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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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.
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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Freedom Rider Mimi Real was arrested at the Trailways Station in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 21, 1961. At the time she was a sophomore at Swarthmore College. Today she lives in the Bay Area and works as an administrator in a private school.
We all gathered at the Montgomery [Alabama] bus station [on June 21]. There was some more excitement at the station because, of course, everybody knew who we were, and there was much scurrying around of law enforcement people. The first thing we learned was that there had been a bomb scare on the bus that we were supposed to get on. So the police had to come in and search the bus. And, of course, there wasn’t anything on the bus.
Then the other thing that happened – I can’t remember what order these things happened – is the bus driver, whose shift that was, showed up, realized what he was gonna be doing, and promptly turned around and went home. So there was additional delay, while they rounded up another driver.
Then we all got on the bus. The bus driver kept insisting that the whites all sit in the front and the blacks sit in the back. We refused and all sat in the back. This was a milk-run — the bus stopped at every little cow town in Alabama and Mississippi. The poor bus driver, I guess he figured he was stuck with us, but he sure wasn’t gonna get in any trouble. So he made it quite clear that we were not allowed to get off the bus.
We couldn’t go to the restroom. We couldn’t buy anything to eat. But we were fine with that. But then, in one of the many stops in the middle of nowhere, a lovely black man, probably in his 20s or early 30s, got on, and he had this huge picnic basket of food.
His mother or whoever he had just been visiting had packed it for him, knowing that he probably wasn’t gonna be able to go into any of these little bus stops along the way, and had packed him enough food to feed an army. And he got to chatting with us, and when he learned that we hadn’t anything to eat, he insisted on giving us his entire picnic basket.
So we feasted on fried chicken and all kinds of stuff. And included in this feast was a chocolate layer cake in this big cake box. We ate everything else, but we decided to save the cake. And I was somehow given the responsibility of holding onto the cake. Other than that, the bus ride was totally uneventful.
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