Helen Singleton became a Freedom Rider because of her mother, and her childhood memories of family trips every summer in the 1940s from Philadelphia to her grandparents’ farm in Virginia.
“Mother would be up all night over a hot stove, cooking chicken, potato salad, rolls” to sustain eight children over a 14-hour trip along back roads where every restaurant, market and hotel was “whites only.”
“We could feel her exhaustion and the tension in the car,” Singleton recalled. “And when we got there, there was always some incident — stores we couldn’t go in because it’s not the right day for blacks to shop.... It marred the joy of our summer vacations. I carried that with me for a long time.”
For nigh on 20 years, in fact, she carried that memory of second-class citizenship. Then in 1961, Singleton and her husband, Robert, joined hundreds of college students — black and white, from every region of the country — on “freedom rides” through the Deep South.
The bus rides began in Washington, D.C., with a small group of civil rights activists. Seven were black and six were white. They boarded Greyhound buses in interracial pairs, shared seats and mingled in terminals at each stop.
It was a blatant challenge to Southern codes that mandated racial separatism. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared that segregation was unlawful in interstate travel, but federal officials had refused to enforce that precedent, fearful of political backlash.
The ride from D.C. to New Orleans was supposed to take 14 days. But in Alabama, jeering, violent mobs of whites firebombed the buses and attacked the riders as local law enforcement officers looked on. The wounded activists were forced to abandon their plan.
A group of Nashville college students stepped in, though, and that sparked a national swell of support on college campuses around the country.
In Los Angeles, 17 students — 10 white and seven black — traveled east as Freedom Riders. As head of UCLA’s chapter of the NAACP, Robert Singleton was in charge of recruitment.
“I had the names of 42 people,” he said. “But most of them got turned down by their parents. It was on the news back then every night — the beatings, the mobs, the fires.” He got his bus-full, and they flew to New Orleans, then boarded a train for Jackson, Miss.
The Freedom Ride movement tends to get short shrift in history books. There was no single big-name leader, no symbolic murdered martyr. It was an exercise in courage and cooperation by young people with nothing personal to gain and little in their backgrounds in common.
“We had white kids from wealthy families and black students whose moms and dads had migrated up from the South,” recalled Singleton, now a professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University. “Until then, we didn’t know what we could do. We came back from there empowered.”
They didn’t spend much time riding buses or mingling in terminals; they were hauled from the train and sent to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison, where they spent the next few months. “We could see the death chambers from our cells,” Helen Singleton said. “It dawns on you then what you have done.”
It took longer to dawn on them what their campaign had done for Los Angeles. There were no “whites only” signs or Jim Crow laws in the city. “But you couldn’t get a haircut in a barber shop in Westwood,” Robert recalled.
“When we came back from the Freedom Rides, we got a certain amount of respect on campus, from the chancellors and others who had ignored us. They began to cooperate, and we began to organize.”
The Freedom Riders’ efforts led to a raft of changes at UCLA and beyond — among them the integration of nearby all-white apartments and the introduction of ethnic studies courses on campus.
But the story of their struggle has been mothballed, a footnote in the saga of a civil rights movement that revolves around bright lights like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
That might change this spring, with the PBS release of a documentary that garnered praise at Sundance last year and was nominated this week by the Writers Guild of America as best documentary screenplay.
“Freedom Riders” by Stanley Nelson is a riveting look at the front lines of what Helen Singleton remembers as a “dangerous adventure” — the venom, the courage, the political maneuvers, the rifts in a splintering civil rights movement.”
The film will be shown, for free, next Saturday at the Culver City Senior Center, as part of the city’s celebration of King’s birthday.
In May, it will be televised on PBS, and 40 college students will be selected this month to accompany original Freedom Riders on a reenactment of the experience.
I watched it with my college student daughter this week. She aced her class in “Power to the People: Movements of the 1960s” last fall. But the movie’s piercing images of frightened college students, their faces bloodied by hate-filled mobs, turned the topic into more than classroom babble.
Her friends remember the exhilaration of their own foray into activism as street soldiers in the Obama campaign, with its promise of historic change.
They Tweeted and Facebooked and made phone calls, camped out on floors and went door-to-door.
And I can’t help but be grateful, as a mother now, how different are the front lines, then and now.
College students can apply to join this spring’s Freedom Ride at https://www.pbs.org/freedomriders. The deadline to apply is Jan. 17.