The 1961 Freedom Riders — an oft-overlooked expedition — ushered in a new era of the Civil Rights Movement and one of its original participants — Albert Bigelow — once toted a hockey stick for the Harvard Crimson.
With the exception of 1963's March on Washington, most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s evoked fear, anger and sadness.
The truth is that horrific moments fueled the Movement. The heroism of the men and women — swallowing their fear and enduring the pain for a better tomorrow — inspired action. Those photos and film clips often compelled others to join, forced politicians to serve and allowed the media to hold a mirror of embarrassment to those in opposition.
Albert Smith Bigelow — once a punishing defenseman on the Harvard University ice hockey team and a U.S. Navy Commander in World War II — owns a curious place in the nonviolent initiative to defeat Jim Crow. As one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, he was in the middle of one of those iconic images — aboard a burning Greyhound bus on the side of a highway in Anniston, Ala., in May 1961.
Born in Brookline, Mass., Bigelow was the son of a Harvard-educated lawyer. The elder Albert would serve in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for two decades as well as on his alma mater's Board of Overseers.
So it came as no surprise when young Albert, along with twin brother Hugh, enrolled in Cambridge and joined future Olympic silver medalist John Chase on the Crimson hockey team. With the Bigelow brothers forming a wall on the defense, the Crimson met with success, dominating arch-rival Yale in the process. While scoring goals is not among the high priorities of a defenseman, Bert lit the lamp six times in his 28-game varsity career.
After graduating from Harvard in 1929, Bigelow headed just a few hundred yards down the Charles River to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study architecture and soon thereafter began his professional career in that field in New York, even designing buildings for the 1939 World's Fair. He also pursued artistry with seascapes and other nautical themes serving as his specialty.
The tranquil life he'd made with his wife and daughters came to a close when he was called to serve his country after the United States' entry into World War II.
A U.S. Navy Commander, he was on the bridge of a destroyer escort — the USS Dale W. Peterson — sailing into Pearl Harbor when he learned of the explosion of the Enola Gay over Hiroshima.
"Although I had no way of understanding what an atom bomb was, I was absolutely awestruck, as I suppose all men were for a moment," he wrote. "Intuitively it was then that I realized for the first time that morally war is impossible."
Bigelow searched for understanding for the next two decades. He and his wife took joined the Society of Friends and, through the Quakers, housed two of the 25 Hiroshima Maidens who came to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery in 1955.
Two years later, when the United States announced it would employ a series of tests of nuclear weapons on the island of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands the following April, Bigelow was compelled to act.
Armed with lifelong sailing expertise, he became the captain of The Golden Rule, a four-man ketch that attempted to sail to the South Pacific to disrupt the atomic testing. While the Boston Herald called the crew 'Thoreauesque,' the U.S. Government took a lesser view of the protest, jailing the crew in Hawaii for 60 days.
Civil disobedience had become Bigelow's focus. In 1961 he would take another dangerous mission, this time heading into the American South as one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. It was a journey intended to challenge non-compliance with federal court rulings that had struck down segregation at interstate facilities, including train and bus stations.
James Peck — another Harvard alum and shipmate on The Golden Rule — had taken a similar interstate venture in 1947, the Journey of Reconciliation, which had begun after a woman became sick and tired. Literally.
Irene Morgan was a 27-year-old African-American, the mother of two. Feeling ill, she got up on a Sunday morning in July 1944 and boarded a Greyhound bus bound for her hometown of Baltimore, Md., so she could see her doctor.
Morgan took a seat four rows from the back of the bus, within the section of the bus reserved for 'colored' people, yet as the bus moved into Northern Virginia, a white couple boarded and wanted Morgan's seat. She took a stand.
The bus driver summoned a sheriff, Morgan vigorously resisted, and ultimately she was dragged off the bus.
Morgan eventually paid a fine for resisting arrest, but she refused to pay a second fine, for violating Virginia's segregation law. Her appeal made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946 with the chief counsel of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, arguing on her behalf.
The Court's landmark ruling went in her favor, striking down for the first time state laws requiring segregation in interstate travel. And James Farmer — the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality — wanted to make sure that the victory was not simply a paper one.
So CORE planned to test and challenge the rule with an interracial bus trip into what seemed the least antagonistic part of the South, a two-week trek through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. The 16 Riders — Peck included — returned home with some nicks and bruises, but Marshall's dire prediction of extreme violence proved unfounded.
Thirteen years later, Marshall would find himself before the U.S. Supreme Court yet again, this time trying to overturn a judgment against Bruce Boynton, an African-American law student, for trespassing in a Richmond, Va., bus terminal restaurant for "whites only." He won again, this time a ruling forbidding segregation not only in interstate travel, but in the bus and train stations themselves — integrated riders on a bus no longer would be forced to segregate at the terminal stops along the way.
Farmer was convinced to do it all again, but this time would be different. The plan was to head deeper into the South, including Alabama and Mississippi, in May of 1961.
"We felt that we could then count upon the racists of the South to create a crisis," said Farmer. "So that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal law."
It required uncommon people like Bigelow to answer the call — those endowed with the courage to lay their lives on the line for merely a hint of hope that they, as the Freedom Riders, could change the world. Some completed their last will and testament before setting out.
Bigelow got a quick dose of what was in store at a bus terminal in Rock Hill, S.C., on May 9, 1961, when future Congressman John Lewis, then a 20-year-old college student, attempted to integrate the whites-only waiting room. He was confronted by a group of white teenagers.
"I have every right to enter this waiting room according to the Supreme Court of the United States in the Boynton case," Lewis told the men. The response was an obscenity, followed immediately by a punch to the jaw. In his 1998 memoir Walking With The Wind, Lewis described what followed.
"At the point Al Bigelow stepped in, placing his body between mine and these men, standing square with his arms at his sides. It had to look strange to these guys to see a big, strong white man putting himself in the middle of a fistfight like this, not looking at all as if he was ready to throw a punch, but not looking frightened either.
"They hesitated for an instant. Then they attacked Bigelow, who did not raise a finger as these young men began punching him. It took several blows to drop him to one knee."
In a rarity for this trip, a white policeman then came to the aid of Bigelow and Lewis, breaking up the melee and asking the men if they wanted to press charges. Doing so would have been in conflict with the tenets of non-violent resistance, so the Riders refused the politically risky offer.
In fact, they pressed on into Georgia with the ultimate goal of making it to New Orleans, but not until a bleeding and battered Lewis had his cup of coffee in the whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill.
That small blip didn't draw much in the way of media coverage, as the nation was still celebrating the news that Alan Shepard had become the first American to travel into space a few days before.
And Georgia authorities, fearing greater violence, put out the word that the interstate transport laws were to be enforced and the Riders sailed through without incident.
That was not the case in Alabama. Shortly after crossing the state line, an oncoming bus signaled the Freedom Ride to stop and the driver — who had just witnessed a gathering mob at the bus station in Anniston — relayed the warning. Rider Joe Perkins was in charge of the mission and he hoped that the advisory was an exaggeration, if not an out-and-out bluff.
While it would seem that no one would have faulted them for bypassing the stop, the point of the mission was to do just the opposite. Perkins urged the bus driver to continue. Having prepared for every possibility, the Riders steeled themselves for whatever was ahead.
As the Greyhound pulled into the Anniston station, two cars blocked its exit and the mob went to work, trying to slash the tires and beating the windows with crow bars and pipes.
The Riders and the driver held the door with the help of two white men on the bus who were not affiliated with the Ride. They were undercover agents of the Alabama Highway Patrol sent on the bus by Gov. John Patterson to gather information on the Riders.
Instead the officers helped saved lives. "It would have been suicide to walk out of that bus," Bigelow would later tell a cameraman from Atlanta's WSB television.
The double-paned windows cracked, but did not break. The tires, though damaged, were functional. And somehow the bus got away, returning to the highway with several cars in chase.
Six miles out of town the tires finally began to give way, forcing the bus to come to a stop in the emergency lane on Highway 202, just a few hundred yards from the Anniston Army Depot.
The mob, including more than a few Klansmen, pulled up to the disabled vehicle, pounding on the sides and terrorizing the Riders for 15 to 20 minutes before one of the attackers flung flaming rags through a window which had now been completely breached. The pacifist passengers had a terrifying choice — burn inside the bus or face a growing dark-hearted throng.
As many began to suffer smoke inhalation, the Riders began to exit the bus. As a man hit Hank Thomas, a young Rider from Howard University, in the head with a baseball bat, an exploding gas tank caused the marauders to retreat a bit and before they could resume their attacks, a highway patrolman who had stopped fired his handgun into the air.
The crowd dispersed. Behind the scenes, as the Freedom Riders lay in the grass next to the highway coughing and bleeding, federal officers, who had not been able to prevent the violence, pressured local ambulance and hospital workers to transport and treat the injured black Riders.
While that was happening, a local photographer from the Anniston Star caught an image of the bus fully engulfed in flames.
His photo became an iconic image in the struggle for freedom, a key to broadly mobilizing support for the Freedom movement. Confronting Jim Crow was no longer limited to heroic acts by courageous Southern blacks. Over the next six months, more than 50 integrated Freedom Rides — via bus, train and plane — would wind up in the South, most destined for Jackson, Miss.
Initially, the country disapproved of the mission. NBC news anchor David Brinkley, while acknowledging the legality of the Rides, even offered an anti-Ride editorial on air. With an eye toward the upcoming first meeting between new President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, Brinkley warned that "it is time for those so-called Freedom Riders to stop this. They are accomplishing nothing whatsoever and, on the contrary, are doing possible harm. And this is humiliating the United States all around the world."
Lost in his admonishment was that the Freedom Rides were designed for that purpose, so the federal government could no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of segregation in the South.
As local authorities continued to incarcerate the Riders for "Breach of Peace," the jailing of hundreds both sapped local jail budgets financially and earned harsh criticism from around the world. And as the "public accommodations" clauses of the 1964 Civil Rights Act took effect, segregation at interstate terminals ended far more quietly than seemed possible in the glare of the flames at Anniston.
Like most of the Freedom Riders, Bigelow anonymously blended back into a quiet life. Although he would still participate in anti-nuclear events, he returned to his career as an architect, served as a trustee at a Quaker school in New Hampshire and judged competitions for the U.S. Yacht Racing Association.
In 1989, he was given the Rudolph Weld Memorial Award by the Bourne Cove Yacht Club, which is still active in the waters around Cape Cod. The award's proclamation shows the same steadiness of purpose that had served Bigelow so well almost 30 years earlier:
"[Bigelow] is known far and wide as the sailor's sailor. He represents all of those intrinsic qualities that the award espouses. He was one of the silent founders of the Bourne Cove Yacht Club, yet never was its commodore. In the earliest years he often could be found at the starting line, ready to race.
"The surprising health of the sailing program today, however, stems from the many hours — over many years — in which he taught sailing, racing rules, and safety on the water to a whole generation of today's young sailors. No other person has given so unselfishly of his time and knowledge to start a second generation of BCYC sailors, some of them of championship caliber. But, more importantly, he imparted to those youngsters a love of boating, of Buzzards Bay, and above all of fair play."
Albert Smith Bigelow passed away in 1993 and two years later one of his two daughters, Kate Benton, established a children's race in his name. One hopes those young sailors will understand the honor of competing in the name of someone so willing to lay his life on the line in the name of justice for all.
— Brett Hoover