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Calvin Trillin: Riding the First Bus into Jackson

The first Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson, MS, forty-seven years ago today. Twelve Riders came on the first bus to the Trailways station. A second bus later the same day brought another fifteen Riders. The Mississippi segment of the rides — with its emphasis on “jail no bail” and goal of overloading Jackson’s city and county jails — had begun. It would not end for another 113 days, when the last group of riders, 15 Episcopal priests, were arrested on September 13.

In addition to the Riders, there were several reporters on the first bus, including Calvin Trillin, then a young reporter for Time. I interviewed him recently about that experience.

I went to work in Time‘s southern bureau in Atlanta in the fall of 1960, and I stayed there until the fall of ’61.

Nobody ever wanted to go there. The guy who hired me told me I was the first person who reacted favorably to the notion that I might go there. I thought it sounded great. I didn’t know much about it.

By pure chance and pure luck I was there during a very active time. I came just after Bobby Kennedy got Martin Luther King out of Reidsville [Prison, in Georgia], when the SNCC people had sort of pulled him along into the sit-in at Rich’s [an Atlanta department store].

All the Atlanta department store lunch counters shut down, and there was a boycott for the entire year I was there. A mass meeting every week. It was a running story. The sit-in movement basically integrated Nashville in those months. The New Orleans schools integrated. The University of Georgia integrated. And the Atlanta public schools integrated. And the Freedom Rides.

I think I was in Atlanta for six days in a row one time. I was young and I wasn’t married. I couldn’t understand why the bureau chief wanted to stay home with his wife and children rather than go get chased by rednecks somewhere. I thought it was just astonishing that he had made that decision.

I was absolutely fascinated the whole time. I did think that a year was about enough. Claude Sitton, who was The New York Times reporter in the south, was there — for what? — at least five years, maybe ten. I never knew how he did it. One of the ways he did it — and I learned a lot from him — was that he sort of detached himself from the story as much as he could.

He went on the Montgomery-to-Jackson leg of the Freedom Rides with me. That is, we sat next to each other. Claude had a real question about whether we should be on their bus, whether we were crossing the line by being on their bus.

My argument was: it’s a public bus. We have a right to be on the bus. I remember standing at the bus station with Claude. The bus was about to leave. I said, “You know, it’s a public bus, and we can buy tickets.”

I don’t mean it was a black-and-white argument. We were both thinking about it. And I certainly deferred to him on that sort of thing, because he had a very good sense of how to maintain some sort of journalistic detachment. I think that he didn’t let it chew him up. I had a lot of respect for him. Anyway, we decided. We said, “Okay.”

So we bought our tickets and got on the bus. There were a couple of rest stops before we got to Mississippi. That’s when [James] Lawson, who seemed to me the most mystical of all of them, would have these little press conferences outside the bus, standing in the exhaust fumes.

And then when we got to the Mississippi state line, several members of the Mississippi National Guard got on, led by a guy named Sonny Montgomery, who was maybe a colonel in the Mississippi National Guard, and later a congressman.

He said, “My orders are to take this bus to Jackson. And we’re going to Jackson. And that’s it. There’s going to be no stopping.” He was very crisp about it.

It wasn’t crazy. I remember later interviewing a white integrationist in Mississippi, who told me he was listening to the radio that day, waiting for the bus to be blown up. He thought somebody would blow it up.

So it wasn’t a crazy notion not to stop. It may have been a caution. I don’t mean that the people were that concerned about the Freedom Riders’ safety. But they didn’t want the blot on the state. [Laughs.]

I fell asleep at some point. Then Claude sort of gave me an elbow in the ribs. I woke up. And what had happened was that somebody really had to go to the bathroom. Somebody had asked for a stop.

Sonny Montgomery said, “My orders are to go to Jackson, and I’m going to Jackson.” And [Freedom Rider] C.T. Vivian made what I later called the most elegant request to leave the room I had ever heard.

It was — God, I still remember some of the language. He said, “What do you say to your children when you get home at night — what you’ve done that day? What do you say to your wife? What do you say to your God, if you have a God?”

That’s almost, I swear, direct quotes from that speech, which was what? Something like 45 years ago?

It was brilliant. There was a reporter on the bus from the Toronto Globe & Mail or the Toronto Star. I’m not sure. He was moved by the speech, as we all were, I have to say.

He started yelling at Sonny Montgomery to stop the bus. And Sitton said, “Sit down. It’s none of your business. You’re a reporter. You’re not here to argue with the National Guard.” And the guy sat down.

The Freedom Rider either wet his pants or held it or something, and we got to Jackson. Then at Jackson, the reporters were very carefully left alone, including a black reporter from the Amsterdam News. And the Freedom Riders were very politely arrested.

In that era, Mississippi was a place that could be controlled from the top. They could say there wouldn’t be any violence, and there wasn’t going to be any violence. I had done some stories in Mississippi.

Then it was either that day or the next day that I received my badge. There was a press conference, and the mayor gave police badges to everyone, and made us honorary members of the Jackson police.

Mississippi’s strategy then was to present itself as a completely peaceful place. They were actually sending people up to Chicago, saying, “You should relocate your factories here, because it’s totally peaceful.”

It sort of boggles the mind. The factory owner would have to believe that right now, today, it would be peaceful, with no blacks voting, no blacks coming into a restaurant or anything like that. You had to believe that segregation was eternal in order to go for that line. But, anyway, that’s what they did. And so they were very nice to the press.

Calvin Trillin, honorary Jackson policeman since 1961. Photographed May 7, 2008, in Manhattan.

3 Comments

Man, you’ve got to love some Calvin Trillin. Thanks for the great interview and photo.

Posted by darrelplant on 28 May 2008 @ 4pm

Calvin has written a book of poems about the Bush Admin that must be read. Maybe a second book by now. Very perceptive and funny.

Posted by Up Periscope on 13 June 2008 @ 9am

He seems like a funny and brilliant friend … maybe a little brother I never had…I was born and lived in KC, too. He was barely 7 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. I was almost 10. I understand what life was like there in that city at that time and beyond. He must have gone off to Yale at about the same time I went off (late) to KU. Those were different and amazing times for young and old. It shows.

Posted by Nina Maupin Postlethwaite on 19 August 2010 @ 10pm