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A Birmingham Tableau


Photo by Tommy Langston: A Klan-led mob beats a Freedom Rider at the Birmingham Bus Station, May 14, 1961

Fifty-eight years ago today the Freedom Riders were attacked twice in Alabama, yielding two iconic images of the movement. First came the burning bus just outside Anniston, the result of a Klan firebomb. Later in the day, when another group of Riders arrived at the Birmingham bus station, Tommy Langston, a longtime PJ for the Birmingham Post-Herald, captured the beating of a Rider.  

It was the only photograph Langston could make that day before he too was attacked.       

“They grabbed the Rolleiflex and smashed the lens,” said Langston. “I had a Minolta around my neck, and they grabbed the strap and nearly choked me to death. I just hit the ground and tried to cover my face. I think one of them was swinging a chain, because it caught me right across the face and broke my glasses. Then they started kicking me in the ribs. I don’t know if they thought I was dead, but finally they stopped.”

The next day, this picture ran on the front pages of newspapers around the country and around the world. In 1961, in concert with similar photos, it inspired many of the Riders to join the campaign. Today it remains an instructive tableau of white violence and rage, and rewards close study.

Remembering Marvin Rich

by Dave Dennis

Marvin Rich, a longtime leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who was instrumental in organizing the Freedom Rides as well as later campaigns, died on December 29, 2018.

Marvin Rich and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, date unknown, courtesy of the CORE NYC archive

As a student at Washington University in St. Louis in 1946, Rich helped found a chapter of CORE and integrate the university. By 1961 he was working in CORE’s national office, in New York City. He later organized voting drives in the South with CORE and other organizations, and in 1973 helped found the National Coaltion Against Censorship

There’s precious little about Rich online, and as of yet no New York Times or Washington Post obituary. Below is a remembrance that Dave Dennis wrote in an email to friends and colleagues. It appears here with his permission. Dennis helped found the New Orleans chapter of CORE in 1960, was a Freedom Rider in 1961, and later, as a CORE field organizer, worked directly with Rich on campaigns in Louisiana and Mississippi, including Freedom Summer.

Both Marvin and Evie [Evelyn Rich, his wife, who survives him] played important roles in the Civil Rights Movement and both are part of that special group of people who made many sacrifices in the struggle for justice and made personal contributions which led to made major changes in the country.  
I met Marvin and Evie on my first trip to New York City in the summer of 1961. I was a Freedom Rider from the New Orleans chapter of CORE, and Marvin was the public-relations director for the national office of CORE, in New York. It was not only my first trip to New York but my first trip anywhere in the the north. I quickly found myself on the receiving-end of many jokes as the less experienced young man from the south. On my second trip to New York the following October, I wore a seersucker suit — it was 80 degrees in Louisiana but barely in the 30s in New York. That error is forever etched in my memory

Marvin took the time to teach me the “ropes” and guide me through the maze that was this new environment. He teamed me with Jerome Smith [another Freedom Rider from New Orleans CORE] to work with such people as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry to help raise funds to support the Freedom Rides and to recruit new Riders.

Evelyn and Marvin Rich in 2009, courtesy the Harlem CORE archive

Rich was always there when CORE field secretaries needed something from the national office — always there in time of need. He was our life line. He maintained contact with the national political leaders who were sympathetic to what we were doing. Although he was based in New York with the tremendous responsibility of raising funds to support CORE activities nationally and to manage all the important affairs of CORE, he made frequent visits to the South. On one of those trips to Mississippi in 1964, he was severely beaten as he observed a voter-registration demonstration in Holmes County.

After leaving CORE in 1965, I joined Marvin as part of his staff when he was the director of the Southern Education Defense Fund for Racial Equality (SEDFRE), which was initiating voter registration drives across the South. Marvin also made it possible for me to receive the necessary funds to return to college and complete my undergraduate and post-graduate work.  I will be forever grateful.

More important than his role in the movement was Marvin the family man. He and Evie were and are models of what love and family should be. Marvin was like a big brother to me. One of my most memorable moments with Marvin was when my wife and I visited Evie and Marvin a couple of years ago. Marvin was having some health problems and Evie informed us that Marvin might have problems remembering me. When we arrived at the door, Marvin gave me that great grin and hug and called my name. You never forget friendship and love. He has been and will always be my rock. Thanks, Evie, for sharing him with us

AP news story from June 5, 1961

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.

your son.

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

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