Fieldnotes – The Freedom Rider
There was a lot more to Allen Secher’s stories of his experience as a ‘freedom rider’ than I was able to fit into the radio piece. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
“I was in the second wave (of freedom riders). The first was the buses. The buses that went down and were stopped along the way. And the riders were pulled out and beaten, and the buses were set on fire. That was ’61, that was the first year. I was the second wave in ’62. We went in cars. Don’t wanna give them a chance to stop the bus.
So this was the second wave. And I was jailed twice. The first time was in Albany, Georgia. The second time was two years later in Saint Augustine Florida. On both cases it was a response to Martin Luther King asking clergy to…to come south.
We were addressed by King, and Ralph Abernathy, and Andy Young, as to what to expect in a non-violent demonstration. And expect to be arrested. The next day we formed a large circle, on the steps of City Hall of Albany, Georgia. 70 or 80 people. Black and white.
We formed a demonstration, and we were all arrested. It was a prayer service is what we did. We were in a circle and we did a circle and a prayer service. We were arrested. And thrown in jail. In Albany, Georgia. Well, we accomplished something. We integrated the jail. But they decided that integrating the jail was not proper. So the white guys were taken to a nearby county, Baker County, and thrown in a jail there. The jail was two cells, meant for 8 people, and we were about thirty of us in the cells. It was two cells side by side and a little area in front of the cells no running water and toilets that didn’t work, and we were there for…a week.”
(SAINT AUGUSTINE FLORIDA, TWO YEARS LATER)
“There again we were met by King at a local church, again given instructions, this was 1964 where you were prohibited from segregation in any place that had interstate commerce. It was (President) Johnson’s civil rights act. We were going to demonstrate the next day in three different locations, all of which had interstate commerce. That night we were going to march from the black area through the white area to the slave market, and return. And what King told us was be on the lookout, because the night before someone had been shot and killed along the route. Someone had crawled up a tree, and as the group passed below, had shot and killed them.
…we kept marching. And it’s dark where we’re marching, and I’m in the lead. And I’m holding this Black girl’s hand as we’re marching. I gotta tell ya…the scariest two, three, four hours of my life. We’re passing under the same trees where the night before someone had been shot…and with the full knowledge the National Guard that had been called out wasn’t very sympathetic to start with. So…I was scared…I can rehearse the feeling that I had all over again as I tell the story. Well, we marched…from the black section, through the white section…to the slave market…did a prayer service there of some sort and turned around and walked back – that was our evening. The next day we did a prayer service, we were to divide into three groups…one group was to go to the local Woolworth’s lunch counter …be like going to a Target nowadays to a lunch counter, or to a lunch counter at a WalMart. One group went to the Woolworths. Another group went to a lunch counter at an interstate motel. And the third group was to go to the parking lot of this same motel and gather in the parking lot, and that’s the group I was assigned to. There were about fifty of us, in a circle in the parking lot, doing a prayer service, whites and blacks. Crossing arms. And again singing and doing prayers. And at that moment I was witness to the most courageous act I’ve seen in my life – in my life! We’re in the circle, and at a given moment, two young black kids – teenagers – broke away from the group, and as they broke away they peeled off their clothing, and they had bathing suits on, underneath their clothing, and they ran from us to the swimming pool, of this motel. And the swimming pool was probably no more than thirty yards away – and they jumped into the pool…and of course the patrons of the pool, white people, immediately exited. Oh my god, swimming in the same pool with a black! And the manager was called. And the manager panicked. And he didn’t know what to do and he ran, and he grabbed a gallon jug of acid…and he took the acid, and he poured it into the pool…with the two black kids still in the pool – they didn’t budge! Now, he had no way of knowing that the acid diluted itself with water, but you could see on the bottle…’acid’ – and the kids just stayed there in the pool till the guy was done with the acid, and they didn’t move. Those two kids…that’s indelible…that scene…is absolutely indelible…that hasn’t changed over the years, the vision of that scene. Then we were arrested…and they put five of us in each of the cop cars…then they took us to a huge parking lot outside the jail…then each cop had his picture taken with his five charges…I guess so he could put it in his scrapbook for the future…
And there I saw one of the most horrific acts in my life, one of the cops had a cattle prod, and here in Montana we know what cattle prods are, and there was a young white girl, I’d say early 20’s, who had been arrested with us, and the cop took that prod, and shoved it right up her behind, and turned on the juice, and the scream from that girl, the absolute scream from that girl, and the agony…and she was not counter-demonstrating at all. She had come, she had been arrested, and she was going peacefully.
They separated white from black and Jew from gentile…
I think…I think it’s important to tell the story, because again….something I had said to you earlier, there’s a story wherein I had a fairly unique experience, and it’s important to tell the story so the story is told and it’s not lost…it doesn’t go down the drain…so that others realize what had gone on then…so that it’s not just about going on Face Book and seeing that your friend had ice cream for dinner. It’s about realizing a piece of history, and about how those things affected history as time went by. And so I tell these stories as often as I can…”
POST SCRIPT TO THE ALBANY, GEORGIA EPISODE
I returned home to Massapequa Long Island, a hero. ‘Oh my God, our rabbi was one of the freedom riders!’ ‘Cause we got copy galore, Clay! New York Times, New York Post, Long Island newspapers, Time Magazine – interviews all over the place! ‘Boy, our rabbi’s a hero!’ So for the first service I did, the place was packed. ‘Yo, look at our rabbi!’ The place was packed. ‘Is this gonna be terrific!’
About two weeks later, Saturday night, there was a youth group at my house, and the Long Island Fair Housing Council called to say that in the next town, a black couple had been refused a house. ‘Would I come to a demonstration?’ Of course, I’ll come!”
Allen started to organize some of the kids in his congregation to go to the demonstration. But immediately he got a call from the president of the congregation, ordering him not to go. He went anyway. The next week, he addressed the congregation.
“Why did you hire me? Because I know all the latest dances? Or did you hire me to be an inspiration to you and to your children?” I said “If the hiring is just for the former, then you got the wrong guy. But if you hired me to literally teach them Judaism…then we’re gonna do fine…”
But it was clear to him, he says, that the congregation was telling him: ‘It’s fine if you go way down there, and that doesn’t affect us at all…but not in my backyard…uh uh. ‘
“What they wanted from me,” he says, “was Boy Scout sermons. They wanted me to find biblical passages that demonstrated that a Jew was trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, etc. After what I had witnessed in the South, I realized there was a deeper meaning to Judaism, and if I couldn’t teach it in that synagogue, then I probably belonged elsewhere.”
(BELOW IS A LETTER FROM ALLEN SECHER AND THE OTHER RABBIS WHO WERE ARRESTED IN SAINT AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA IN 1964)
Why We Went
St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States. It was here on St. Augustine’s Day, August 28, 1565, that Pedro Menendez de Aviles first sighted land. In 1965 it will celebrate its 400th anniversary–indeed it has requested federal funds to enhance this historic observance. St. Augustine has other distinguishing characteristics. In American history books yet to be written. this small,neatly kept Florida Community will long be remembered as a symbo1 of a harsh, rigidly segregated, Klan-dominated, backward-looking city which mocked the spirit of the doughty African-born, dark-pigmented priest for whom it was named.
St. Augustine is a tourist town.By far the highest percentage of its income comes from the visitors who walk through its quaint streets staring
at “excavations” from the 18th century only now being restored. Most visitors stop at the Slave Market, supposedly only a relic of bygone days. True, they no longer sell slaves in that market, but let no one be deceived into thinking that there no longer exists among this town’s white residents the mental attitude and the psychology which first put slaves on those trading blocks. The spirit of racial arrogance persists and is reinforced by the sway of terror long exerted by hooded and unhooded mobsters.
We went to St Augustine in response to the appeal of Martin Luther King addressed to the CCAR Conference” in which he asked us to join with him in a creative witness to our joint convictions of equality and racial justice.
We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. If St. Augustine is to be not only an ancient city but also a great-hearted city,it will not happen until the raw hate, the ignorant prejudices, the unrecognized fears which now grip so many of its citizens are exorcised from its soul. We came then, not as tourists, but as ones who, perhaps quixotically, thought we could add a bit to the healing process of America.
We were arrested on Thursday June 18,1964. Fifteen of us were arrested while praying in an integrated group in front of Monson’s Restaurant. Two of us were arrested for sitting down at a table with three Negro youngsters in the Chimes Restaurant~ We pleaded not guilty to the charges against us.
Shortly after our confinement in the St. John’s County Jail, we shared with one another our real, inner motives. They are, as might be expected, mixed. We have tried to be honest with one another about the wrong, as well as the right, motives which have prompted us. These hours have been filled with a sense of surprise and discovery, of fear and affirmation, of self- doubt and belief in God.
We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away. We could not say no to Martin Luther King, whom we always respected and admired and whose loyal friends we hope we shall be in the days to come. We could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by
moral .. means–a rare modern privilege–which has been the glory of the non-violent struggle for civil rights.
We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood.
We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.
We carne as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We carne because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.
Here in St.Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen face that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
We believe, though we could not count on it in advance, that our presence and actions here have been of practical effect. They have reminded the embattled Negroes here that they are not isolated and alone. The conscience of the wicked has been troubled, while that of the righteous has gained new strength. We are more certain than before that this cause is invincible, but we also have a sharpened awareness of the great effort and sacrifice we pray that what we have done may lead us on to further actions and persuade others who still stand hesitantly to take the stand they know is just.
We carne from different backgrounds and with different degrees of involvement. Some of us have had intimate experience with the struggle of minority groups to achieve full and equal rights in our widely scattered home communities. Others of us have had less direct contact with the underprivileged and the socially oppressed.And yet for all of us these brief, tension packed hours of openness and communication turned an abstract social issue into something personal and immediate. We shall not forget the people with whom we drove. prayed, marched, slept, ate, demonstrated and were arrested. How little we know of these people and their struggle. What we have learned has changed us and our attitudes. We are grateful for the rare experience of sharing with this courageous community in their life, their suffering, their effort. We pray that we may remain more sensitive and more alive as a result.
We shall not soon forget the stirring and heartfelt excitement with which the Negro community greeted us with full-throated hymns and hallelujahs, which pulsated and resounded through the church; nor the bond of affectionate solidarity which joined us hand in hand during our marches through town; nor the exaltation which lifted our voices and hearts in unison; nor the common purpose which transcended our fears as well as all the boundaries of race, geography and circumstance. We hope we have strengthened the morale of St. Augustine Negroes as they strive to claim their dignity and humanity; we know they have strengthened ours.
Each of us has in this experience became a little more the person,a bit more the rabbi he always hoped.to be (but not yet able to become),
We believe in •man’s ability to fulfil God’s with God’s help. We make no messianic estimate of man’s power and certainly not of what we did here. But it has reaffirmed our faith in the significance oft the deed. So We must confess in all humility that we did this as much in fulfilment of our faith and in response to inner need as in service to our Negro brothers. We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God. In obeying Him, we become ourselves; in following His will we fulfil ourselves. He has guided, sustained and strengthened us in a way we could not manage on our own.
We are deeply grateful to the good influences which have sustained us in our moments of trial and friendship. Often we thought of parents.wives, children, congregants, particularly our teen-age youth, and of our teachers and our students.. How many a-Torah reading, Passover-celebration, prayer book text and sermonic effort has come to mind in these hours. And how meaningful has been our worship, morning and evening, as we recited the ancient texts in this new, yet Jewishly familiar, setting. We are particularly grateful for what we have received from our comrades in this visit. We have been sustained by the understanding, thoughtfulness, consideration and good humor we have received from each other. Never have the bonds of Judaism and the fellowship of the rabbinate been more clearly expressed to us all or more deeply felt by each of us.
These words were first written at 3:00 a.m. in the sweltering heat of a sleepless night, by the light of the one naked bulb hanging in the corridor outside our small cell. They were, ironically, scratched on the back of the pages of a mimeographed report of the bloody assaults of the Ku Klux Klan in St. Augustine. At daybreak we revised the contents of the letter and prayed together for a new dawn of justice and mercy for all the children of God.
We do not underestimate what yet remains to be done, in the north as well as the south. In the battle against racism, we have participated here in only a skirmish. But the. total effect of all such demonstrations has created a Revolution; and the conscience of the nation has been aroused as never before. The Civil Rights Bill will become law and much more progress will be attained because this national conscience has been touched in this and other places in the struggle.
We praise and bless God for His mighty acts on our behalf. Baruch ata adonai matir asurim. Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord, who freest the captives.
Rabbi Eugene Borowitz,Rabbi Balfour Brickner,Rabbi Israel Dresner,
Rabbi Daniel Fogel, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, Rabbi Joel Goor,Rabbi Joseph Herzog Rabbi Norman Hirsh, Rabbi Leon Jick,Rabbi Richard Levy, Rabbi Eugene Lipman, Rabbi Michael Robinson, Rabbi B. T. Rubenstein, Rabbi Murray Saltzman,
Rabbi Allen Secher ,Rabbi Clyde T. Sills.Mr. Albert Vorspan