Montgomery, Alabama (JFK+50) Fifty-four years ago today, May 20, 1961, a bus load of Freedom Riders* came under attack here in Montgomery. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had convinced Greyhound Bus Company officials to transport this group of Freedom Riders to the Alabama state capital at Montgomery.
When they arrived at the bus terminal, however, 300 segregationists were waiting for them with clubs and metal pipes. Among the most seriously injured were Jim Swerg** and John Lewis.***
Swerg's suitcase was taken from him and used to hit him in the face and knock him to the ground. He was then beaten repeatedly by the mob. From his hospital bed, Mr. Swerg said..."Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us in the Freedom Rides will continue."
John Lewis later described what he had experienced in Montgomery this way...
"It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the bus station unconscious."
An administrative assistant to the Attorney General, John Seigenthaler,**** who had been sent to Montgomery as chief negotiator for the Kennedy administration, was knocked unconscious while attempting to assist a young female freedom rider who was being chased by the angry mob.
President John F. Kennedy called upon Alabama Governor John Patterson to exercise his authority to prevent further outbreaks of violence.
*Freedom Riders were young people who challenged racial laws in the American South during the early 1960s, originally by refusing to abide by laws directing segregated seating by race on public buses.
**Jim Swerg was born in 1939 in Appleton, Wisconsin. He attended Beloit College and also was an exchange student at Fisk University in Nashville. Jim joined SNCC in 1960.
***John Lewis was born to a family of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama in 1940. He graduated from Alabama Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University. JL was chairman of SNCC during the civil rights era and one of the original 13 Freedom Riders.
****John Seigenthaler, Sr. (1927-2014) was born in Nashville, TN. He served in the USAF and began his career in journalism with the Nashville Tennessean. In 1961, John served as RFK's assistant in the Justice Department and became publisher of the TENNESSEAN in 1973.