Kentucky, arguably the Union’s most-needed state, and Tennessee, arguably the Confederacy’s, shared a 250-mile border across the heart of the central South. But their similarities were deceptive.
The Bluegrass was more dependent on trade with Cincinnati and other northern cities. It was more willing to debate the advantages and disadvantages of slavery. And it tolerated more dissent than its Volunteer neighbor to the south.
The two states’ political traditions differed starkly. Kentucky’s antebellum history was dominated by The Great Compromiser, smooth (some said slick) U.S. Senator Henry Clay. Tennessee, by contrast, revered the image of its forthright man of action, Andrew Jackson, who hated Clay.
In 1861, Clay and Jackson were dead, but not in spirit. Tennesseans were ready to take a stand in the 1861 troubles–initially Jackson-like, strongly for the Union–while Kentucky, with a secessionist governor and a unionist legislature, was blood-bound to seek a way out for both itself and the nation.
Governor Beriah Magoffin rebuffed both Abraham Lincoln’s and Jefferson Davis’s calls for troops, but his message to Lincoln was sharper: “I say emphatically that Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern States.”
Then Kentucky’s compromising nature asserted itself. On May 16, the lower house of the legislature, independent of the governor or the state senate, voted 69-29 that the state should declare itself neutral. Four days later, Magoffin adopted that policy as the best temporarily obtainable. Four days after that, on May 24, the state senate passed a similar resolution.
Then Magoffin overstepped. He quietly let Confederate recruiting agents into the state and supported arming the 5,000 men of the secessionist-leaning state militia. The legislature countered, relieving Magoffin of control of the militia and putting the militia–headed by West Point-trained Simon Buckner–under a legislature-controlled board.
President Lincoln bided his time. Reversing the course he took in Maryland, he temporarily forgot the federal right to march troops into and across any state. He also did not attempt to stop a thriving trade by which Bluegrass merchants enriched themselves sending horseflesh, foodstuffs, salt, and other war-making aids southward.
Lincoln did, though, counteract the militia. He covertly sent 5,000 muskets into Kentucky to a developing unionist “home guard.” This effort was headed up by a Kentuckian, strapping U. S. naval officer William (Bull) Nelson.
Tennessee was more bellicose. In late April, secessionist Gov. Isham G. Harris called a secret session of the legislature, invited a representative of the Confederacy to speak to it, and pushed through a measure creating a state provisional army. Ebullient South Carolinians calling themselves Minute Men had entered Tennessee as early as the previous autumn on the eve of the presidential election.
Harris shrewdly sidestepped the controversial right of secession. On May 6, the governor instead invoked the right of revolt asserted in 1776. He engineered passage of a state “declaration of independence” from the Union and, the next day, a measure to enter into a “military league” with the Confederacy. These measures were made public, and a statewide referendum on secession was scheduled for June 8.
Newspaper buyers in northern Kentucky meanwhile read frightening reports from Tennessee. Minute Men and other zealots in the state’s central and western sections demanded that citizens vote for the Confederacy in the coming referendum, or else. So-called committees of “vigilance” or “safety” asserted a right to protect themselves from the differing politics of immigrants and Northern-rooted residents and visitors.
Operating outside the law, the committees “cleansed” the body politic. Between 2,000 and 5,000 people were believed to have departed Memphis during just the week following Fort Sumter’s surrender, and the exodus continued.
Fear of violence pervaded. Many people abandoned houses, furniture, and unpaid bills in quick departure. Secessionists stopped trains and detained passengers deemed suspicious. They banned Northern newspapers, shuttered local sheets that opposed secession, and examined mail in search of unionist sympathies.
Nashville, Memphis, and smaller towns had these committees. Their leadership was the prominent citizenry, the self-described “best people.” In mid-May Louisville residents, well connected to Memphis by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, read a column in one of their town’s newspapers reporting specific excesses of the Memphis committee.
The Louisville Journal said a young man hesitating to espouse secession was forced into hiding in the open air. Another was told to join a military company or leave Memphis the next day. Going to the train station, he saw placards branding as enemies all able-bodied males who did not immediately join the secession forces.
A third man, deciding to return home to Indiana, tossed off the comment that any secessionist who dared visit Fort Wayne would be attacked with clubs. He was quickly branded an abolitionist, beaten, and had his head shaved. He was jailed overnight before being allowed to depart the next day.
In mid-May a newspaper in Covington,Tenn., wrote of West Tennessee unionist congressman Emerson Etheridge: “if he is not shot or hung, he will be treated to a new coat of tar and feathers, free gratis, and rode out of town on a rail…”
Such stories appeared in papers across the North as far away as Bangor, Me. The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 16 told readers of three construction workers found hanged a short distance from Memphis after being thought to have left for the North. The Louisville Journal of May 23 said of Memphians:
“All their affairs are controlled by that Committee. It is for the committee to say who may live in the city…what newspapers may be permitted…what steamboat cargoes must be confiscated…who must be imprisoned, who whipped, who have his head shaved, who tarred and feathered, and who hung.”
A particularly sensational article appeared in New England newspapers. It told of a young woman from Maine who reportedly had lived in Memphis a year but had bought steamboat departure tickets. Apparently insufficiently enthusiastic for Confederate military success, she had the right side of her head shaved, then was stripped to the waist and dealt thirteen lashes from a whip whose end consisted of multiple leather thongs wound with wire. Three male companions were reportedly shaven bald and given the same kind of whipping naked.
The Memphis committee took on legal airs. Under the leadership of wealthy grocer Frazier Titus, it heard an average of more than a hundred prospective banishment “cases” a day.
“Committees of safety” had become infamous in the French Revolution 70 years earlier, but the tradition of the Dixie committees was not just foreign. It fit well with harsh antebellum punishments and other acts devised to deal with fears of slave rebellion–and disciplining not just slaves. Strangers had had their belongings rifled in search of abolitionist literature and their mail monitored.
As Tennessee’s June 8 referendum neared, secessionists took no chances on the outcome. The Memphis Appeal subsidized the printing of two ballots of differing colors to differentiate between secessionist and unionist voters; “traitors,” the Appeal reasoned, should not object “to their position as Union men being known to the community.”
Some places printed no Union ballots at all.
(For further information see Battle Cry of Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1988, and Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander-in-Chief, Penguin Press, 2008, by James M. McPherson; Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee, University Press of Kentucky, 2009, Kent T. Dollar, Larry H. Whiteaker, and W. Calvin Dickinson, eds.; “The Reign of Terror of the Safety Committee Has Passed Away Forever,” copyrighted research article by James B. Jones Jr., Tennessee Historical Commission; Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator, LSU Press, 2010 by Sam Davis Elliott; Messages of the Governors of Tennessee, vol. 5, Tennessee Historical Commission, 1959 by Robert H. White; and Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, Simon & Schuster, 2002 by Ann Hagedorn.)
Sunday, May 14: Mother’s Day. In Alabama, it proudly celebrated the fount of a Caucasian race un-tinted by diversity. It was also a day off for many policemen, or so they would later claim.
White Alabamans, in a view long colored by politicians and preachers, saw the Freedom Ride as a Communist-inspired invasion to assault their “way of life.” Since the Civil War, they had enshrined white supremacy and segregation as twin bulwarks against a racial Armageddon feared for 200 years.
It is reflexive today to see most white Southerners then as monsters, but this view either skips or never saw that time and place. The Freedom Rider doctrine holding that racists were victims too was not far off the mark.
The South was a more dangerous place than most for all but the most powerful to diverge from norms. Any who did so in the realm of race risked homes and livelihoods–at least. But even moderates resented these Freedom-Riding provokers of a trouble that all residents knew could be cataclysmic. Most older African Americans, inside Alabama and out, agreed that these upstart young Riders would harm, not help, the cause.
On the other hand, what? If Alabama’s mail-fisted discrimination went unchallenged, when would it end? Only the brave could make America the Land of the Free. As the first of the two Ride buses neared its first Alabama stop, things quieted inside the vehicle. It seemed even quieter outside, on the streets of the town of Anniston.
Then the bus station hove into sight. A crowd of perhaps 150 people milled there carrying iron pipes and baseball bats. Nineteen-year-old Henry Thomas was terrified. He missed his recent seat-mate, the doggedly on-pressing John Lewis, who had strode so resolutely into the face of hate at Rock Hill, South Carolina. But Lewis was gone, flying to Philadelphia as a finalist for a Quaker house-building mission overseas.
As the bus rolled into the station, the driver hailed the crowd. “Well, boys, here they are. I brought you some niggers and nigger-lovers.”
The crowd dashed forward, slamming the sides and windows of the bus and cutting the tires. The driver, perhaps fearing he would be held responsible for the vehicle, gunned it onto the highway out of town. Pickup trucks sped in front, cars and more trucks trailed behind.
It was a convoy of dread. After six miles, with the flat tires now hub-shredded, the driver pulled over into a waiting crowd. They were wearing church clothes, holding up small children to give them a better view. The driver opened the door and left, and the crowd again rushed forward. Riders locked the door. A firebomb landed inside the shattered rear window, and the smoke-choked Riders began trying to get out.
“Roast the niggers!” somebody shouted, initiating similar yells.
Hank Thomas resolved to die of smoke inhalation rather than a fatal beating, but destiny intervened. The bus exploded. The crowd recoiled in self-defense, and Thomas–of Tampa, Fla., and Howard University in Washington,D.C.–changed his mind. Nauseous from the smoke, he exited the bus and became the initial black Rider to experience the Deep South’s full fury. First, though, a friendly voice surprised him: “Are you all right?” Thomas said he was. He then suffered a dizzying blow on the side of his head from a baseball bat swung by the man who had inquired.
Thomas went down. More Riders stumbled from the bus onto the ground, vomiting from the smoke. Fire and heat repelled the attackers until an Alabama state policeman took up the job.
In civilian dress, E. L. Cowling had been on the bus with the Freedom Riders, who had no idea who he was. Alabama public safety director Floyd Mann, knowing local law enforcement’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan, put Cowling there to monitor the Riders and possibly prevent an incident that could bring condemnation on Alabama.
Cowling’s pistol held off the mob while an ambulance arrived. It started picking up white Riders. When personnel objected to taking the blacks, the whites got out. The attendants relented, and all the Riders went to a hospital for grudging treatment. Another mob gathered outside, and officials told the Riders to leave for the safety of other patients. Only a seeming miracle–intrepid Birmingham minister Fred Shuttlesworth and a convoy of deacons driving sixty miles to Anniston–saved them.
The Riders’ second bus was no luckier. As it pulled into the Anniston Trailways station a couple of hours behind the Greyhound, a mob piled in and shouted for the blacks to move to the rear. They refused, citing their rights under the Boynton vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision. The mob then beat them all, black and white, and threw them bodily into the back. The driver headed for Birmingham, speeding along backroads.
Worse violence awaited. FBI informants later said police agreed to give local Klansmen 15 uninterrupted minutes before squad cars came to the Birmingham station. The first Riders who debarked–black Charles Person and white, Anniston-bloody Jim Peck–started for the white waiting room. Sixty-year-old professor Walter Bergman and others came behind.
Klansmen shoved Person toward the black waiting room. When he turned back toward the white one, they pushed him against a wall, split his lip with a punch, and knocked him into the arms of another Klansman, who held him up for more punches. Then a throng of Klansmen kicked Person and Peck and beat them with pipes. Jet reporter and fellow passenger Simeon Booker, well behind them in line, saw Professor Bergman crawling bloody among the legs of his assailants, trying to escape. Booker hid his face behind a newspaper, hailed a panicking black cab driver, and left.
John Lewis flew from Philadelphia to Nashville on his way to rejoin the Ride. He was at a Sunday afternoon picnic that Nashville movement leaders had thrown to celebrate their theatre stand-in campaign when radios blared the Alabama news. Feeling guilty for leaving, Lewis conferred with other movement leaders–especially one who, like himself, was one of the more courageous young people of American history.
Diane Nash differed from Lewis in every respect but valor. A Fisk University English major, she had been reared as comfortably in Chicago as he had been raised uncomfortably in the Alabama cotton fields. She was white enough to pass for Caucasian, and sometimes did to gain information for the movement, but she was incensed by the South’s flagrant debasement of African Americans.
Now Lewis told her he feared the Alabama mayhem would stop the Rides and the movement. That in turn would let the federal government forget its obligation to protect blacks in the South. The shame would continue.
Nash was fully as concerned as Lewis. Gathering other student leaders, they conferred the rest of the afternoon and most of the night. The decision they made was one of the most fateful in the history of both the movement and America: that Nashville students–who up to now had taken on only lunch counters and movie theatres in the comparatively-safe upper South–would become nonviolent shock troops, reinforcing or replacing the original Riders.
Lewis had been right about the originals. Dazed, battered, and under siege in Birmingham, they abandoned their remaining bus for a plane and flew to the Ride’s declared destination, New Orleans. Nash, with characteristic daring, telephoned the Rev. Martin Luther King in Atlanta and pressed him to join the students and become a Freedom Rider. That, she knew, would force national attention to the Rides.
King was noncommittal. Nash and Nashville medical student Rodney Powell drove to Atlantato push him in person. They argued that he should no more allow himself to be stopped by violence than the students intended to be. King’s assistants said the youths were naively asking America’s foremost civil rights leader to die, and King himself finally rebuked them. When he would be killed, he said, was between him and God. When, he said, not if.
The students decided to go without him. If it took death to gain national attention for the problem, so be it. Nineteen students made out wills and got modest expense money from Nashville ministers. Late on May 16, two days after the Anniston and Birmingham beatings, Nash called Reverend Shuttlesworth in Birmingham to let him know the plan.
Shuttlesworth, renowned in the movement as one of the bravest men alive, was appalled. Summoning his practiced voice’s most withering timbre, he asked if Nash knew that the Freedom Riders had almost died in Alabama.
“Yes!” she responded. “That’s exactly why the Ride must not be stopped. If they stop us with violence, the movement is dead. We’re coming.”
(For further information, see The Children, Random House, 1998 by David Halberstam; Parting The Waters, Simon & Schuster, 1988 by Taylor Branch; Walking With The Wind, Simon & Schuster, 1998, by John Lewis.; and Down To Now: Reflections on the Southern Civil Rights Movement, University of Georgia Press, 1993 by Pat Watters.)