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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Kennedys' representative recalls the Freedom Rides

Seigenthaler discusses his participation in the Freedom Rides as a representative for President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After briefly relaying how he had come to work as an administrative assistant to the attorney general, Seigenthaler explains how he was sent to Alabama to help negotiate safe passage for the Freedom Riders. In addition to discussing his interaction with Alabama Governor John Patterson and Bull Connor, Seigenthaler describes the violence Freedom Riders faced and describes how he was injured while trying to hep two women. Seigenthaler's attack, in part, prompted President Kennedy to call in federal marshals to protect the Riders.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Bob had asked me to come into the Justice Department as his press secretary. I said that I didn't want to be anybody's press secretary. I didn't want to be a propagandist. At least I knew by that time that the separation between the press and the government should be absolute. I had grown an awful lot. A lot that I had seen was beginning to come together. I said that I would like to be in the administration. I said, "I would like to stick around for a year working with you." At any rate, I went into the Justice Department as his administrative assistant. Ed Guthman came in as his press secretary. I was very anxious to get involved with civil rights activities. Burke Marshall was in civil rights and needed somebody who had a southern accent and . . .
BILL FINGER:
Did you work with John Doar?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah, I worked with John Doar.
BILL FINGER:
Did you go to Fayette County?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
As a matter of fact, if you look at Fayette and Haywood Counties, you'll find that they went for Nixon in 1960. John Doar is responsible for that. John Doar is and was a Republican. He had been hired by Eisenhower and sent down there in those years. The only black areas of this country, that I can find, that went for Nixon in 1960 are Fayette and Haywood Counties and I've told John Doar personally that he was responsible for that. But we were close friends. As a matter of fact, when I got hurt in Montgomery, he was with me that morning. I was wearing his shirt. I had been on the road, the Freedom Riders needed to get out of Birmingham after they had been assaulted in Anniston. And the President couldn't get John Patterson and finally, the lieutenant governor arranged for me to see John Patterson and I flew down and met with him and got assurances from him that the Freedom Riders would be given safe conduct into Mississippi. And of course, they got from Birmingham to Montgomery . . . Well, let's see, the first group of Freedom Riders we had to fly out. I flew down and got them out of Birmingham into New Orleans. Then the second wave came down and were failed. I went up to Birmingham to meet with Bull Connor and I had to negotiate with him some.
BILL FINGER:
What year is this, '61?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
'61, yeah. The first wave of Freedom Riders left Baltimore and got as far as Anniston and the Klan got them, burned the bus and beat the hell out of them. They were a rather interesting group. If you looked at them, they were old line pacifists, demonstrators, some Socialists. But when I got to them in Birmingham, they had been stranded there for two days. They had canceled three or four airplanes because of bomb threats. They were stranded there. They couldn't get them out on the bus or the train or by air.
BILL FINGER:
Who called you to go?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Simian Booker was a black reporter for Ebony Magazine. He was an old friend of mine and an old friend of Bob Kennedy's. And he called me and said, "Man, it's real shit down here." He said, "It's rough."
BILL FINGER:
He was traveling with them?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah. He had come into see us before he left. And when he called, I took the call first and he said, "You know, we can't get out. I don't know if we are ever going to get out of Birmingham. They have got the airport surrounded." I told him to wait; had been trying to get through to the Attorney General for a couple of hours. And so, I went to see Bob and said, "Simian is on the phone." He talked to him and said, "I'll talk to the President and we will get somebody down there to help." So, he called the President and the President said, "Well, who have we got." Bob said, "John's here, he can go." He said, "Send him. And see if you can get Patterson on the telephone and tell him that his problems will be easier if we can get them through to Mississippi. Put those problems on John Stennis . . . "
JIM TRAMEL:
And Ross Barnett.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
. . . and Jim Eastman and Ross Barnett. So, I went down that night and got with them at the airport. I then met with the officials of the airline and worked out a plan to get them on board the plane before they would take any phone calls. Because, you know, they would have bomb threatened them and kept them there forever. There was a crowd outside the terminal. They had been there almost around the clock. We flew them out to New Orleans and I was in bed about midnight that night. Bob called me and said, "There's another wave starting down from Tennesse, you had better get back to Birmingham." So, I got a U-Drive-It and drove back to Birmingham from New Orleans that night. Bull Connor had met them when they got off the bus and threw them in jail. And I went through three or fours days with Fred Shuttlesworth on one side and Bull Connor on the other trying to negotiate. One night Bull took them out of jail and ran them back to Tennessee. They hardly got to Tennessee before they were back. There were cars there waiting at the Tennessee line and they beat Bull Connor back to Birmingham, you know. The next day, he rounded them all up again and threw them all back in jail. John Doar had been trying a voter rights case in Judge Frank Johnson's (Note: Portions of the above transcript were deleted in retyping) court in Montgomery and it looked like we were going to have to go to court in Birmingham to get them out. Suddenly, Patterson flew back into Montgomery and gave me an interview. I drove down to Montgomery and went into see him. And finally he said, "We can protect them and will." I then left and met with Doar and while I was with Patterson, we got the president of Southeast Greyhound and the Attorney General on the line and I had a conversation back and forth. The result of it was that we agreed that the state of Alabama would protect them from Birmingham to Montgomery and from Montgomery to the Mississippi line. It has been written about so damn many times . . .
BILL FINGER:
Your exact role hasn't been . . .
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
No, I don't think it has. So, then Doar and I drove back to Birmingham. Bull agreed then that if Greyhound would carry them, he would let them out of jail. The understanding though, with Shuttlesworth and the Freedom Riders was that the bus would make a regular run. They would stop at every small town. They wouldn't run an express bus. Well, Greyhound couldn't get a driver to take it on that basis. At any rate, when they got on the bus, Doar and I drove to Montgomery and had breakfast and when we got to the . . . the Federal Building—it is really the Post Office Building. It adjoins the Greyhound lot. I let John out and he went into the Federal Building. As I drove around the bus station all hell broke loose. The police hadn't provided any protection. John Lewis was on that ride. They were just beating the hell out of them. Two young women were catching it and I bounced up on the curb and got out of the car and tried to get them into my car. They got me and they damn near killed me. I'll tell you, I was in the hospital with a fractured skull. Well, when I woke up there was a lieutenant of police standing beside the car. Doar had stood in the window and watched it all. The FBI took pictures of it. Later they recovered the pipe that I got hit with, which Kennedy gave me framed when I left the Justice Department. But all ambulances were out of service for thirty minutes. It was really a bad time I woke up and I've got blood all over me and . . . [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
. . . you know, and I said, "What happened?" And he said, "Well, you got messed up with these niggers and you got hurt." I said, "You better call Mr. Kennedy." So, he very officiously takes out my notebook with all these numbers that I've got in it . . . John Patterson, Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, the president of Greyhound, Dianne Nash, you know. And he takes out my notebook and says, "Now, what Mr. Kennedy is that?" I said, "Well, either the President or the Attorney General." So, he looked at me. I didn't have any identification on me except that notebook. He put it back in his pocket and said, "We'd better get you to the hospital." He took me out of the car, and I don't remember anything after that until maybe hours later and they had me on an X-ray table and I woke up talking to Wizzer White and he said that the President had called. Bob had been out somewhere, I don't where, and he called later and there was a good conversation. At the end of it, he said something like, "How is my popularity down there?" I said, "If you are going to run for public office, don't do it in ALabama." Martin Luther King came in three or four days later and I went out as he came in and they surrounded the building with police to keep people away. It was a bad time. It was the first time that the Kennedy administration used marshals. And I was sort of the excuse for that. "The President's representative was beaten into unconsiousness and left lying in the street for thirty minutes, so therefore, the marshals are coming in to enforce the law." John Lewis and I have been friends ever since.