I began working in 1958 with what is now known as the Council of Churches of the City of New York with the responsibility for ecumenical activities between the various congregations. During this period I focused on broadening the membership of the Council of Churches so that it would be more racially diverse and representative of the various denominations. Prior to that, the Manhattan Division of the Council was dominated by the great historical Fifth Avenue Churches, pastored by such noted ministers as Ralph Sackman and Norman Vincent Peale. As a result of this new outreach effort, the Central Harlem, East Harlem and lower eastside churches began to participate more fully and assume positions of leadership.
During these early days of tenure with the church council, the civil rights movement began to build steam in the south, we supported the movement there and in our area as well.
Perhaps as a result of this witness, I received a call one day from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) with an invitation to join them in a four day interracial, interfaith clergy freedom ride from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida. CORE had already recruited seven African-American ministers (one AME and six AME-ZION) and four rabbis. Also, I was to recruit a contingent of white ministers to complete the group. I was able to line up seven, including myself. Our goal was to see that the law of the land was observed, making certain that bus travel, waiting rooms, restrooms and dining facilities were available to all interstate passengers on a non-segregated basis.
We started out June 13, 1961, after a one-day non-violent training session in Washington, D.C. and then boarded a Greyhound bus for Virginia and other points south.
Although we met with little difficulty in some southern cities such as Raleigh, N.C., Sumpter, S.C., and Savannah, GA. other stops were not as receptive. Just north of Sumpter S.C., at a privately owned motor court we were confronted with a hostile crowd that included many local county and even state policemen. One particularly hostile person had a caged rattlesnake in the back of his pick-up and was overheard to say that he was "just dying to let the snake loose on em." At Lake City, Florida, another brief rest stop that didnt give us time to test the facilities properly, again we were not served.
The real test began in Tallahassee, Florida, on Thursday afternoon. Eight of the group - 2 rabbis, 4 African American minister and 2 Protestant clergymen were booked to return north due to prior commitments. Our plan was to fly out of Tallahassee at 3:45 p.m., arriving in New York City that evening. Apparently, the manager of the airport was well informed as to our schedule, he managed to close the restaurant just prior to our arrival at the terminal. Regretfully, he explained that the restaurant was closed one day each month for cleaning and would not reopen until 4:30 p.m. The ten of us resolved to "sit in" or more appropriately "sit out" the entrance to the glass-walled restaurant until it opened. We then began a time of fasting which ended 24 hours later during which time we canceled flight after flight. At midnight we were ordered out, and since we understood that the terminal closed at midnight and stayed closed until 7 a.m., we left quietly and assembled at a black Baptist Church where we were encouraged to spend the night sleeping on the benches and floors.
We awoke early and made our way back to the airport terminal, arriving at 7:30 a.m., very tired and hungry, determined to succeed. The restaurant was still closed, and we again canceled flight reservations. When the city fathers realized we would not yield we were arrested and hauled off to the police station. There we were frisked, fingerprinted and relieved of our possessions, even our toothbrushes. We were then placed in prison and after being frisked again we were put in wards consisting of 4 prisoners.
Conditions in county prison were terrible. Our 24 hour fast contributed to making the food edible. The black clergymen, even more crowded in their section than we, were treated as heroes by their fellow inmates.
We were released on Saturday morning at 8 a.m. and brought before the judge where each of us pleaded "not guilty". Bail was set at $500.00 each and we were then set free.
Then the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU) entered the scene, taking our case directly into the federal courts. However, because the federal courts decided that our case had to exhaust the state court system before it could be appealed by the ACLU in the federal courts, and also because a 3 year time period had passed for this to happen, we were required to return to Tallahassee in 1964, re-enter prison and serve our sentences for unlawful assembly, disturbing the peace and one other felony charge.
By 1964, much progress had been made in the civil rights struggle. Prison conditions were somewhat improved and we did have the opportunity to go out each day in a modified version of a "chain gang", sweeping streets and gutters in Tallahassee as well as performing other tasks of a similar nature. Due to all the adverse publicity our case was bringing to the state of Florida and also its capital city, the governor determined to "commute" our felony convictions, which means that all ten of us still, to this day, are released felons. (Watch out!)
from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center
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