There's a famous picture of a mob brutally beating a man in a Birmingham, Ala., bus station hallway in 1961. The man is bystander George Webb, caught in the fury of a crowd of local bigots organized by the Ku Klux Klan, there to greet a Trailways bus carrying seven members of the Congress of Racial Equality. The civil rights organization was en route from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, deliberately violating the Southern states' laws segregating interstate travelers along the way.
The taking of that picture probably saved Jerry Moore's life.
"I remember turning and starting toward the hallway, leading down to the doors for the waiting room," says Moore, a Bronx native who was 19 when he decided to join the Freedom Ride in Sumter, S.C., where he attended Morris College. "And this is where I get cloudy, but my recollection is that I started walking. And these guys were lined up left and right, set up like a gauntlet going down towards the waiting room; and what happened was, there was this flash, like a flashbulb went off, and then these guys turned on the reporter."
The distraction was enough for Moore to escape the mob's initial fury, though others were caught. Minutes later, oncoming (and deliberately delayed) police sirens ended the attack.
Masters of war
Moore and his 400-plus fellow travelers are the subjects of Freedom Riders, a two-hour documentary from filmmaker Stanley Nelson and PBS' American Experience. Released May 16, the film will screen tonight, June 9, at the opening of the sixth annual Windrider Film Forum. Moore will talk to the crowd there about his experiences, something he hasn't often done.
"I think that, over the years, I didn't talk about it; I stopped talking about it," says Moore, now a professional musician, street minister and 30-year resident of Los Angeles. "The few times that I'd mention it to younger people, they'd have no idea what I was talking about."
He was talking about an action designed to force John F. Kennedy's administration to take its eye off of the Soviet Union, and react to the situation in the Deep South. "For the Kennedy brothers, domestic affairs were an afterthought for them, and the Civil Rights Movement was an afterthought beyond an afterthought," says advocate Julian Bond in Freedom Riders.
African-Americans had already endured some ferocity in the South. But few people knew just what kind of violence the group would find in Alabama. In a pre-trip media interview (now integrated into the new documentary), Rider Genevieve Houghton described her expectations: "There is a possibility that we will not be served at some stops. There is a possibility that we might be arrested," she said. "This is the only trouble that I anticipate."
Ballad of Birmingham
Instead, the two buses that left Atlanta an hour apart were each attacked. In Anniston, Ala., racists bombed a Greyhound, intending to burn its occupants alive. (The riders were saved by an exploded fuel tank, which drove the mob back, and a sheriff who called the mob off.) In Birmingham, Moore's fellow Rider James Peck was beaten so badly that his head wounds alone required more than 50 stitches.
"I remember, when we pulled up, you could see guys running by, going in towards where eventually was the terminal," says Moore. "What I remember mainly was, when I got off the bus, [reporter] Simeon Booker's and my eyes met, and he looked down — he just looked away. And I hadn't really felt fear before then, but the only way to describe it is, my guts just shook."
Enter the life-saving flashbulb.
Reinforcements from Nashville would continue the Ride, but Moore's group was done: No bus driver would take them any further. They were flown to New Orleans, escorted by an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had finally been ordered to intervene.
Asked if he's ever been back to Alabama, Moore pauses.
"No, I haven't," he says after a moment. "When I was gigging, I think the furthest we went south was Virginia; I think we were opening for Sly and the Family Stone. But no, I've never really gone back to the Deep South.
"I don't know. I don't know what it would be like. I kind of would like to go to Birmingham. I kind of would like to stand right there, where we stood after the sirens were going off, and look down into that terminal — because to me it seemed like there was a pretty long hallway, from the street to the door.
"Maybe it wasn't as long as I thought."
For extras from this interview, click here.