodie Smith-Simmons become a Freedom Rider.

Above, Dodie Smith-Simmons photographed outside the old bus station in McComb on April 16, 2012.

Southern Chivalry Is Not Dead

trumpauerMullhollandJoanMug-copy

If Virginia does mandate vaginal ultrasounds be performed on women who want abortions, it will join the ranks of seven other states that currently impose the procedure. Surprise, surprise, five of them are southern — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas — and the other two are southern wannabes — Arizona and Kansas.

But then of course the South does have a history of gouging the vaginas of women who break the rules. Freedom Rider Joan Mullholland (above) remembers her arrival at Parchman prison in the Mississippi delta one evening in the summer of 1961:

It was night, I think, when we got to Parchman — getting processed and a change of clothes and vaginal searches. The matrons would dip theirĀ  — as I recollect, it was gloved hands, but somebody else may remember it differently — they would dip ‘em into these buckets of whatever between gouging us up. It smelled like Lysol or Pine-Sol, one of those highly disinfectant things. It was all frightening. I think it was meant to impress the seriousness of our isolation and that they could do anything they wanted to.

← Before