☞ Buy the new improved expanded paperback edition!

Letter from a Jackson Jail: John Moody (1931-2018)

John Moody died on Friday, December 14. He was a student at Howard University when he joined the Freedom Rides, one of six Howard students to do so. He was already a veteran of civil disobedience (AKA #GoodTrouble), as a member of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), which staged protests and sit-ins in and around Washington, DC. He rode on the second bus into Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24, 1961.

John Moody mug shot

Three days later Moody wrote a letter to his parents from the county jail in Jackson. It’s a beautiful letter of hope and determination and amazement: “It seems almost unbelievable that I could actually be in Mississippi.”

Moody knew the risks of being there, and also knew the importance of taking that risk. “People feared Mississippi because they feared what would happen. They feared the mobs. We feared too — at least I did. But we came anyway — that is the important thing.”

He came anyway because he had studied Gandhi and Thoreau, and he understood the opportunity Mississippi had given the Riders by arresting them: “We want to fill these jails to the rafters until the world can see and the people of Mississippi can see that it is much better to be behind bars for a cause than to be imprisoned mentally by a system so degrading as segregation.

Even in his closing, Moody stays on message: send more Riders to Jackson! 

“Tell Rev. Lewis, tell the church, tell it everywhere; & if the listeners can afford the time, tell them to come too.” 

Tell it everywhere about the life of John Moody. 

May 27, 1961
Dear Mother & Dad:

I suppose you have been reading the papers and you know what I am doing in Jackson, Mississippi. It seems almost unbelievable that I could actually be in Mississippi.

The trial was yesterday. Our lawyers were beautiful in their every word and action. They built up such a beautiful case that I did not believe even a Mississippi judge could do anything except acquit us. They dropped two of the charges which they originally charged us with; they were “inciting to riot” and “failure to obey an officer.” The lawyers tried to prove that the Mississippi national guard had us under arrest from the time we passed the Alabama border.

They (Alabama National Guard) escorted us from Dr. Harris’ to the bus station and then to the Miss. line. The escort was composed of 35 squad cars of city policemen 36 motorcycles and truck loads of national guardsmen. We left Ala. in two buses. I was on the second.

The treatment down here has been so humane that we are suspicious of their every motive. We have finally decided that these people are so conscious of the negative reputation that the word “Mississippi” carries, that they want to do something to change that. They know that our message will reach the corners of the earth and they know that it is they, not us, who are on trial. They just don’t know that they cannot win.

I think that this trip will shake the foundations of their belief in themselves and eventually their whole myth will crumble.

We are now in cells, 6 to a cell the white fellows (2) being in a cell on the end. We sing and sing and make up new songs. We exercise (calisthenics) and pray and read appropriate verses from the Bible.

We almost has a little trouble this morning. One of the officers here cursed C. T. Vivian, who is a minister from Nashville, Tenn. after he asked him to explain an order to “behave.” Imagine, telling grown people to behave — what does that mean? Does it mean not to talk loudly, not to sing or not to count as we do calisthenics?

These people actually believe that we are seeking publicity, that we are backed by NAACP & CORE! They do not believe that one can be deprived of freedom so long and that he can become so hungry for freedom and self expression that he would give his life or pay his own fare on a bus tour to Jackson, Mississippi. Before the “ride” these two were almost synonymous in the Black eyes of America. People feared Mississippi because they feared what would happen. They feared the mobs. We feared too — at least I did. But we came anyway — that is the important thing. This is one of the important things which I have been experiencing during the last year and what little I have done for the “movement” since then. I have grown inside. I am better for what I have done and the people with whom I have had the opportunity to associate my actions and my ideas. We find that we have much in common. Much of what we have in common is common because we have faced a common enemy from birth — segregation.

We must rid the world of this evil. We feel that we have Jim Crow on the ropes and if it takes a death to face him finally to the ground, then that death is well spent. I hope that will not be necessary, but I am reminded of Mohandas Ghandi [sic] and H. Thoreau, our own American who fought evil with the philosophy of non-violence as his weapon.

He was thrown in jail and was visited by his friend, Emerson. Emerson asked, “What are you doing? Why are you in jail?” Thoreau’s answer was simply, “Why are you outside.” This, I feel, is our message to the outside world. We want to fill these jails to the rafters until the world can see and the people of Mississippi can see that it is much better to be behind bars for a cause than to be imprisoned mentally by a system so degrading as segregation.

Say hello to everyone. I am fine and will be as far as I can see. If anyone asks, tell them that being in jail in Miss. is not the “hell” I thought it would be. I am praying that it remains this way, but if it doesn’t, we are prepared for that too.

Tell Rev. Lewis, tell the church, tell it everywhere; & if the listeners can afford the time, tell them to come too.

More later.

Love,
your son.

Moody’s letter is now part of the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

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

← Before After →