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Freedom Rider Diary from Jackson City Jail

Joan Mulholland kept a diary of her time in the Jackson city jail. The jailed riders wore their own clothes in Jackson, and Mulholland was able to hide a pencil and several sheets of crumpled paper in the hem of her skirt. When she was transferred to Parchman, she had to wear prison-issue clothing, but on her release, when her clothes were returned to her, she found the diary safe and sound, still hidden in the hem of her garment.

Below is a scan and the transcript of the entry for June 10, 1961. Mulholland had been arrested two days before.

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Washed my hair. Dinner spaghetti with two little chunks of hot dogs & cornbread. Ugh! Ruth can’t take it and has been trying to call the lawyer. Lovely little article in yesterday’s paper about me. Wrote Paul but got it back. He’s bailed out and so has Frank.

This evening we sang a lot. Most girls did folk dancing, but since I’d just washed I didn’t want to get all sweaty. After dinner most of us changed to shorties. I think all the girls in here are gems but I feel more in common with the Negro girls & wish I was locked in with them instead of these atheist Yankees.

The jailer brought by two girls to look at us, including one he brought by last night. The boys have devotions twice a day. Sigh! When I grease up Emmy comes over to have some on her lips. Got paper tonight. Wrote Cecil – smuggled.

Almost as soon as the lights went out the singing started. The boys would sing some, and we’d sing some. A man named Charles (non-rider) has a beautiful voice and sang several solos. Someone further away sang “How Great Thou Art” for Betty. Some white guy kept cursing us out. One guy answered back a little and everyone sang louder. We quit around 11. It was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve ever had.

From the Holocaust to the Freedom Rides

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At least three of the Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 had managed to survive or escape the Holocaust as children.

Alex Weiss (above) was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1936, and emigrated with parents and sister in 1940.

In May 1940 they arrested my father. There was one line that said, “You’re going to the camps.” Another line, if you signed over your house, your possessions, your business, they would give you an exit visa. My father signed everything over, and the next day, he gathered me and my sister and my mother together but left his sisters and my grandmother there, because we only had exit visas for the immediate family. We got on a train to go to Trieste and had made arrangements to be on the Saturnia. I don’t know the exact details, but my aunts and my Grandma all stayed, and they all went to the camps and died. Well, there were two aunts that got out, but he had six sisters, and four of them didn’t make it.

The other thing that’s really traumatic that I remember is that after we got to Trieste, we were supposed to wait there for two weeks to get on the Saturnia, a passenger ship, to go to New York.

We were in a hotel room for those two weeks, and I remember we weren’t allowed to go out, because Trieste was full of Black Shirts and Gestapo and what have you. We only spoke German, but my father, who had traveled widely in Italy as a wine-press salesman, spoke fluent Italian and could pass as Italian. So he would go out. I remember I was climbing the walls, and my sister as well, she was only 2.

Finally my father said, “Okay, I’ll take you out and buy you an ice cream or whatever, but you cannot open your mouth and speak, because if you speak German, there might be somebody who notices that and figures we’re refugees and might send us back.”

I said, “I promise I won’t way a word.”

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An EZ Guide to sounding smart when talking about the Freedom Rides

Today nearly half of the 400-plus 1961 Freedom Riders are in Chicago taping Oprah. It airs next Wednesday, May 4, the 50th anniversary of the day the Rides began. The classic WGBH/PBS two-hour documentary airs on Monday, May 16.

If you’re a bit hazy on the details, here’s an EZ-FAQ to help you sound like you know what you’re talking about when all the hubub kicks into high gear.

Wow, Oprah?
Damn straight.

Wait, the Freedom Rides were . . .
In 1961, 400+ people were arrested for integrating bus and train stations and airports in the South.

I remember Freedom Summer, is that . . .
Freedom Summer came three years later, in 1964, when hundreds of college students went to Mississippi to work with local organizers on voter registration.

Is that when . . .
Yes, Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodmen were murdered outside Philadelphia, on June 21, 1964.

Were any Riders . . .
No Riders were killed.

Is there a cheap, easy irony here?
Yes, while the Rides were still going on, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with several leaders of the Rides and the Movement and offered support of various kinds if they would focus on voter registration instead of nonviolent direction action. The administration considered voter registration a safer alternative.

But weren’t the Riders attacked . . .
Yes, Klan mobs came very close to killing Riders in three vicious attacks in Alabama. In Anniston, they firebombed a bus, but the Riders managed to escape. At the stations In Birmingham and Montgomery, the police made themselves scarce and let the mobs attack the Riders on their arrival. Several Riders were severely wounded.

Were there any famous people on the Rides?
James Farmer, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Bernard LaFayette, James Lawson, Percy Sutton, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, Rev. C. T. Vivian . . .

Uh, were there any famous . . .
Time magazine cub reporter Calvin Trillin rode on the first bus of Riders into Jackson.

Who started the Rides?
James Farmer and his colleagues at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) created the Rides.

What was CORE’s elevator pitch?
A demonstration bus ride through the Deep South — Washington, DC, to New Orleans — integrating stations along the way in an attempt to draw some attention to the fact these stations were segregating in defiance of federal law.

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