By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
Lula Mae White. You may not know her name because she was never catapulted into fame like Martin Luther King, Jr. or other heroic figures in the popular history about the Civil Rights Movement. But know this. Lula Mae White was a Freedom Rider.
And White lives in Connecticut.
This is a story about an ordinary woman, who participated in an extraordinary event during the summer of 1961. She joined more than 400 Americans who challenged the status quo that sanctioned racially segregated bus and train stations. It was a time when black and white citizens resolved to not “cooperate with segregation laws anymore.”
“I never felt more empowered than the day I walked into the white waiting room and Captain Jake arrested me,” White said about that hot Sunday afternoon. She was the first of nine riders to step off the Trailways bus in Mississippi on July 9, 1961.
“It felt like a burden lifted off my shoulder. Even though I was arrested and jailed, I felt free.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 29, at the Hartford Public Library, White will give a first-hand account of her journey from Hillhouse High School in New Haven to the University of Chicago, and then to Mississippi, where at 22 years old she was arrested for breach of peace and taken to Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, a maximum-security prison. The screening of the documentary, Freedom Riders, will begin promptly at 4:30 p.m. and end at 6:15 p.m. The conversation and Q & A with White is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.
After the screening, sponsored by The Hartford Guardian, The Hartford Public Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, White and others will ponder this question: Would today’s college students get on the bus?
A retired history teacher, the 74-year-old Freedom Rider was born in Eufaula, Alabama. She in came to Connecticut in 1942, a year after her father migrated from Alabama to work in the Armstrong Rubber Company. She attended school in New Haven and left for College on a scholarship to the University of Chicago. Upon seeing the savage attack by white mobsters, White’s visceral response was to engage the oppressive system. And the best way, she thought, was to join the freedom riders.
She didn’t tell her father about her decision. In those days, children seldom disobey their parents. So she sent a postcard to her father. And it read: “Dear Daddy: If you don’t hear from me for the next couple months, I might be in jail because I’m going to be a freedom rider.” Sure enough, White was in jail when her father received the postcard.
“In his view, girls did not participate in matters such as that,” White said.
Many women, men and children participated in the freedom rides in the spring and summer of 1961. It was a diverse group organized by the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE.
On May 4, 1961 the first group consisted of thirteen activists, who aboard buses in Washington, D.C. with tickets for New Orleans. Their purpose was to challenge racial segregation in interstate travel, which the Supreme Court had declared an unconstitutional violation of human rights. James Farmer led the group on this journey that risk their lives for an end of racism and segregation. When the riders reached Alabama, their bus was derailed. They ran from the smoke and flames into an awaiting mob that tried to murder them. In Birmingham, the Freedom Riders were dragged off and beaten nearly to death.
CORE Director George Holmes said the freedom rides was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
“It was the most successful movement with the least amount of blood spilled in the world. We change the thought process. No body wants to be called a racist now,” Holmes said. “The major success was to change the way people thought–not how they act.”
He added: “One of the reason the civil rights movement was successful was that the silent majority believed racism was wrong. The majority of America was really decent people. They didn’t believe racism was proper.”
Michelle Wallen of Hartford said she wonders if that’s still the case in 2013.
“There are still obstacles,” she said.
A University of Connecticut student Wallen said she wouldn’t have been able to withstand those beatings and jails. She said that her 16-year-old daughter, Stacey Ann, recently became aware of the sacrifices others have made for her to have opportunities they didn’t have.
Wallen said that her daughter recently learned about lynchings at the Greater Hartford Academy of Arts. When Stacey Ann learned about the gruesome nature of slavery and Jim Crow, she “broke down and cried.”
“It was hard for her,” said Wallen who emigrated from Jamaica more than 20 years ago. “But her awareness of the fact that so many African Americans were brutalized made her appreciate the sacrifices they made so we can have better opportunities. She is now armed with knowledge to also deal with stuff that’s still going on.”
Wallen said she would like for her daughter and others to hear this first-hand account about White’s journey to Mississippi.
“This program,” she said, “is good so other people can learn about the past and how it’s still affecting us today.”