By Melissa Scott Sinclair
An ordinary Trailways bus, southbound from Atlanta. But Theresa Ann Walker didn’t know where it might take her.
Would the bus reach Jackson, Miss.? Or be turned aside? Would it burn?
She stepped aboard.
That decision, 60 years ago, was driven by a deep conviction: Something was very wrong in America, Walker knew. She had to do something about it.
It was driven, too, by love. Walker’s husband was the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who was then working as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and serving as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief of staff.
Charged with recruiting volunteers for the 1961 Freedom Rides, Wyatt Tee came home one evening and told his wife that he was going to join them.
“I didn’t say anything,” said Walker, now 93 and living south of Richmond in Chester, Va. “I just thought about it at night. And the next day I told him, ‘Well, I’m going to go with the Freedom Riders too.’ “
She thought he was going to try to talk her out of it. He didn’t. Wyatt Tee Walker may have been a tactical genius in the civil rights movement, but he knew he couldn’t outmaneuver his soft-spoken wife.
In 1960, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation in bus stations, train stations and airports was illegal, under the Interstate Commerce Act. (The case, Boynton v. Virginia, stemmed from an incident in 1958 when Howard University law student Bruce Boynton was arrested at the Trailways station in Richmond. His crime was ordering a cheeseburger and a cup of tea from the Whites-only restaurant.) The Freedom Riders intended to test the ruling, knowing many southern transit stations had refused to desegregate.
The first group of 13 riders, recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), left Washington on May 4, 1961. On May 14, Ku Klux Klan members in Anniston, Ala., set one bus ablaze and tried to barricade the riders inside.
When the riders escaped the burning wreck, the mob – many wearing their Sunday best – attacked them.
But the Klan’s intimidation efforts failed. Three days later, on May 17, a new group of Freedom Riders boarded a bus from Nashville to Birmingham, Ala. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy negotiated a deal with Mississippi that would allow riders to be jailed on local charges, as long as they weren’t beaten. The riders kept coming, eventually numbering 436.
“We had to, like Gandhi said, keep things going. If one falls and can’t keep going, others have to step up and take their place,” said Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a White civil rights activist from Arlington, Va. She signed up to be a Freedom Rider and was arrested in early June.
On June 21, it was the Walkers’ turn. They sent their children to their grandparents, and they boarded the bus. In the early evening, they pulled into Jackson. A paddy wagon was waiting.
Most Freedom Riders were 18 to 30 years old. Many were college students, like Mulholland, who had already participated in sit-ins and other protests.
Walker was 33, with four young children. “I’d never been in jail before. I didn’t know anything about jail,” she said.
She doesn’t remember having her mug shot taken. In the photo, her expression is quietly defiant, with the faintest hint of a smile on her lips.
The next morning, when she was transferred to the Hinds County jail, she turned over her money and her jewelry. (She would never see her engagement ring again.) “It kind of struck me then: What am I getting into?”
Walker had been trained in nonviolent resistance, but she didn’t know the secrets shared by women in the movement, such as sewing a pocket under your skirt to hold a toothbrush, soap and other necessities. She had nothing but a trench coat.
She did manage to get some paper and a pen, which she used to take notes and sketch a diagram of the jail cell: mattresses pushed tightly together, an open toilet, a trash box, rolled sleeping bags, a clothesline stretched diagonally across the room.
What sustained her was singing freedom songs with the other women and hearing the men sing in reply. She knew her husband’s voice, because it was off-key. “He thought he could sing,” she said, laughing. “But he couldn’t sing.” It was all right. She couldn’t either.
They wrote short letters to each other, carried back and forth by a trustee.
Had a little headache last night, little trouble sleeping. . . . I love you very much. It was a lot easier to come this time although I was afraid for you a couple times. – Wyatt Tee
There are 13 of us in this 13’x15’ cell. There are 20 [white] girls in the next one – same size. Nine of us sleep on the floor. . . I wish a picture could be taken in here. It is a terrible sight (and smell). I love you and miss you. – Ann
They heard the news that more Freedom Riders were bound for Jackson, which presented a problem. The overcrowded jail was transferring riders to Parchman, the most notorious prison in the South, where women were housed in a death row cell and endured gloveless vaginal exams. Walker sent word to her husband: She wanted out.
I slept under my rain coat last night – it was cold. . . . I love you and miss you. Have you heard anything from Martin? – Ann
Sweetheart, It won’t be too long now before we will see each other. Don’t know whether it will be late or early. I am marking off the hours on the wall. – Wyatt Tee
After a week in jail, the Walkers were reunited after King arranged bail. The last Freedom Rides took place in December 1961, after the Interstate Commerce Commission officially prohibited segregation in interstate transit terminals.
The most remarkable thing about the Freedom Rides, Mulholland said, was how they unified the country: South and North, Black and White. “It brought the people working for change together for a common purpose.”
She has traveled the country speaking about her experiences and donated Freedom Ride artifacts to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Walkers’ civil rights work continued, despite the threats they continually endured: the brick through the picture window in Petersburg, the letter years later that threatened her children’s lives. Like King, Wyatt Tee never expected to see 40, his wife said.
But it was she who would suffer violence. In May 1963 she checked into the Gaston Motel in Birmingham, where her husband had been working with King to negotiate with local officials and business leaders. She had just put their two youngest boys, Bobby and Earl, to bed when King’s room at the motel was bombed. Men with guns ordered her to come to the lobby.
She told them her children were sleeping. She’d have to wake them.
One man raised his rifle and struck her in the head, sending Walker to the hospital. The following day, back in Atlanta, she was jailed again.
Traumatized, Walker didn’t talk about her experiences for 30 years. And no one asked her. Reporters interviewed her husband, but rarely were interested in stories of women in the civil rights movement.
“They thought we cooked and whatnot,” she said.
By Melissa Scott Sinclair