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The Road From Flames to Freedom

Four African American men who helped change U.S. history and who live in Los Angeles testified about their experiences in the Civil Rights movement at a documentary screening on campus this past week: Robert Farrell, Michael Grubbs, Claude Liggins and Robert Singleton, professor in the LMU Department of Economics.

The four were Freedom Riders in 1961, and they, and along with Raymond Arsenault, author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” spoke after a viewing of “Freedom Riders,” a new documentary by Stanley Nelson that was spurred by Arsenault’s book. The film focuses on the hundreds of Americans who during the Civil Rights movement challenged Southern segregation laws that separated blacks and whites in interstate travel despite Supreme Court rulings that judged those laws unconstitutional. The Freedom Riders’ example has inspired nonviolent protest movements around the world for decades since.

For daring to ride side-by-side on buses and trains and for using white-only public facilities, Freedom Riders were heckled, spat on, clawed, punched, clubbed, beaten, and fire-bombed. Three hundred volunteers were arrested and imprisoned in Parchman State Penitentiary, Mississippi’s most infamous prison. Through their determined peaceful protest, the Freedom Riders succeeded in bringing the nation’s attention to racial injustice, and they demonstrated the viability of nonviolent political action in changing both laws and attitudes.

Liggins, who then was a 20-year-old student at Los Angeles City College, said no one could mistake the danger in joining the Freedom Rides. In June 1961, he traveled from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss., on the Illinois Central Railroad. Just five weeks earlier, the nation learned that riders in Alabama were trapped inside their Greyhound bus by a crowd as a white man threw a flaming package inside, setting the back of the coach afire. But the attacks on the first of the Freedom Rides ultimately backfired. The project grew.

“When violence was happening in Alabama,” Liggins told students and faculty in the School of Film and Television’s Mayer Theater, “I was ready to go. Violence didn’t stop anybody. It encouraged people.”

“I wasn’t afraid to die,” Liggins said, “I felt so committed that I was willing to give my life. I felt free.”

Although the Civil Rights veterans now receive credit and thanks for their acts of courage, they then met opposition from many fronts: Southern police who collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan; governors who accused them of incitement; parents and friends who counseled them against interrupting their college studies; and even Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. himself, who discouraged the rides in fear that they would spark a backlash jeopardizing other movement goals.

After the rides were over, those arrested often found that the price of the commitment was not fully paid. Singleton was a 25-year-old UCLA graduate student when he rode a train from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss., in July 1961. When it was time to enter the job market, he found that application forms usually included a question about whether an applicant had an arrest record. That was often a job-killer. Singleton resorted to writing “Freedom Rider” across the top of applications. Anyone who objected to it was someone he didn’t want to work for, he explained, while others would be interested in him immediately. Farrell, a former Los Angeles city councilman (1974–91), decided to go into politics in his community, where his experience would be viewed as a “badge of honor,” he said. In August 1961, he was a UCLA graduate student when he and 17 others tried to desegregate a Houston railway station.

Grubbs, who also was studying at UCLA in 1961 rode the train with Singleton and Singleton’s wife, Helen (a 1985 LMU graduate school alumna who was not present at the screening). When the activists were asked by an LMU student if they believed their actions decades ago inspired Egypt’s young people who recently helped force the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, Grubbs took the question.

“I believe in my heart,” he said, “that what we’ve experienced today would not have happened if the young students [on Freedom Rides] hadn’t stood up to injustice. Wherever there is injustice, young people must gather your friends, stand up and fight it.”

Liggins may have summed up the evening best after recalling his experience as a boy of 5 or 6 when he was refused service in a store. He asked the shopkeeper for something at the counter. A white customer then entered the store and told the owner that the child should not be served. The owner ordered Liggins to leave. Liggins said that ever after he wanted to make things change.

“The movement may have been able to be without me,” he said, “but I couldn’t be me without the movement.”

“Freedom Riders” is scheduled to air on PBS’ “American Experience” in May 2011. To see a trailer for the documentary, go here.

To listen to a 2007 NPR interview with Raymond Arsenault, author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” go here.