TOM PUTNAM: I'm Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of Tom McNaught, Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you all for coming. Let me begin by acknowledging the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums, including lead sponsor Bank of America, Boston Capital, the Boston Foundation, Raytheon, the Lowell Institute, and our media partners, The Boston Globe, NECN and WBUR.
We're thrilled to be partnering with WGBH this evening to help premiere Freedom Riders, a new American Experience documentary which airs nationally on PBS on May 16th and to have as our moderator, Callie Crossley, from WGBH's The Callie Crossley Show and also a regular on Greater Boston's Friday night Beat the Press. Callie also served as a producer of the Eyes on the Prize documentary series.
We're short on time this evening, and I did want everyone to know the film lasts about two hours, and then we'll have a conversation after that for about 45 minutes. So we plan to end this evening at 8:15. And the buses, if you took public transportation, will be running through 8:30.
But there's really no better way to introduce our speakers, Genevieve Hughes, Bernard LaFayette Jr., and Ernest "Rip" Patton than simply to watch this incredible film. But before doing so, I wanted to thank our three guest speakers. You honor us this evening with your presence, and we are a far better country for your courage and convictions that helped as a people move closer to the ideals on which this country was founded.
Now on with the show. [Applause]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Good evening. We're waiting for Bernard. He'll join us up here in just a second. But while we have a moment to just catch our breath and respond to all of that wonderful emotion, let's give a hand to my fabulous friend, Stanley Nelson and his film. [Applause] And if you know something about filmmakers, and having been one for just a hot minute with Eyes on the Prize, then you know that the thing that we rely on when we're doing a true story, a narrative non-fiction, is that we have all of the research, all of the work done by scholars who have spent all of their waking hours putting the pieces together and giving us an analysis on which we can then make a filmic journey for all of you. So to that, we must then also recognize Raymond Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders. [Applause]
Bernard LaFayette. [Applause]
Genevieve Hughes Houghton. [Applause]
Ernest "Rip" Patton Jr. [Applause]
We're all delighted to have them here. For those of you who have not attended a Kennedy Library Forum before, I will ask a few questions and then later on -- as you see there are microphones in the aisle -- I will entertain some questions from you, not comments, some questions to our guests, and we will enjoy a wonderful enriching conversation for all of us.
I'm going to start in a way that I think many of us would want to know after having watched you up on that screen, what do you all feel like, looking at your young selves [laughter] in the film?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Despair.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: What does it feel like, Rip Patton?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I think things are, in a sense, the same as they were in '61. I still feel the same. I'm busy doing the work. So it hasn't stopped.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Bernard LaFayette?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Well, I was asked, since I've seen it so many times, that I want to sit in the back and take a nap. [Laughter] But I just want to take a little nap. But what I did was each time I see it, even this time, I recognize myself again and I hadn't seen myself in certain places. So I feel a sense that it's a distance for me, psychologically. And yet, when I see the film it reconnects me emotionally with that particular period. And then once again, I remember the feeling I had. So it's a buildup; each time I see it, I feel closer and closer to that experience.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: And what was the feeling you had at that time?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Well, one of the things I felt was that we were going to succeed. There was never a moment -- whether it was at the bus station being beaten up, or whether it was being arrested and put in Parchman -- there was not one moment that I ever doubted that things were going to change.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: And Genevieve, for you? By the way, Bernard was 20, Genevieve was 28, and Ernest "Rip" Patton was 21.
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Well, I felt the same way Bernard felt. I felt we were at the right point to really win and that's one reason why I was so enthusiastic about going on it. I like to win. It's a wonderful feeling. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: How were you feeling, Rip?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: The same as Bernard, because we came from the same background as far as the Civil Rights Movement was concerned with our sit-ins in Nashville. And we had been very successful in Nashville. Nashville was like a little battle and the Freedom Ride was more like getting into the war. Nashville was a local movement, and the Freedom Ride was more of a national movement.
We just had the faith and the confidence. We knew that the Nashville students would back us up, because of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth wave. Nashville had the largest contingency of Freedom Riders. And Tennessee State had the largest within the Nashville area of people to go on the Freedom Rides. So we knew that that group would back us up. But we didn't necessarily know that it would grow as it did. Of course, that's what we wanted, and that's what we did in Nashville, was to fill the jails. And we wanted to fill all the jails in Jackson, Mississippi. We didn't know about Parchman though. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Yeah, that was not a jail, that was something else. Because we have the advantage here of everyone having seen the film, I can ask you all some larger- themed issues. Something that comes up all the time -- and I bet for all of you who speak to students frequently -- is how do you know how it was going to turn out in the end? They're a little afraid to engage sometimes in something they can't see down the road how it's going to turn out. And I say all the time, these people didn't know. They didn't know how it was going to turn out. So you just decided, "I'm going to be committed to this …" Because? Explain that. What drives you to jump in, particularly after you've signed an application that says you may lose your life. Don't everybody– I will call on you. [Laughter] Genevieve, why don't you start, while Bernard is thinking.
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: All right. I felt, and possibly I felt incorrectly, that I had a pretty good knowledge of the white middle class, and I knew they felt guilty; I just knew them well enough that they would support this -- which means the money, among other things, to carry on and the money to form new chapters. I felt it was overdue, in fact. I felt people had been ready for quite a while and that gave me confidence because however terrible it was in the Deep South, it was not that terrible towards the North.
I got terrific support. I remember I went somewhere in our apartment building and we had a little party and I asked people to donate, and they donated $700. Well, this was 50 years ago. These were just the people who lived in our apartment building. So for me, that kind of response tells me something.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: And what did you think your presence being on those buses, being a part of the Freedom Rides might say to somebody else looking from the outside?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Well, I think they'd have to puzzle over it for a bit. I mean, here we were, an integrated group, which hadn't been that way before. They'd have to figure it out. And I knew that some people were going to be very antagonized, that was obvious. But I thought we would win.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Rip?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I always go back to the sit-ins in Nashville, because I think, for Nashville, that's where it started. We had our training from Dr. Lawson and the training that we had brought us together, the students together. So we knew that no matter what, as Bernard said in the piece, no matter what, we would come. The first wave would go, and he was leading the second wave.
Jim Zwerg had said that he was the one most likely to be attacked and to be killed. And Bernard said, "Well, no matter what, I'm bringing the second group." And the group that was more or less following – not following him, but the group that was with him felt the same way. I was in the third group. I felt when it was time for my group to go, there was no problem; I didn't have a second thought.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: But why was that? There were 30 of you. There's 60 more outside of that group. What made you all do it?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Numbers had nothing to do with it. This was my own individual decision to make.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Right, right. So why?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Because I knew that it was the right thing to do. It was something that I wanted to do. And it was something that I had been trained to do, to overcome fear and to know that we were doing the right thing.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: And for you, Bernard LaFayette?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: I wasn't prepared to live with segregation and discrimination. If it took death to stop it, so be it. I wasn't going to live with it.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: What had happened to you in your life that got you to the point of saying, "I must do something to change this and I believe I can"?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Well, it was my grandmother. I was seven years old and she was my leader. And I'd seen her do some things that were not ordinary. And I wanted to follow in her footsteps. Like for example, in Tampa, Florida, she went and bought an orange grove and got some lots, cut them up, sold people lots, and they got Walden to help them build houses on them. She opened up a grocery store. I was standing right there when the fellow was digging the foundation, and she told him how deep to build the foundation. And when she came back, it wasn't deep enough. And he said, "Well, I know what the code is, okay? This is sufficient for a one-story grocery store." She goes, "A grocery store?" She finished the 3rd grade. In fact, you look like my grandmother. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Oh. I'm sure she was 20, that you're remembering her at 20. [Laughter]
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Yeah. She looked at him and she told him, "I told you to dig it deeper. I'm building a one-story building, but Junior might want to put another story on it. And if you don't dig the foundation deep enough, he can't get another story." So it was a two-story store that she was thinking about, even though she was going to build a one-story.
So it's the future. So what's possible, she did the impossible. So that gave me the determination that we could do it. And she fell one time. We were running, trying to catch the streetcar, and you had to put your money in the front and then you had to leave and go to the back door to get on the streetcar. She fell. Here I was, seven years old, I'm reaching for the door and I was reaching for her, and I felt a sword just cut me in half. And I said to myself at age seven, "When I get grown, I'm going to do something about this." I'll never forget that incident. So every time I got a chance to make a difference.
I was kidnapped in Colombia, Latin America, by the FARC, six years ago because we were transforming a community, to get them to stand up. And that's what I do now. I help people learn how to train others to be able to stand up, the same training I got 52 years ago. We do that, and we're able to transform a prison, like Valle Vista, into a nonviolent center. We have a prison now that's a nonviolent center in Medellin. We've got another center in Johannesburg, the King-Luthuli Transformation Center.
So what I do is help establish these institutions. When I studied at Harvard University, some students followed me and set up a peace education program at Harvard University.
At Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, we have courses in nonviolence and peace in every department.
One of the things that we have failed to do in our educational system is to infuse nonviolence so that people will have these tools, so that when they run into conflicts, they don't have to use violence. Or either when they run into violence, they know how to respond in a nonviolent way. And that was the thing that inspired me from the beginning. I have been so amazed at the power of nonviolence. Looks like some other people in the Middle East have discovered it, too. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: That's one of the things that, I think, people always ask about when they see people in the Civil Rights Movement and see them practicing nonviolence. I'd like for all of you to speak about that and how important that was in the work that you were doing as Freedom Riders. Want to start, Rip?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: When the workshops started in Nashville, I heard about the workshops that Jim Lawson was conducting. I wanted to be a part of that. And I hear lately, in my years that have passed, I come across a passage in the Bible which is Romans 12, the first and second verse. And in that first verse, it says, "Do not conform to this world." I look at that as before I was a part of the Movement, before I started the nonviolent workshops, that my parents were a part of segregation. So they went along with segregation. They didn't mind sitting at the back of the bus, or not being served downtown. In the second part Romans 12 says, "Do not conform to this world, but be transformed." I look at that as being, once I started in the Movement, I went over to the transformed; I was transformed and I've lived that life ever since.
I joined the Movement because it was in Nashville. Nashville is my home town and I wanted to do something for Nashville. And I did. So when it came to the Freedom Rides, there was no question as to whether or not I was going to be a part of that.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Genevieve, was nonviolence as transformative for you as it was for Rip?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Yes. It was. I had to learn it from scratch. Didn't come naturally to me. But when I was exposed to it, I knew it was the right way. And at other times in my life, for instance, I have found a shelter for battered women, which has the same thing -- trying to end violence against women, which is very pervasive in our society, unfortunately. So I always kept that in mind. I'm not an absolute pacifist, but I'm pretty close to it. [Laughter]
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Since you raise this question about nonviolence, just one thing I think is important and that is we must understand why people behave the way they do. We saw this violence that took place in the bus burning, and all that sort of thing. The first step towards nonviolence is trying to put yourself in the other person's position. That is, to try to see through their eyes the world that they see. Because people behave towards you based on their perception of you and their perception of themselves. So before you can ever even start to solve the problem, you've got to look at the world through their eyes. At least try.
I was a Nashville student, and I studied at night and I used to turn on the radio trying to get some music to study and kind of relax. In Nashville, how many country stations they got? I don't know. That's all I can get. [Twangs] [Laughter] We grew up in the South and I used to see my parents change the station, Hee Haw and Grand Ole Opry, and stuff like that. So what happened is, I said, Okay, I give up. I'm just going to stop. I could hear them, but now I'm going to listen. So I just put everything down and I listened. You know what I heard? [Sings:]
She was poor, but she was honest,
Victim of a rich man's pride,
When she met that Christian gentleman, Big Jim Folsom
And she had a child by him.
It's the rich who gets the glory,
It's the poor who gets the blame,
It's the same the whole world over,
Now ain't that a dirty, cryin' shame.
Now he sits in the legislature
Making laws for all mankind,
While she roam the streets of Cullman, Alabama
Selling grapes from her grapevine.
This was a little girl who, this big Senator, who ended up being the Governor, he got the girl pregnant down in Cullman, Alabama. She wasn't setting grapes from her grapevine. [Laughter] We know what she was selling. Once you listen, that old country music is nothing but white folks' blues. They had the same feelings, the same problems. It was the rich who got the glory for them, the poor who got the blame. See, once you look at their lives through their eyes, then you can understand why they don't feel good about themselves, why they would go and put on a white sheet, because they couldn't afford a robe. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: So once you're looking through the other person's perspective, that puts you in a place to really be able to activate nonviolence, then.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Yes, because what they like in their lives is somebody to respect them and for them to be able to feel good about themselves, and be able to share the best of themselves rather than the worst. When people bring out the worst in themselves, it's because they can't discover the best in themselves. So nonviolence is a thing that gives them the example of how they can bring the best out of themselves as we try to bring the best out of ourselves.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Now, all of you, it's established, we've seen the film, we've read your stories, we know you were totally committed to this. Once you applied, you wanted to do it, you did it. And no matter what, you were going to stay in it till the end. That's established. But for the rest of us out here, we want to know what moment, what scary moment came -- and it didn't shake your commitment -- but it gave you a moment of pause during these very brutal times of the Freedom Rides. Just one moment. Genevieve?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Well, I wasn't too happy when I was in the airport and I noticed that the restrooms, which of course were separate, four separate restrooms, were hidden behind a wall. And you had to open the door and go down into a place where there were no other people. And it was a very, very vulnerable situation. That was where anybody who didn't like you could just take care of you in no time, just like that. Well, I tried to avoid that restroom. [Laughter] Because I knew there was only danger there.
I looked around at my fellow Freedom Riders. Joe Perkins was standing in front of a window and I walked up to him. We weren't very well organized, you see, we were just roaming around the airport. And I said, "Joe, why are you standing here with your back to everyone?" And he pointed at the window, and I realized it reflected behind him. All he had to do was look at that window and he knew exactly what was behind him. That was Joe Perkins. He was always thinking. I sort of admired his tactical ability. He's disappeared, unfortunately.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Rip, for you, the moment.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I think the one moment for me was when I was released from Parchman.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Let's pause. You all know Parchman, now, that was not a jail, that was the penitentiary. Go ahead.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Normally, when people were released, the smallest number were two. Attorney Young would come from Jackson and pick two people up and take them back to Jackson. The day that I was released, I was the only one. It was just the attorney and I, traveling from Parchman back to Jackson. Anything could happen to both of us on that long ride. I think that was the only time and the first time that I had ever had any kind of fear at all. Perhaps maybe if Bernard was there to sing me a country song [laughter] or one of the other Riders, if there had been two of us in the car plus the attorney, it may have been a different feeling. But going back to Jackson – it wasn't frightening, I just didn't feel at ease being in the car with him by myself.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: It gave you pause.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Yes.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Bernard LaFayette, your moment?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: I had to search for that moment but if you remember, when we got to Parchman, we were singing all the way and that kind of thing. The sheriff said to us, "All right, you're at Parchman now. Let's see how much singing you're going to do now." So I mean, we'd been singing in all the other jails. We got to Parchman, they took us in one by one and the person who went in before you, you didn't see him. And the other thing is when you walked in, behind that door, they said "Take off all of your clothes." You had to strip naked. One by one. And you didn't know what happened to the other person. That took me back to Germany. And Mississippi, it was a state-run operation. It was sovereign state of Mississippi, and we didn't know what sovereignty they had and what they would do to people.
I grew up in Tampa, Florida, and I had a lot of Jewish friends. In fact, I was driving at age 14. I was driving a car with a license because this Jewish family took me in and I used to work in their grocery store. They wanted me to drive the truck and deliver groceries. So they took me out on Sundays and trained me how to drive. I had my driver's license at 14. So I had a lot of contact, and therefore I had a lot of exposure to what some of those situations were like. And that's when I was wondering whether or not there was going to be a repeat.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: John Lewis says in the film that all of you were never the same after this experience. Do you agree? And if you were changed in some way, what way was it?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Well, I know that when I returned to Nashville, I didn't stop. Freedom Rides are over or about to be over; I continued to work. The young lady, Pauline Knight, that said, "I'm going on a Freedom Ride and no one's going to stop me," well, we worked together after we were released, on Kroger and HG Hill, on desegregating those two big food stores. Shortly after that, I was asked to come to New York and to be a fundraiser for CORE, for the Freedom Rides, and I did that for a year.
I got away from the Movement for a while, and everything kind of went to sleep. Then when I moved back to Nashville in 1991, I read a newspaper article about myself. They said that "he was back in town." No, first of all, they called me and I said, "Well, how do they know that I'm back in Nashville?" And then the Tennessean, they asked to come over and do an interview. And they did. I said, "Well, I'm back. I'm back home where it all started and I'm ready to get started again."
Since 1991, when Bernard called me and we did a retracing of the Freedom Rides with two busloads from eight to 81, or eight to 98. So I've been active ever since.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: I should have said this is really a two-part question, because you gave me a beautiful recitation of what you've doing. What I want to know is have you been changed emotionally? Were you changed emotionally from that experience?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Yes, I was changed emotionally from that experience. And you see the change sitting right across from you. It wasn't too much of a change; I didn't have to make much of a change. I've always been, as Clark Kent would say, I'm the mild-mannered person that I've always been. [Laughter] And I was never a violent person as a young person. So I guess I was meant to be just that nonviolent person.
My mother, as she grew older, she would worry about things. I said, "Mom, worrying is going to take you away from here." I don't worry about things, because that works on your whole body. Being a part of the Freedom Rides, I didn't worry about it. I knew that I would be safe. One way or the other, I was going to be safe. I knew that I was going to make it through that because of my experience in Nashville with the sit-in. And I knew I had people like John Lewis and Bernard and Bevel and Diane – and I could go on and on and on – behind me. And they knew that I had their backs because that's the way we did it in Nashville.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Genevieve, were you changed, as John Lewis said? And if so, how?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Remember, I was a municipal bond analyst. You couldn't go through that without changing a lot. [Laughter] He's looking at me like, "Really?" [Laughter] So yes I was changed. I became a social activist, and it moved out into many different areas. It wasn't all interracial, but all of it was aimed at social change. Practically all of it, let's say. So yes. I was never happier than when I was busy in the Civil Rights Movement. I felt like I was three feet off the ground. I was so happy just to be doing that. It seems strange, but I guess it was a really new experience and it was morally good. There weren't all these ambiguities that are in the rest of life. But this seemed to me to be just about perfect.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Bernard LaFayette?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Well, once we were in jail in Jackson, Mississippi, the Governor, Ross Barnett, came out in the front page of the newspaper congratulating the people from Mississippi for not getting involved with these Northern outside agitators. And that was an insult. So when Jim Bevel and I got out of jail, we set up shop and started training folk from Jackson, Mississippi. It was Medgar Evers who gave us the opportunity and found a place on Lynn Street for us to have. Tom Gaither and I -- we shared an office with him -- he was the kind of a coordinator for CORE and over the period of about two weeks, we were able to get 42 people from Jackson, Mississippi on the Freedom Rides. They didn't have to get on the bus, they just walked into the bus station and it didn't cost any money.
But here's what we did. We trained them in a very intense way when we had learned about nonviolence, because we didn't want them to get in there, in jail, and then all of a sudden tell the folk that we duped them, we tricked them. So Jim Bevel was the more persuasive of the two of us. I would tell them all the reasons they should go on the Freedom Rides, and Bevel would tell them all the reasons they shouldn't. He was from Mississippi. He made a very strong case. Your life was not going to be the same. You're not going to have certain opportunities in Mississippi. Your family might be affected by that. You might not get a job in the future because you're an embarrassment to the State of Mississippi, and all that. All the reason they shouldn't. Then, if they showed up 6:00 a.m. the next morning to go to jail, they could get in. If they were 15 minutes late, they had to wait till the next day. because we had to have some standards and criteria. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: For going to jail.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Right. So people from Mississippi had a little more difficulty passing the course. But when we took them down, not one turned around. There was no turning around with them. Lawanne Brown, I can name all of them. Jimmy Travis, all those people in Mississippi who ended up there.
There are two other things I want to say about Nashville. Because of the training – and that's what I emphasize, that's the thing that made the difference in my life, that training – you had more people on Martin Luther King's executive staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Mississippi, and all the other states, and that kind of thing, you had more from Nashville than any other place, that came out of the Nashville movement.
Jim Bevel, Diane Nash, who was on the staff, the executive staff of Martin Luther King; Paul Brooks, he was one of those other guys with the hat on because I had my hat on. Go down the list. And myself. Every campaign that Martin Luther King had – southern Alabama, there were folks from Nashville. Harbinger, Georgia, Nashville. Chicago, Harbinger, Georgia. Poor People's Campaign?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Don't forget Memphis.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Memphis, Nashville. So the point I'm making is that it was the West Point of the nonviolent movement. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: All right. I'm reminded that Ray Arsenault, who is the author of this fine book, says that you all were the shock troops for the rest of the Civil Rights Movement, and I just wanted to read this piece from his book, which talks about the impact of the Rides beyond just the removing of the signs, but really the impact on shaping a nation:
Indeed, the Freedom Rides exerted an impact that transcended tangible, quantifiable changes in institutional behavior or public policy. Within six months of the first Ride, travelers of all races were sitting side by side on buses and trains all across the nation without fear of arrest, the WHITE and COLORED signs that had blighted the walls of Southern bus and train stations for decades were gone, the nation's major civil rights organizations had undergone significant transformations, and the Justice Department had been pushed into a deepening engagement in civil rights matters.
But even this impressive list of accomplishments does not capture the full effect of the Freedom Rides. The most important and lasting consequence– the one that confirmed the Rides' status as the pivotal moment in American history – was a revolutionary change in the character of citizen politics. In the course of six months, the nation's first mobile, nonviolent army expanded the realm of the possible in American political and social insurgency, redefining the limits of dissent and setting the stage for the escalating demands and rising expectations of the mid- and late 1960s.
And the part that I wanted to focus on was the increase in citizen engagement. We talk so much about that now, the civic engagement. You all were right at the forefront of all of this. What do you say to young people now who are looking at you as role models? You had your grandmother, you had Nashville, you had other people that you worked with that were role models for you even as you were being the shock troopers, as it were. So now, when young people look at you and they're looking for examples of civic engagement from you, what do you say to them?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Well, where I live we have a bunch of high school students. They didn't engage in any cross-racial activities, but they were aware that the levees on the Mississippi River were so weak that if there was a heavy rain, they would be swept away. So these kids went out and monitored the levees and then they went and talked to Congressmen. They got Jerry Costello interested. And these were just high school kids. Of course, they had a teacher who was urging them on, but I don't think she was doing it all. The only thing I regret is that she didn't stay in the background more and let these kids develop their own program.
But I think that it's feasible for high school kids to look around and see something that they feel is wrong and involve themselves in it. They can use nonviolence there, too. And I find that very inspiring, at this late date, that these kids would get out there and do that. They haven't won yet, but I think they will. And that's the Army Corps of Engineers, a really tough outfit [laughter] that doesn't want to do anything.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: So what lesson do you want them to take from your example, if any?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: What do I want them to take?
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Um hmm, from your example.
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: Well, I want them to not demand. I want them to be courteous. I want them to communicate with the people they're dealing with. I don't want them marching up and down demanding this and that and the other, at least until it's hopeless [laughter], if it should ever get to be that. But I want them to learn that if they're determined and civil, they may get what they're trying to get. And mind you, there's no money for this. This is not something you can just reach out and say, "Corps of Engineers, take care of this." It's a very, very expensive thing. We've already had one flood about, I think it was 1996, maybe, and it wiped out all kinds of things -- not whole towns in most cases but in some cases it did wipe out whole towns. They had to move them up on cliffs.
So I want young people to feel that they can affect things and for people to help them. I'm not saying grade school people. I'm talking about people who are capable analyzing things and can do it without getting so emotionally involved that they contradict themselves, shall we say. I think there's a lot of that that needs to be done because essentially our politicians have deserted us. They're out there working away to enrich a lot of people who are already enriched. It takes a lot to get them to adopt something and follow through on it. This is a terrible time in politics, I think.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Thank you. Rip?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I was in Memphis about three or four weeks ago and talked to about 600 junior high/high school students. And when it came to the Q&A portion of the program, there were a lot of questions but there was one that stood out to me. The mic was out and they would walk up to the mic. It was a young lady sitting over on this side of the room and she walked past the mic, came down to the foot of the stage and she said, "I want to do something. I don't know what I want to do, but I want to do something. I want to make a change." And I said to her, "Really think about what it is you want to do. What is it that you're passionate about?" I said, "Do you have any friends?" And her whole class stood up and applauded to let me know that they were her friends. I said, "Okay, find somebody in your class that is as passionate about what it is that you want to do and then go to your teacher, go to an advisor, go to your parents and talk about it and then find some civic leader that is passionate about it."
One of the things that was going on was with the teachers. They're trying to get the older teachers to retire so they could bring new teachers in at a lower rate. But we need those older teachers who have been there for a long time. I told them that. I said, "When the board of education has this meeting about the teachers," I said, "you can have the blue flu as a student, or students." And I explained to them about the blue flu. I said, "That simply means that you're sick that day and you can't go to school. But you can fill up the board of education's lobby and take your signs, but be quiet and orderly and let them know that you're in favor of the teachers and you want to keep your teachers."
But then when I drove back to Nashville, I caught the very end of a news report. And it was a young man who was with one of the organizations. I don't know if it was the Lions Club or the Elks or who it was, because I caught the last of it. What he was doing was he had a program called the Saturday and Sunday Breakfasts. And he would have Ziploc bags with enough breakfast in it for school kids. They were fed Monday through Friday in school, but they didn't have the opportunity to have breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.
So I said I need to find out about that program, take it back to Memphis, talk to this young lady, see if that's something that would interest her because children will help other children. I don't think they think about, "Well, you live up here and I'm down here." I think they meet, especially when it comes to helping each other. So that's a project that I'm working on, that I'm going to take as soon as I get all the information. If that's not going on in Memphis, I'm going to take that back to that young lady in Memphis and to see what I can do if that's something that she would want to do.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: So the lesson you want students or young people to take from you is, do something.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Do something. And the other thing, I don't just talk about, when I speak to young people, about what they can do. In a sense, it is what they can do. Usually you hear about our young men being placed in prisons and the downside of young men and the sagging, and what have you. I talk to the young ladies about respect. I say, "Now, first of all, you need to respect yourself. And if a young man doesn't treat you with respect, it's because you're not respecting yourself. That's what our young ladies have to do first is respect themselves. And if this young man doesn't respect you, let him go. Eventually, if he cares for you, he'll get his pants up off the ground." [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: So you got a whole program going, along with social activism.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Yes. I want to cover it all.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: It's holistic in your approach.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I don't want a young man in a picket line showing his underwear. [Laughter]
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Okay, we got you!
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I don't want a young lady showing all of this. Because when you look at this documentary, this was our normal dress. I went to school with a shirt and tie on. The only time I didn't have a shirt and tie on was when it was band rehearsal. Then I had to put on jeans to get out on the field and learn the formation, and all that. But otherwise, it was a sport coat, a nice shirt and a tie. And that was just normal.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Okay. Bernard LaFayette, what do you want young people to take away from your example of civic engagement?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: I want them to feel empowered. I want them to feel that they don't have to wait until they become voting age. I don't want them to have to think that they have to get grown before they can do something about the problem.
So what I like to see people do -- and let's start in Massachusetts since it's one of the colonies, right? [Laughter] This'll be good. I'll come back next year and do a check and see what you've done. What I want you to do is to go to every school and organize a political structure, because each school is in a Congressional district. So let's start with the 12-year-olds to those who are 17. Let's have a junior political structure where they learn how to register to vote and they elect for themselves their representatives. They actually have a voting. Some of them have student body presidents.
Well, let's expand it and make it real so they can actually present bills before their youth legislature. And then they can look at what the adults are doing there in Boston at the capital, and then they could look at those bills and decide how they want to vote on those bills. In fact, what they can do is actually vote on the candidates. They're ages 12 to 17, so the junior legislature and the junior voters can vote first on the candidates, so you can see what their values and their standards will be. So they have their own representatives and they can vote on new representatives and if bills come through the state legislature, they can vote on those bills while the other folks are making up their minds. And if they want to close down the government and the state legislature, the youth can vote to open it up and keep it going.
So my point is if you're going to drive a car, you take driver's education. If you're going to lead the community, then they need to have practice voting and participation in government. So what we were doing, actually, in the Movement was participating in government. There were some laws and practices that we wanted to change, and so we went about, since we couldn't actually …I couldn't vote, because in those days you had to be 21 unless you were in Kentucky or Texas. So we had to assert ourselves.
Now, I want to make it very clear in terms of breaking the law. Civil disobedience is different from breaking the law. Civil disobedience means you respect the law to the point where you are completing the process. Each law has a rule and then if you break that rule, they have a consequence. So that's why we accepted the consequence. We didn't break the law and then run some place and try to avoid it. We accepted the punishment. We willingly went to jail. But we were breaking the law in order to change the law. So we had respect for law, but those particular ones we wanted to change that practice.
So I would like to see us form youth legislatures and elections and that sort of thing in every state. Then we could bring them together in a convention and they can decide on which candidates they really want for themselves, for their legislature and then vote on the adults' legislature and the bills, and that sort of thing. Then you know what you can do? You can predict what's going to happen next because you've got that next generation. They're voting at 17 in the youth legislature, and guess what they're doing at 18?
CALLIE CROSSLEY: All right, so I'm about to open up the floor to questions for our wonderful panelists here. Approach the microphone. Say your name, ask your question, and they'll be happy to answer.
QUESTON: Good evening. As a former student, I want to thank you all for being here, and also want to say that, leaving the institution not too long ago, that we still are indoctrinated in the reverence of the spirit of the sit-ins and also the Freedom Rides.
But I had a question. While I was there at Fisk, when they were telling us about the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins, they also expressed to us, some professors, the extent that race may not be our issue as though it was yours in this time. I want to find out if you agree with that. And if you disagree with that, what do you think the injustice of this time would be? There were statements made focusing on socioeconomic status rather than race will be more of our issue. Is race moot? Should we just let that go and focus on something else?
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: I'll take a shot. I don't think concentrating entirely on racial issues is too productive, because we now have some really devastating issues that have to be addressed and one is poor people and their economy. Unless poor people can work, they're out of the system. There's nothing for them. And as far as I'm concerned, there are plenty of black poor people and there's plenty of white poor people. It would be very good for them to work together, because I don't think you can win if you allow yourself as poor people to be divided and just beat up on each other and there are people around who would love that.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: I have to respond to that because we never talked about this. Race was never a problem. What race? As the song said, the white folks were treated just like the black folks were treated. The poor whites, they didn't have anything either. In some places, they don't allow them to have unions. What's the Third World? What kind of world is that? No, no, no, this whole business of looking at color and ethnicity was an artificial barrier, line of demarcation to determine who was going to be poor and those who were going to be rich and those are a few people. They're not all white.
So we've got to get rid of this myth. The race becomes a convenient way to determine who is going to have nothing, who's going to have need, and who's going to have greed. Nigeria? Our oil, we got oil coming in from Nigeria. How is it that the Nigerians are on the bottom and they are suffering? In the places where I've been, they don't have schools, they don't have roads. These people here are angry, that's why they've got guns and that's why they're arming themselves and shooting and kidnapping people. That has nothing to do with race. That has to do with some people manipulating other folk.
The reason they didn't want black and whites to sit together, it wasn't about race; they didn't want them to start talking to each other and finding out what happened in Cullman, Alabama. They wanted to keep us separated from each other. Most of your segregation was actually horizontal, not vertical. They didn't want you to sit down together. Sitting on the bus, sitting on the plane, sitting in the park, sitting at the lunch counter folks start talking and they start finding out they've got more in common than the things they have different. So the point is, they use this race stuff as a smokescreen to exploit all of us. That's what's happening. So they put us against each other.
What happened to the Chinese who were here? We know what they did to the Japanese during World War II. We know what they did to the Native Americans. So the point I'm making is, let's cut it in terms of a reality.
So what happened is the same issues we were dealing with, you're dealing with them today. And that's what she's saying. So what we've got to do is really look at how we can change the distribution of the resources that we have. And the jobs she's talking about, you know where they're going if they don't have a job? Jail. They got money for jail. And the folks who are going to get jobs are the folks who are going to help keep folks in jail. That's what guarantees the job, isn't it? Correction officers.
GENEVIEVE HUGHES HOUGHTON: We have a lot of them down where I come from.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR.: Yeah, and lawyers.
QUESTION: Thank you for your response.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: This is our last question, I'm told.
KENNETH HOLMES: First, I want to say thank you all very much. My name is Kenneth Holmes. I just want to say that I'm from Mississippi. I was ten years old when you guys were down there. I know Parchman very well. I know Ross Barnett very well. I knew all of those people very well. I grew up in Mississippi.
But I was listening to the two answers and I actually believe that there are a lot of things that we need to address. But I would like to ask Mr. Patton, Rip over here, this question – because I've heard two answers – are you telling me that in America today, if two men walk into an office and both have on a suit, there are no issues between the black man and the white man who might get that job. I want to hear from someone else. I've heard sort of that. Are you saying that there's no longer an issue like that today?
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I didn't say that.
KENNETH HOLMES: No, I know you didn't, I want to hear your answer to that.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: I think there's still an issue. Even not only walking into an office and trying to secure a job. If you put in an application for a home, over the phone or on the Internet, and you go down to the actual office, there's a possibility that that home has already been sold. And then, for example, say our cameraman goes down to that same office, he can get that home. I think that still exists.
KENNETH HOLMES: Thank you very much. I thought you had more to say. I want to make sure that I did understand. I understand that very well.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: Did I …?
KENNETH HOLMES: Yes, you did, you did answer that. I wanted to make sure that there are a lot of issues that are there, but that issue is still very prevalent in America, and I just wanted to make sure.
ERNEST "RIP" PATTON JR.: And let me add one thing. It has nothing to do with homes. I was speaking at our state university about three weeks ago, and a young lady walked up to me and she had some connections with Mississippi. I don't remember the town that was in Mississippi, but she said that a friend of hers wrote to her and there is a chicken farm in this town where blacks work at a minimal wage. Mexican Americans are moving into this town. They are firing the blacks, hiring Mexican Americans at even a lower rate of pay.
I don't have a problem with Mexican Americans moving anywhere they want to move. The problem is I think that the Mexican Americans should demand equal pay, if not more. So hopefully, when we have our reunion in Chicago that will be addressed. I know that Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, Reverend Lawson are working in some of the counties in Mississippi. And that's something that will be addressed, about wages and equal pay. So when we have our reunion, there are a lot of things that are going to happen that we're going to talk about immediately after the Oprah show.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: So 50 years ago, 20-year-old Bernard LaFayette said he could not live his life with segregation. Twenty-eight-year-old Genevieve Houghton said, "I've never felt so good as doing this work, and it's morally correct." And 21-year-old Ernest "Rip" Patton said, "I will not be moved and I will have a commitment that will be a lifetime commitment." They are Freedom Riders. Give them a hand. [Applause]