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Charles Sellers: From the Freedom Rides to the Free Speech Movement

Charles Sellers, Freedom Rider

While working on my book, I started to think about the connections between the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides with the Free Speech and anti-war movements that followed – all student-powered, often student-led, almost always at odds with if not in defiance of establishment allies. When I met Freedom Rider Charles Sellers, I met a literal connection between the Freedom Rides and the Free Speech movement.

Sellers was born in Charlotte, NC, in 1923, and arrived in Berkeley in 1958 to teach history at the university. There he was an active member of the local chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, which was very active protesting discrimination in jobs and housing. Three years later he went to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider. Three years after that, he was an early and significant player in the Free Speech movement, which erupted on the Berkeley campus in the fall of 1964.

In this excerpt from our interview, Sellers talks about Berkeley in late ’50s and his roll in the Free Speech movement.

After I got to Berkeley in 1958 I was very active in the chapter of CORE here. It was a very small but devoted band and we raised a lot of hell. We forced all the downtown businesses to hire blacks and sued landlords and [laughs] marched and demonstrated.

There were a few graduate students from the university involved. No faculty that I can recall. Much later, when the demonstrations got to be really big, some faculty came out. The CORE people were just ordinary people from undistinguished backgrounds, in secular terms. But they were just really good people who somehow felt it in their hearts that this was the right thing. We were a devoted little band of brothers and sisters out there for a while, changing the world.

At the time Berkeley, as compared to Chapel Hill, had much the same discrimination in housing and in hiring. But the etiquette of racist supremacy wasn’t enforced so overtly as in the South. There was a black attorney on the city council.

The strange thing about Berkeley when I first came here was it was a Republican town politically. The liberal Democrats were just fighting and getting substantial representation as a minority. The one black [Read more →]

Jackson Academy Honors Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Freedom Rider

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was a Freedom Rider from Arlington, VA. After the rides she stayed in Jackson, attending Tougaloo College and continuing to work in the movement. She participated in the famous May 1963 sit-in at the Woolworths lunch counter in downtown Jackson, which yielded a well-known photograph by Fred Blackwell.

Today she’s being honored in a performance by the band of Jackson Academy, a private school. Below is the story from Clarion-Ledger reporter Billy Watkins.

Jackson Academy’s three-song performance today at the Mississippi Private School Association’s state band competition will pump up the volume of history. The music, arranged by band director Bruce Carter and his 19-year-old son, Corey, is dedicated to Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a white civil rights activist who is the focal point of an iconic 1963 photograph taken by Fred Blackwell of the old Jackson Daily News.

“I’m blown away that (JA) would do this in honor of me,” says the soft-spoken Mulholland, who resides in Arlington, Va. “It sends chills down my spine.”

Mulholland, 19 at the time of the photo, is shown being surrounded by an angry mob of young white people during a sit-in at Woolworth’s soda fountain counter in downtown Jackson. She had been doused with mustard, ketchup, water, Coca-Cola, spray paint and a bounty of insults.

Pictured at the right is Annie Moody, an African-American student at Tougaloo College in Jackson. A streak of mustard and ketchup drips onto her forehead. Pictured at the left is John Salter, then a Tougaloo professor. He is covered in condiments and blood.

He had been hit with brass knuckles.

Mulholland, a Virginia native, was part of the Freedom Riders, who traveled South in 1961 to test the laws of desegregation on interstate buses.

She was charged with breach of peace and jailed for more than two months. A portion of her imprisonment was spent in a death row cell at the State Penitentiary in Parchman.

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Why ‘Kayo’ Hallinan Wasn’t a Freedom Rider

John Dolan, Freedom Rider

The Freedom Rides were a model of several management principles en vogue, at least until recently, in the new economy. The Riders were strategically nimble, adeptly abandoning their original destination of New Orleans to pursue “jail, no bail” in Jackson. They employed just-in-time inventory controls: within a day or two of their arrival in one of the three staging cities (Nashville, New Orleans and Montgomery), new Riders were assembled into smallish groups and sent on to Jackson. They also practiced very decentralized management, pushing out to the edges of the enterprise the responsibility to find Riders and raise travel funds.

Recruiting also meant screening: potential Riders were vetted especially for a commitment to practice nonviolence, as well as any political liabilities. John Dolan (above), then a student at Berkeley, California, recalls one candidate who didn’t make the cut.

Vincent Hallinan was a well-known activist lawyer in the ’30s and ’40s in San Francisco, a Communist, pretty open. He had six or seven sons, and he taught them all to box. I knew two of them–Kayo and Dynamite. Kayo was a couple of years ahead of me at Berkeley. He was a light-heavyweight boxing champ and very left-wing.

Kayo wanted to go on the Freedom Rides. Ed Blankenheim, one of the original Freedom Riders, came out to organize our group.  He didn’t want Kayo to go on a Freedom Ride. I said, well, you tell him, not me. He did, and Kayo was pretty upset.

We were scared stiff that we’d be Red-baited if the Communists joined. At that point in the United States if you found a Communist involved in something, the whole thing was smeared. So that was one thing. But the reason Ed told Kayo he couldn’t go was that Kayo had gotten into a fistfight on a peace march, which was true and was also a good reason for him not to go. I’m sure that even if he hadn’t been a Communist, Ed would have been reluctant to let him go. Kayo wasn’t really big, but he was big enough and he was a very good boxer.

Terence “Kayo” Hallinan served one term as the San Francisco DA in the ’90s. Previously he’d been a member of the city’s board of supervisors. Today he sits on the advisory board of NORML.

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