Fifty years ago this month, black and white Freedom Riders set out on buses for the South to challenge local segregation laws, particularly in bus terminals’ restaurants and waiting rooms. Their 1961 journey became a turning point in the civil rights movement when the activists were met with mob violence in Mississippi and Alabama, and images of the bitter attacks were widely aired on TV and in the press.
One of those riders was a 19-year-old white kid from Forest Hills, Queens, named Lew Zuchman. Now a Manhattan resident and still active in social-justice issues and civil-rights work, Zuchman is setting out today for Jackson, Mississippi, to reunite with his fellow Freedom Riders. We spoke with him about the historic journey and this year’s reunion.
Here’s our (edited) conversation.
Why did a teenager from Queens wind up heading to the South to challenge segregation?
It’s very personal. I wasn’t very political or intellectual when I was a young man. My father committed suicide when I was two and a half. One of my earliest memories was being in school, and the teacher would ask every student your name and what your father did for a living. And that was very painful for me.
There were only two other kids in my class who didn’t have fathers. One was black, African American, and one was black Puerto Rican, from an orphanage. And so, we bonded.
The other part was that when I was six, Jackie Robinson became my idol in life. I admired not just that he was a great baseball player, but that he had a great temper, and so did I. The first biography I read was his biography. He was a fighter, and he was court-martialed when he was in the Army, because he wouldn’t let people call him the n-word. I was so moved by his ability to put that aside while he was breaking the color line. It took years of him not fighting back. It took courage.
The last piece was that my grandmother was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant. She’d tell me eloquent stories about how difficult it was for Jewish immigrants when they arrived and how hard it was for black people. All were powerful pieces for me.
Why did you actually go when you did?
When I was 19, the first [Freedom Ride] bus was firebombed. The second bus that went to Montgomery, Alabama, was attacked by the KKK. There was this TV show on at the time called Open End, and one night I see Jackie Robinson is going to be on the show. And he’s there with Whitney Young of the Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and Hank Thomas, who was on that first bus. Hank is eloquently talking about how important it is that the rides continue, and that “we can’t back down to violence.” And Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins are advocating that maybe the trips aren’t such a good idea. I was sort of angry at them for saying that. And then Jackie Robinson, who was a Republican and somewhat reactionary, said, “You know what? This is Hank’s world, and if the young people are ready to stand up, who are we to tell them not to?”
The next day, I went to CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality] to sign up. Incidentally, Stokely Carmichael was signing up that day, too.
What was it like leaving on the bus from New York?
We were on the bus with regular passengers, and there were six of us. I was disappointed in CORE. It wasn’t very organized, and we weren’t supposed to sit together or recognize each other or draw attention to ourselves. The idea was to get arrested in Jackson [Mississippi], not before.
The trip was uneventful coming into the Memphis terminal. But one of the riders was a jerk. He got into an argument about race relations with two drunk merchant marines, and people are starting to suspect we are freedom riders. There were two sailors — white — I’d been talking to about sports, and we’d become friends. And they said, “Are you Freedom Riders?” I didn’t say anything, and they said, “We got your back.”
Then there was a black servicemember, and these drunk guys had started yelling, “Tell him we love you, nigger!” But he stayed under control. We came to the terminal, and the whites went to the white side and the blacks went to the black side, and this black servicemember came and sat next to me. People think we were heroes? It was people like him. I’ll never forget that moment. I was so proud of him.
He was not one of the planned Freedom Riders?
No. At that moment, he just chose to stand up, in a way that was so special.
So we got back on the bus and headed to Jackson, and these guys were yelling at us, “I’m going to have my brother-in-law down there lynch you motherfuckers.”
So we got into Jackson, and I went to the black seating areas, and the blacks went to the white seating area and were told to move on. Then we got arrested, and they took us to jail, and then to Parchman State Penitentiary.
Had you ever been arrested before?
Actually I had, but for bad things. I’d been a juvenile delinquent.
Were you afraid this time?
No. You know, it’s sort of like, when you’re young, you say, “This is the right thing to do,” and you do it. And you don’t reflect. People warn you, “You’ve got a criminal record, and you’ve already been arrested a couple of times, the last thing you need is to get arrested again.” I didn’t take it seriously, and for whatever reason, I wasn’t afraid of the violence.
How did your family react?
My mother was very angry. She wasn’t happy about this. I didn’t realize this right away, but I guess for my mother, my going down at that point was almost like I was committing suicide, like my father had. She wouldn’t talk to me about it. She died about six months after I came back. I think about it differently now. I’m not angry, but I feel bad that neither of us understood each other. Of course, we weren’t given a lot of love by anybody when we came back. Few said anything positive about what we’d done until much later.
After leaving New York, were you ever together with the other Freedom Riders? Did you ever bond?
We never talked to each other on the bus! And in jail, we’d be moved form place to place so much you really didn’t get to know anyone. The whites and the blacks were separated, of course, as were the men and the women. The prison system there was not built for an additional 400 people. They kept us on Death Row. The only time I got to know anyone was when they put us in a barracks at Parchman Penitentiary. But then they moved us back onto Death Row.
Did they make it clear to you that you were on Death Row? And what was that like?
Oh, yes. I was a juvenile delinquent kid, and I’d never been involved with intellectual people, or people who were political, so for me it was a bizarre experience. I didn’t relate well to most of the white people, who were mostly academic intellectuals. I related more to the blacks, some who were former gang members.
There was a lot of tension between us. A lot of the black riders hated the white riders. Not because we were white. CORE wanted us to be there to bear witness. We were there to get arrested, serve, and get out alive. They didn’t want us protesting prison conditions. Which were absolutely terrible. In the jail, the white guards would have a black [inmate] beat up the black Freedom Riders, in front of everyone. One black trustee, they called him “Blackie,” he was about 5-10, 250 and a monster! And the guards came in and said, “Blackie, beat up the black Freedom Riders, or we’ll lock you up for 10 more years!” And when he did, they told him he hadn’t beaten them hard enough!
Stokely [Carmichael] said, “That’s it! We’re not putting up with this shit. We have to fight!” But a lot of black ministers didn’t want us to, and a lot of white pastors didn’t want us to. There was a lot of tension over this between the black and white Freedom Riders in the jail, and that shocked me. I was naïve and a pure altruist, and the infighting and narcissism that followed were very confusing. It was interesting, but a little discouraging.
But when I got out, I stayed with black families, and that was a nice experience.
Overall, it was profound and transformative for me. It was the only time in my life when I’d really stood up and did something positive, rather than act out in an anti-social way. When I was in Jackson last November, during the kickoff of our reunion, Owen Brooks did an oral history of me. At the end, he said, “If you weren’t a Freedom Rider, you’d have been dead or in jail within five years.” That was true.
Over the years, have you kept in touch with any of the other riders?
Not until recently. After a while, it was like, “Did that ever really happen?” Three years ago, LaVaughn Brown, who was one of the youngest Freedom Riders — I was 19, and he was 17 — got in touch, and we’re close friends again. Seeing him, it was like no time had passed. Hank Thomas, I’d never met him until five months ago, and now we’re friends. I told him how special his appearance was on TV was for me, and he told me he was so poor then, his family didn’t even have a TV! But this reunion is going to be special. I’m so happy we’ve all connecting again.