Sunday, February 18, 2001

Through Spokane's eyes

A bumpy ride to freedom
In our latest special installment, we examine the Civil Rights movement's Freedom Riders and their lasting impact

Scott Sines
Managing editor

Mention the words "Freedom Riders" or "lunch counter sit-ins" and most people can identify them with the civil rights movement. Most people know the words, but they don't know the stories.

In the early 1960s, in a city that was 99 percent white and thousands of miles away, it must have been difficult for editors at The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle to recognize the momentum building behind the civil rights movement in the years immediately following the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott, which ended in 1956.

There were the "reds" in the Soviet Union, Cuba and organized labor to be reported. The success and promise of the space program transfixed the nation. And locally, the wrangling over changing the form of city government and the labor problems at Kaiser deserved prominent play in the newspapers.

So when four black students in Greensboro, N.C., were refused service at a "whites only" lunch counter, it didn't make the news in Spokane. In the early 1960s, the non-violent protests to end segregation in the South were mostly "inside the paper" news. Until the whites began beating the protesters bloody.

Throughout February, The Spokesman-Review is highlighting pivotal moments in the civil rights movement to celebrate Black History Month. On our Web site, www.spokesmanreview.com/civilrights, viewers will find a different kind of news experience as they hear the voices of people who lived that history. The site also includes additional photographs and links to other relevant Web sites. In the pages of the newspaper, readers will find essays, historic photographs and other items that help explain and explore moments in the history of the civil rights movement.

When the Montgomery bus boycott ended, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. predicted, "the Negro is in for a season of suffering." King was right.

The Greensboro black students who started the lunch counter sit-ins were heckled, humiliated and threatened. Still, they returned to the lunch counters every day to protest segregation. As word of their determination spread, so did the sit-ins, to more than 50 Southern cities.

In Spokane's two most popular lunch counters, at the Crescent Department Store and Newberry's, blacks and whites sat side by side. However, service was far from equal. Emelda and Manuel Brown of Spokane remember: "If there were other people there waiting to be served and some came after we had gotten there, we were always the last to be asked. In the South, you knew where you were. If a rock was thrown, the person didn't have to hide their hands. But here in Spokane, if a rock was thrown, they had to hide their hands. There was prejudice here. It may have been hidden, but it was here."

On Feb. 27, 1960 a gang of white teenagers attacked a group of sit-in students in Nashville, Tenn. The attackers went free and the sit-in students were arrested and held for trial. A black lawyer named Z. Alexander Looby agreed to defend the students. On April 18, Looby's home was bombed, but he pledged to continue the fight for desegregation. "When I can't do that, my time is ended," he said. The story of the bombing attack and Looby's comments appeared on page 2 of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. By the time sit-ins ended, more than 70,000 people had participated and over 3,000 had been arrested.

But, the "season of suffering" continued.

In the spring of 1961, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) decided to take the sit-ins on the road. Their tactic was to send interracial groups on bus rides through the South to test segregated public facilities on interstate routes. Their intent was to test a Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in those facilities and to measure President Kennedy's commitment to the civil rights movement.

When the Freedom Riders entered Alabama, angry whites attacked them. In Anniston their bus was firebombed, the tires slashed and the Freedom Riders were beaten. In Birmingham the Freedom Riders were attacked as local police stood and watched. In Montgomery the Freedom Riders were mauled and beaten bloody as they left the bus. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in U.S. marshals to restore order. Finally the story of the Freedom Riders appeared on the front pages of Spokane's newspapers. However, the focus was on federal intervention into a state matter more than the determination of the Freedom Riders to end segregation in the South.

On May 21, things got drastically worse in Montgomery.

A mob of angry whites had surrounded the First Baptist Church where a crowd gathered to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in support of the Freedom Riders. Angry whites pelted the church with bricks and bottles. In his address, King held Alabama Gov. John M. Patterson responsible for the violence and called for legislation to end segregation and prevent further violence against blacks. "We hear the familiar cry that morals cannot be legislated. This may be true, but behavior can be regulated. The law may not be able make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me," King said.

King's call for legislation was never printed in the local newspapers.

After the violence in Alabama, an editorial in The Spokesman-Review called for an investigation of CORE, suggesting that communists inspired the protests. An editorial in the Spokane Daily Chronicle blamed the Freedom Riders for bringing the violence on themselves.

Some things are simply wrong. Suggesting that a movement centered on human rights was a communist plot is one of them. Blaming the victims for the racially motivated attacks because they exercised their constitutional rights is another.

As Emelda Brown watched these injustices unfold on the nightly news, she said, "It was like someone shot a hole through my heart and I bled, knowing that my people and my race was fighting for something that should have been theirs to start with."

The Freedom Riders pressed on and were arrested when they arrived in Jackson, Miss. Many civil rights historians believe Attorney General Kennedy made a deal with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett: If there were no violence, Kennedy would withdraw the federal law officers and let the state handle the Freedom Riders. That theory seems validated by news reports in the local papers. The arrest of the Freedom Riders and the withdrawal of the federal marshals were both reported on the same day, on the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle.

The Freedom Riders were tried in Mississippi courts for violating local laws. They were sentenced and served time in the state penitentiary. Spokane's Manuel Brown admired the young people who fought the early civil rights battles. "They had a very important part in the way society is today. As I watched them, what they were going through, I wouldn't have been able to withstand what they did. It was a big step they made."

Newspapers are sometimes called the first rough draft of history. For that reason, the lessons of history are sometimes hard to discern, often overlooked.

But we can always go back and read between the lines to find the lessons.

The lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Riders teach us that, even in the face of incredible hatred, courage and determination can produce profound change. That profound change is often the sum of a bunch of little wins all stacked together. And, that nothing good comes without sacrifice.

"We will wear them down by our capacity to suffer," said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And history proved his words prophetic.

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