Storyteller shares tale of freedom in Civil Rights era
April 27, 2011
It has been 50 years since the Freedom Riders boarded buses, trains and planes bound for the Deep South to challenge that region’s outdated Jim Crow laws. The Freedom Rides were intended to highlight the South’s non-compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities.
This week, many of the estimated 350 Freedom Riders who put their lives on the line are making their way to a reunion in Chicago – and to join in the taping of a show about the Freedom Rides on the Oprah Winfrey Show, set to air May 4. Nevada City resident and longtime peace activist Mary Jorgensen, 94, plans to be on hand. And so will nationally renowned storyteller and children’s author Steve Sanfield.
Sanfield, 24 at the time, was one of 11 Californians who traveled to Houston on what was slated to be the last Freedom Ride on Aug. 9, 1961. He was arrested inside the coffee shop at Union Station and was beaten severely during his stay in jail.
According to Sanfield, he had met Jorgensen several times over the years, but neither had ever spoken about their civil rights activism.
“A lot of my friends don’t know,” Sanfield said. “It’s going to surprise a lot of people. I never made it a part of my public life before.”
Sanfield often uses snippets from his life during his storytelling sessions. But his experience in 1961 remained deeply personal and private for 50 years.
“I’ve told thousands of stories from thousands of stages – but I never told this story,” he said. “It was one of the purest things I ever did. I never wanted to use it for anything … I’ve seen people take one noble act and make a career out of it. I never thought about it much; it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
When the Congress of Racial Equality began recruiting Freedom Riders, Sanfield was living in Hollywood, managing a bookstore after a stint in radio news.
“I was pretty apolitical, but this really caught my attention and my passion,” he said.
Growing up as a Jew in 1940s Cambridge played a part in his belief system, he said.
“The Holocaust had a profound effect on my life,” Sanfield said. “Social justice, not just for the Jewish people, but for all, was of deep concern for my family … So I recognize when people are oppressed unjustly. No one should tolerate it.”
Sanfield said he was woefully unprepared for what he would encounter in Houston.
“I was supposed to take a course in nonviolent resistance, but I got about two hours of training,” he said with a rueful chuckle. “It certainly didn’t prepare me for what happened … I hadn’t spent much time in the South at all.”
His group boarded the train in Los Angeles, accompanied by three or four undercover FBI agents. In Houston, they were joined by a group of black students.
“We sat down (in the coffee shop) and tried to order a cup of coffee,” Sanfield said. “All of a sudden, the police showed up and handed out John Doe warrants and arrested us.”
The trip to the Harris County Downtown Jail in paddy wagons was stirring, Sanfield recalled.
“All the way, we sang songs that moved the heart,” he said.
But as soon as they got to the jail, the mood darkened as the prisoners were split up by race and gender.
“At 2 a.m., they put us (the four white men) into a holding tank with more than 100 men, into a space built for 40 or 50,” Sanfield said. “As the guards let us in, we saw that all the prisoners were awake and standing. Their leader – he was a psychopath – said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you nigger-lovers.’
“They forced us to lie on the floor, and then they started literally jumping on us,” Sanfield continued. “They beat us off and on through the night. I didn’t resist, because I had committed to nonviolence. It would have been futile anyway.”
The beatings continued for two and a half days.
“I’ve never been so fearful for my life,” Sanfield said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get out alive.”
The original plan for the Freedom Riders was to fill the jails, he explained. But the brutal attack endured by Sanfield and his cohorts so alarmed their attorney that he bailed them out.
“He didn’t want to risk our lives like that,” Sanfield said.
The other prisoners fared better, he said. The black inmates viewed those arrested initially with disbelief that turned to admiration. The white women escaped injury by one vote after the female inmates voted against beating them.
The Freedom Riders were forbidden to leave Texas until they were brought to trial, a process Sanfield described as a joke, with no one allowed to testify in their own defense.
“They just railroaded it through,” he said. “We were convicted of unlawful assembly.”
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals eventually reversed their convictions; it was the first appellate court to legally validate any of the Freedom Rides.
In all, Sanfield and the other defendants spent a month in Houston, speaking and raising money for the cause.
“It was very frightening,” he said. “On the second night, I woke up to find a cross burning on the lawn.”
Sanfield remains deeply proud of his participation in the Freedom Rides – and is happy to join in the 50th anniversary celebration.
“Back then, they thought we were crazy,” he said. “People then thought the Freedom Rides were a useless venture, but they did change things. And it taught me that if you believe in something deeply enough, you can bring about change.”
The experience had a profound, if unconscious, impact on his work, Sanfield said – leading to his writing about black folk heroes like John Henry and High John the Conqueror.
Sanfield sees a need to educate young people about the power of activism – and sees the current publicity about the Freedom Riders as a great tool.
“Part of our responsibility is to teach the generations that follow us,” he said. “The condition of the world is so bleak, there have to be sparks of hope somewhere.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.
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