Mississippi, U.S.A. — a 30-minute TV news report first aired 55 years ago — is a significant new addition to the visual history of the Freedom Rides, and a stark portrait of Jackson on the verge of great change.
The news report covered the arrival of the first Riders into Jackson on May 24, 1961. It was produced by WKY-TV, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City. I recently came across a link to it on Twitter; it’s been on YouTube for about 18 months, part of a collection of early TV news from WKY.
What makes Mississippi, U.S.A. so valuable? It has the first footage I’ve ever seen of the Riders at the Greyhound station in Jackson, and more footage than I’ve seen before of the Riders at the Trailways station.
Mississippi, U.S.A. also has interviews with several key players:
Medgar Evers, the state secretary of the NAACP
William Simmons, the head of the white Citizens’ Council in Mississippi
Charles Oldham, a civil-rights activist from St. Louis and the national chairman of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), which created the Rides
But wait, there’s still more:
footage I’ve never seen before of Gov. Ross Barnett at the press conference he held shortly after the Riders arrived
footage again that I’ve never seen before from the mass meeting at the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street held to support the Rides
a grim set of “man on the street” interviews — whites only, of course — none of whom thought the Rides were a good idea
Why was a local Oklahoma TV station in Jackson to cover the Rides? I don’t know yet. I do know that Scott Berner, one of the report’s producers, had worked in news at a TV station in Montgomery in the late 1950s, so presumably he would been aware of the movement and been paying attention as the Riders headed south from Washington, DC, in early May 1961.
As a piece of reporting, Mississippi, U.S.A. does a good job of showing and framing the moment. But it stumbles badly in trying to understand the status of the local movement. When William Simmons asserts that most blacks in Mississippi “prefer” segregation, the WKY team meekly concurs. “Outwardly they have shown little interest in the battle” for integration, the narrator intones, unable to imagine (or report) any other reason for the absence of sit-in protests in Jackson the year before, or for the fact that there were no Mississippians among the first 24 Riders to arrive in Jackson. (They would soon join in droves.)
Also, the WKY team doesn’t anticipate the flood of Riders soon to descend on Jackson, despite Charles Oldham clearly explaining CORE’s new plan to fill the city’s jails, and despite the fact that their own footage shows Riders from the third bus into Jackson, on May 28. (See Catherine Burks-Brooks, Etta Simpson and Clarence Wright, left to right, beginning at the 13:45 mark.)
The arrival of the third bus, four days after the first two, meant the Riders had abandoned their original destination of New Orleans in favor of “jail, no bail” in Jackson. But the WKY story doesn’t catch the shift in strategy (even though it does accurately report that most of the Riders had refused to bail out).
As a piece of early TV news, the WKY report is fascinating for its repeated use of “Dixie” as a soundtrack, especially during the several-minute montage showing the Riders at the two bus stations (from 10:10 to 14:28).
As TV, the WKY report is also notable for being shot by Houston Hall, who would go on to become one of the most respected cameraman in the trade. According to one poster at b-roll.net, a TV photography discussion site, “Houston Hall was perhaps the most solid shooter in the history of TV news and the man never zoomed. He just composed beautiful pictures.”
Another poster provides some of Hall’s backstory:
Houston Hall … when I started in the business that name was the equivalent of Babe Ruth in baseball. Houston was a rich kid from Oklahoma City who talked his parents into buying him a professional film camera when he was in his teens. He did some stringing and then was hired by WKY in Oklahoma City around 1960. I can’t prove this but I believe that Houston may be the inventor of the sequence as it applies to television news. He was (and is) a master of our craft and an artist to boot.
Thanks to Hall, Scott Berner and co-producer Gene Allen, we now have this incredible record of the Riders in Jackson. Their reporting and analytical shortcomings notwithstanding, this is a great addition to the history of the Freedom Rides, a wonderful gift on the campaign’s 55th anniversary.
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.
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.
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.
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.