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Lula White: “The idea that people would actually just disobey the law was electrifying.”

I almost found Lula White the first time around. I was pretty sure she was living in or near New Haven, Connecticut, but I never could find the right phone number for her. That problem was solved when I spoke at the the New Haven Public Library in the fall of 2008. They told me they also had a Rider for the program, Lula White. Hello, nice to meet you. It was the first but not the last time I found a Rider that way.

Lula White was born in Eufaula, Alabama, in 1938, but she did not grow up there. At six she joined the great migration, moving with her family to New Haven, Connecticut, so her father could find better work (as he did in the factories of Armstrong Rubber and Winchester, among others). Like many Riders, she was raised in a tradition of protest: In high school, she went with her family to a rally at Yale in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

After high school — and this may be my favorite thing about her — White somehow managed to find a Baptist scholarship she used to go to the University of Chicago. Those two things don’t really go together, but off she went. By her senior year she was running the campus chapter of the NAACP and staging sympathy pickets in support of the sit-ins in the south (it was 1960). She was especially fascinated by what was happening in Nashville, so off she went again, a spring break road trip to the movement’s front lines.

In 1960, during my fourth year of college, my roommate and I went to Nashville, because we were reading about the sit-ins. It was just electrifying — the idea that people would actually just disobey the law, that people would just say, I’m not going to take it anymore, I’m just not going to live this way.

So we went down to Nashville and met a lot of people — Marion Barry, Diane Nash, Bernard LaFayette. We were very excited. It was during a truce, a temporary break-off of the sit-ins, while they negotiated with the local merchants. But we got to learn about nonviolence, and how they had organized these sit-ins. We stayed about 8 days.

It was very exciting, to know that people without power — ordinary people — could do something, something as simple as going in and sitting down. It was was just thrilling.

By the time of the Rides, the next year, White was teaching elementary school in Chicago and now a member of the more-aggressive CORE (the sponsor of the Rides). She waited until the school year ended, then off she went again, this time to get arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. The act itself was still thrilling, even if the Riders’ jail-no-bail strategy guaranteed full-on encounters with white power.

When we got to Parchmam, they did a body search. It was horrifying to me to have them take our clothes off, throw us on a table, and do a body cavity search. I don’t think I had ever been naked in front of a group of people before. Even in gym class in high school and college, girls, especially back then, we just didn’t run around naked.

I didn’t really know that was going to happen. I knew they were going to give us prison uniforms but I didn’t know that they were going to do the body search. I don’t even know if the man was a doctor. If any of the men in the room were. Someone just stuck — it was horrifying.

Other white-power performances were more nonsensical and less traumatic.

On different Sundays at Parchman we had religious people come in. We had a segregationist Baptist minister, white, who came. He walked up and down the cellblock, explaining why what we were doing was wrong and that God intended the races to be separate. He was talking about that business in the Bible about Noah’s son, Ham, being cursed — stuff I had heard all before, which I didn’t believe.

We didn’t listen to him. We weren’t rude, because we were taught not to be. And that was also in a time and age when people didn’t try to drown people out just because they didn’t want to hear something. But we weren’t paying him any attention. He only came once.

After the Rides, White returned to the University of Chicago for a masters in history, a course of study that included an on-campus arrest in 1962 while protesting housing discrimination at the university. In 1968 she returned to New Haven and taught history in public high schools there until she retired in 1996. Her on-going practice in “good trouble” included a week in jail during a teacher’s strike in 1975 and another arrest in 2002 during a sit-in at Yale in support of the union workers there.

Jesse Davis: “I Was Feeling Free.”

The new edition features 16 additional Riders I found (or who found me) after the first edition came out in 2008. I was especially happy to add Jesse Davis, from Jackson, Mississippi. A number of the Riders arrested in Jackson were locals — from somewhere in the state — but as a group they proved more elusive when I first went looking for them, in the mid-2000s. I missed Davis even though he was hiding in plain site just 60 miles north of me, in Dutchess County, NY. I finally caught up with him for a new portrait and interview in 2016.

On the evening of July 9, 1961, Jesse Davis attended a mass meeting about the Freedom Rides in a Jackson, Mississippi, church. It was the moment he had been waiting for.

“I remember when I first heard about the North Carolina sit-ins [in February 1960]. I said, Man! When can something like that come to Jackson?”

Davis, who had just graduated from Lanier High School, knew that change in Mississippi was going to require something more substantial than individual action, no matter how brave.

“I was fearful for my mother, that if I acted independently, without support, I would end up like Emmett Till. And it was a great possibility that that would happen.”

In church that night, he found that “something like that” had finally come to Jackson.

Shortly after the Freedom Rides came to Jackson, I went down to Blair Methodist Church for a mass meeting. I heard, I think, James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette speak.

They were saying things like, You know, guys, If you want to change things in Mississippi, you’ve got to take an active role. There are other actions that we are going to have to take but this is the initial one. This is the Freedom Rides. Your governor, Ross Barnett, has said, “Our nigger citizens don’t want to be involved in this. They don’t care. They like the way they are living.”

I said, Woah! [Laughs.] I had heard that from Barnett before, but to hear an outsider repeat it. It was a call to duty.

When the meeting ended, Fred Clark took the leading role in our little group. He said, “Look, we have to go.”

I said, “Yes, we have to go, but I want to think about.”

He said, “No, we have to go now.”

So I got in the car with Fred, Joe Watts and some of the others, and we drove to the Trailways station and got arrested.

When I first walked into that church, I felt somewhat liberated. But when they put me in the paddy wagon, I felt like the chains had fallen off. I was thinking about verses in the Bible about the chains falling off, and I was feeling free.

Like many of the riders from Jackson, Davis went from his arrest at the Trailways station to Parchman and then back to the frontline. He worked in the Jackson Nonviolent Movement as a field secretary for SNCC and participated in a number of campaigns, including the Freedom Vote, a state-wide mock election held in the fall of 1963 to demonstrate that black Mississippians wanted to vote.

In the 1964 he spent two weeks training Freedom Summer volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, before they came to Mississippi, then spent the remainder of the year working in Greenville, Mississippi, on voter registration.

In 1968 Davis moved to Milwaukee to attend law school at Marquette, but instead got involved as an organizer in Father James Groppi’s fair-housing campaign. Two years later he moved to New York and began a career in social work. Until he retired in 2005, he was employed by various public agencies in New York and Connecticut, working with people across a range of needs, including neglected and abused children, the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, homeless families, and others. Even in retirement, he continued to work part-time as a social worker. He died in 2017.

Photographed September 27, 2016
Wappingers Falls, NY
Age: 75

NOW SHIPPING! New & Improved ‘Breach of Peace’


Updated August 28, 2018

I’m thrilled to announce that Vanderbilt University Press has published an expanded edition of Breach of Peace in paperback. They’ve let me add new portraits and profiles of sixteen Riders I found — or who found me — after the original edition was published in 2008. I’ve also updated the profiles of the original eighty-two featured Riders.

We’ll have printed copies in hand . . . real soon. Ish. For sure. now! In the meantime, the book’s already generating press: “50 Years After Their Mug Shots, Portraits of Mississippi’s Freedom Riders,” on the Lens Blog at the New York Times.

On the new cover is Catherine Burks-Brooks, a Rider born in Alabama, a student at Tennessee State in 1961 and a member of the Nashville Student Movement. Burks-Brooks was part of the group that quickly went to Birmingham to keep the Rides going after the violent attacks in Anniston and Birmingham.

Order your copy today.


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