Another outtake from my WaPo story on female Freedom Riders. Below, Catherine Burks Brooks expands on her conversation with notorious racist and Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor as he drove her and six other Riders to the Tennessee state line in the middle of the night of May 18. As Catherine explains, after the Riders were dropped off on a dark road and told to find their way back to Nashville, she told Connor, “We’ll see you back in Birmingham by high noon.” (She says she’d been watching a lot of cowboy movies at the time.)
You just didn’t do that, you understand. Bull wouldn’t have had a conversation with [a black person] for that long; it would have been hostile. But it was not. I supposed he had that type of conversation with me because I was a woman; I don’t think he would have had that type of conversation with one of the fellas in the car.
The author of The Children [the late David Halberstam] asked me how I could talk to Bull the way I talked to him. I had no real answer for him; it was just me. It was just natural. But later I thought about it — and I should have called him — [and realized] I had no fear of Bull. That’s why I could talk to him.
Catherine takes issue with Halberstam’s portrayal of her conversation with Bull as having “slight overtones of flirtation.”
Of course I was not flirting with him. No way between here and Timbuktu would I have been flirting with Bull Connor.
I gathered so much great material for my WaPo story on female Freedom Riders that I figured I should put some of the best outtakes on Tumblr. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was 19 when she was arrested on June 8, 1961. In the passages below, she sheds a little light on the involvement of Southern women vs. Northern women. (Joan is from Virginia.) She also elaborates on the vaginal searches she and other female Riders were subjected to once they were transferred to Mississippi’s Parchman Prison.
There weren’t many whites in the South who were openly involved in the movement because society was so against it. It was a good way to get run out of town. I remember with the sit-ins in North Carolina when I was at Duke University, girls in the dorm kept coming up and slipping us dollar bills to help out and express their moral support. But they couldn’t participate; they would endanger their families. Their daddies could lose their jobs.
I was a Southerner and already involved with the student movement and most of the black women were also Southern students, whereas most of the white women [had been] involved in sympathy pickets in the North. And in the mugshots, most of them look very freaked out and worn out. They were going into enemy territory and had no idea what to expect. They often had a hard time understanding the speech of the Southern demonstrators and officers, and they literally did not know what the food served them in jail was. [As for the rest of us], I wouldn’t quite say we were at home, but we knew what the score was and we understood the society. We didn’t like it but we understood it.
Joan was one of many women who were stripped naked by prison matrons and given vaginal searches with gloves dipped in Lysol or some other disinfectant.
We were stripped naked, given a shower and marched down to our cells with the [Parchman] gas chamber at the end of the cell block.
[One] Freedom Rider told me she had no memory of it but then she said ‘When I smell Lysol or Pine Sol that smell just gives me the chills.’ She felt she had suppressed the actual memory of the event but the smell brought it all back.
Another woman, a Jewish woman who is a little bit older than me, [told me] that the matron who was doing this was not comfortable doing it. But she couldn’t deal with coming back to the [Freedom Rider] reunion because it was so traumatic to be showered, stripped and searched, knowing that there were gas chambers at the end of the hall.
I think it’s important that our society realizes that this is not just folks in other parts of the world who do these sorts of things. It was psychological terrorism and intimidation, [a way of saying] ‘We are in control.’ I’m old enough now that I can talk about it calmly.
I gathered so much great material for my WaPo story on female Freedom Riders that I figured I should put some of the best outtakes on Tumblr. First up is Helen Singleton. For those who haven’t seen Eric Etheridge’s Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders, Helen’s mugshot adorns the cover of the book. The decision to put Helen on the cover was an inspired one, if only because her mugshot seems to communicate so much: Determination, amusement, strength…you name it. I asked Helen what she was thinking when the photograph was taken. Turns out, she was not amused.
I was sitting in the [Jackson, Mississippi] city jail and being alert to what was going on around me and I looked over my shoulder and there, on the wall, was a [police] recruitment poster. At the time I was living in Los Angeles and the LA police chief was William Parker; on that poster was a photo of Parker. He was recruiting these Mississippi policemen to come to Los Angeles to be on his force. That’s what I had just seen and then they called me in to have my picture taken. I was actually angry and amazed but not amused. But I didn’t want to let on what I was thinking; I didn’t want to start anything. Like I said, I was amazed but not amused.
I’ve read blogs about interpretations of [my facial expression]. People think I’m smiling; others ask, ‘What’s that smirk all about?’ These people don’t even know me, and they certainly never asked me.
It’s worth reading the linked Wikipedia page about Chief Parker.