Survivors of the ‘Freedom Ride’ discuss their perilous fight against inequality

Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 10:48 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Canal Street, a major thoroughfare in downtown New Orleans; a place where courage was displayed during the Jim Crow era. The type of courage that ultimately forced a major change in America.

In 1960, young blacks and whites challenged segregated Canal Street lunch counters, and many were arrested.

Jerome Smith, a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, was one of the demonstrators.

“I was definitely involved in it, that’s the first time I went to jail,” said Smith.

They were part of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality and Doratha “Dodie” Smith did her part to fight racism.

In a black and white photo, she is seen holding a sign about the segregated lunch counters at Woolworth’s and McCrory’s.

“I was 16, going on 17 because while a member of the NAACP Youth Council, CORE had recently organized in New Orleans and they had just started their first sit-in at Woolworth’s and McCory’s and boycott,” said Smith who’s last name is now Smith-Simmons.

Dave Dennis and Claude Reese also engaged in the protests.

“My picketing at McCrory’s ended up with my getting arrested for the first time,” said Dennis.

“Both Woolworth and McCory’s,” Reese said.

That activism and the arrests that followed prepared them for something more perilous.

“No question. Every day prepared you for the next one,” said Reese.

On May 4, 1961, national CORE launched “Freedom Rides” on a Trailways and Greyhound bus to test segregation on interstate buses and inside terminals after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed such mandated separatism. The ride began in Washington D.C. and was to end in New Orleans later that month.

“The Freedom Ride movement just was an extension of the historical Civil Rights movement,” said Jerome Smith.

It was a journey into the Deep South where danger was anticipated. And on May 14, 1961, it surfaced. A mob which included KKK members firebombed the Greyhound Bus in Anniston, Alabama, and riders on the other bus were beaten.

“And they were supposed to end here in New Orleans, but as you know that never happened,” said Smith Simmons.

Dennis said the original Freedom Riders who endured the bus bombing are the real heroes.

“What I would consider to be the really brave people were the people on the bus that was burned,” said Dennis. “They were almost murdered there.”

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy urged a cooling-off period following that but the young activists would not hear of it.

“The young people dug in that day, Jerome and all of us, we’re going to continue this ride,” said Dennis.

An emergency conclave was convened in Montgomery, Alabama, and some New Orleans CORE members were present.

“I’m overwhelmed by meeting all these great people I’ve read about, Martin Luther King, [Ralph] Abernathy,” Dennis said.

Smith said he was known to King and some other leaders of the civil rights movement.

“Dr. King come touch me on my shoulder because he had heard of my determination in other parts of the South,” said Smith.

Dennis, who at the time was a student attending Dillard University on a scholarship was not eager to join the Freedom Ride even though he was in attendance at the meeting in Montgomery.

“There was this thing that said, there’s not enough space in this room for both God and fear,” said Dennis. “So, before I knew it I was jumping up, hand up, I’m going, so I ended up on the first bus.”

On May 24, 1961, buses left Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi.

“You had people out there with pitchforks on the side of the road, I mean just lined up and trucks and cars but we had a lot of security, the National Guard,” said Dennis.

Smith talked about fasting and other ways he prepared his body for activism which sometimes resulted in him being attacked.

“Connecting to Gandhi, connecting to some of Dr. King’s writings and then looking into the lives of others who had put themselves up, in terms of that suffering,” said Smith.

Dennis spoke of their almost immediate arrest once they arrived in Jackson.

“When we got to Jackson, Mississippi, there was a line of police on both sides of the door when you come out the bus that led right into the white waiting room,” said Dennis. “And then they escorted us and right backed up to the other door were paddy wagons and we went right into the paddy wagons.”

They and others like John Lewis ended up at the infamous Parchman Prison in Mississippi.

Dennis said they did not have an expectation of making it to Jackson in good shape.

“Okay, I’m alive that was the first thing you had to deal with because we didn’t expect for that to happen,” he said.

Sixty-two years later at Hubbard Mansion B&B on St. Charles Avenue, an establishment owned by another CORE member, Don Hubbard, who was not a part of the Freedom Rides, Dennis recounted the Mississippi incarceration experience.

“We tried hunger strikes, we did all this kind of stuff,” he said.

Eventually, Smith, Dennis, Julia Aaron, Doris Castle and Jean Thompson were released from jail and returned to New Orleans.

Smith does not think the women of the civil rights movement have received their due.

“Ladies was tough, females,” said Smith. “The ladies were tough? (Jerome) Beyond.”

The rides were not over. Others, both black and white, trained at New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans, the same church where Dr. King and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s.

“Rev. Davis’ church. They brought me back from jail to be a part of the training session there,” said Smith.

Mississippi was still on their radar. But unlike the ride from Montgomery to Jackson, there were no National Guardsmen with them.

“Jerome says we need to go to McComb, so okay. So we went to McComb,” said Smith-Simmons.

She says on the Freedom Rides there were “testers” and “observers” once they entered a bus terminal.

“All hell broke loose, they took Tom Valentine off of the stool, threw him on the ground and he would bounce up like that. They chased George Raymond, said Smith-Simmons. “At that point, Jerome motioned to Alice and I to come sit in the waiting room. They finally caught on that Jerome was part of the group when he did that and they started beating Jerome, they beat him with brass knuckles.”

She went on to say, “I was singing in my head, We are not afraid.”

Smith-Simmons was attacked by whites at the bus station, too.

“I was kicked in the back by the same guy who beat Jerome with the brass knuckles. Alice was kicked and they started chasing us and I was running behind Jerome,” Smith-Simmons said. “And I turn around, there was a truck passing driven by a black man. Jerome dove into the back of that.”

She said she kept running.

“I was thinking if they’re going to kill me I’m not going to make it easy for them, they got to really do some work to catch me, " said Smith-Simmons.

She says eventually the same black man who happened to be passing by in a pickup truck who picked up the others found her, too.

Once they got to the White Castle motel she said Jerome Smith bellowed, “Get Bobby Kennedy on the phone, so he started calling out these numbers, so I took my little pad out and wrote it down, say Bob Kennedy.”

She showed FOX 8 a handwritten note with what she said were the numbers she jotted down plus sentences about the attack they had survived.

“I said, I need to speak to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. He said this is he and my eyes went like and I said, I’m calling for Jerome Smith. He said I’m aware of the situation. There are FBI agents out front waiting to take you back to New Orleans. Being all of 18 1/2 years old, I say to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, oh no they won’t, we’re going back to New Orleans the way we came by bus and I gave the phone to Jerome,” Smith-Simmons said.

She said she was reluctant to trust the FBI.

“There were 10, not one, not two, but 10 FBI agents in the terminal as we were getting beaten and didn’t do a thing, so they’re going to take me back to New Orleans? I don’t think so,” Smith-Simmons stated.

Eventually, they flagged down a bus near the highway, according to Smith-Simmons.

“And that’s how we got back to New Orleans,” Smith-Simmons recalled.

Headlines blared about the incident involving the New Orleans Freedom riders. Their names were in new articles.

“I had received some blows but that had happened on the same side of my head,” said Smith.

During Jerome Smith’s interview with FOX 8 for this story he clutched a walking stick in his hand.

“Like I’m on this stick right? And that comes from an injury,” said Smith. “I still suffer with the headaches.”

New Orleans played other roles in the Freedom Ride. According to Dennis, the former Flint-Goodrige Hospital where black doctors were trained and practiced was called upon to help injured Freedom Riders who were brought to the city from neighboring southern states.

“They couldn’t get medical care and so they had to get them out of those places and the only place they could get the doctors ready was here in New Orleans because New Orleans had Flint Goodridge Hospital which was connected to Dillard University,” said Dennis.

Reese and Smith-Simmons attended Southern University New Orleans together and Reese’s Freedom Ride came later in 1961.

“I really believe that that telephone call that Dodie told you about to Bobby Kennedy’s office probably was a factor in the way McComb behaved when we showed up three or four days later actually,” said Reese. ‘We were not physically attacked.”

At the Treme Community Center where Jerome Smith still has a presence as a mentor to young people, photos of the Freedom Riders from New Orleans line the wall. Most are deceased.

“The first one Julia come out the St. Bernard Project, she and Doris Castle used to have the whole prison singing,” said Smith.

Walking through the gym he said, “I think about how blessed I’ve been to come through this.”

Smith-Simmons says having others with her when they were attacked helped her deal with it.

“I felt as long as I was with the group I was not afraid of nothing,” she said.

Smith who was involved in myriad protests said there were times he worried about his life.

“Several times I feared for my life,” said Smith. “The moment dominates your commitment to the moment and that enables you to carry on.”

Dennis authored a book with his son about his experiences.

“We didn’t know anything about PTSD, you know, so it’s many, many years later that I realized that I went through a hard time mentally,” Dennis said.

Smith says he was booted from Southern University in Baton Rouge after getting arrested for his activism.

“One of the things about Southern, it made me cry when they put me out of school because I knew I was doing the right thing,” Smith said with a huge pause between his words.

The sacrifices they made helped lead to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And if they had to do it again, they would be willing.

“Yes, yes,” said Smith-Simmons.

Reese said, “I can’t hastily say yes, but I cannot say no to that.”

Dennis who had been reluctant initially to take a Freedom Ride said, “I hope so. I put it that way, it’s because I didn’t know I was going to do that then and I give a lot of this to, you know, God has this way of putting you in the right spot,” said Dennis.

They agree the struggle is not over.

“I feel good and proud about what we did but I’m not satisfied,” said Smith-Simmons.

Dennis said, “No.”

Reese said, “Absolutely positively not.”

And Smith shook his head and said, “It takes different forms because that’s not really controlled by us. The evil on the other side will make us react. "

Dennis went on to become CORE’s field secretary in the South.

“Medgar Evers and I were very close friends. I was with him one hour before he was assassinated,” said Dennis. “Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, I was with them 24 hours before they died, you know.

Dennis eventually got his law degree.

Jerome Smith still works with New Orleans children and says every day he does something in the furtherance of equality.

Smith-Simmons worked for Preservation Hall and is one of the founders of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

And Claude Reese worked for Mayors Moon Landrieu and Dutch Morial and then New Orleans Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau. Reese and Smith-Simmons graduated later from SUNO.

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