May 20, 2011
by Jess Bidgood
BOSTON — Paul Breines is standing in his Roxbury loft apartment, singing along with Shirley & Lee’s bouncy, soulful tune, Let The Good Time Roll.
“Feels so good/ When you’re home,” Breines intones.
Breines is a fit man, just shy of 70, who recently retired after 35 years of teaching history at Boston College. He’s playing the music he listened to as a teenager — music he says helped inspire a white young man from New York to join the 1961 Freedom Ride, when hundreds of students traveled to the American South by bus in small, integrated groups, intentionally defying the segregation laws there.
“I’m sitting in Scarsdale, in this little suburban house listening to this, in 1957, 1958. I had no idea at the time, it was preparing me, that is, it was sort of—the Freedom Rides, was like, this was the culture I want to defend,” Breines said.
|Mike Wolfson holds a book showing a picture of him with other Freedom Riders in July, 1961. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)|
Over the past couple of weeks, WGBH has been following a group of 40 college students as they retrace the footsteps of the Freedom Riders, who all faced prison time and risked physical assault because of their actions in the South.
But the story of the Freedom Ride is not just a story about the South. The Freedom Riders came from—and now live—all over the country, enriching their communities with the same convictions that led them to the Ride and the memories of what they learned there.
Breines is one of several original riders who live in Massachusetts.
He was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in 1960 when the lunch-counter-sit-ins at Woolworths in Greensboro, N.C., morphed into nationwide boycott of the department store. He got involved in the Civil Rights movement by picketing Madison’s Woolworths.
Over in Los Angeles, Mike Wolfson was doing the same thing.
Wolfson is now a chemist at the Harvard School of Public Health, studying the effects of air pollution on health. He’s lived in Boston for 37 years now.
Wolfson’s roots in the civil rights movement are a little different from Breines’. His parents were card-carrying Communists, and he believed civil rights could strengthen the working class. In July 1961, a friend told him her church had raised the money to support a dozen Freedom Riders, and she asked if he’d like to be one of them.
“I realized that I had an opportunity to do something that not a whole lot of other people were in a position to do, and that was, as a white person, to go and show solidarity with the black people in the South,” Wolfson said. “Those who lived under legal segregation to have allies, to have people stand side-by-side with them.
|Mike Wolfson is seen in his police mugshot, taken in Jackson when he was arrested in July 1961. (via Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Online)|
And so, separately, Wolfson and Breines headed to the American South to begin non-violence training for the Freedom Ride. Since the rides were well underway by then, they had a clear sense of what would happen to them: After their training, they would ride a bus with a small, integrated group of students to Jackson, Mississippi. They would stand together in a segregated waiting room and be arrested. At the request of the Congress of Racial Equality, with coordinated the rides, they would spend about six weeks in Mississippi state prison before posting bail and heading home.
It sounds daunting, but Breines says fear — or lack thereof — simply didn’t play into his decision to go. It was inherently risky, but joining just felt right.
“We were there to fill the jails. We were there to get arrested. We were there, possibly, we might get killed, we might get beaten to serious injury, but we were troops in a kind of little army. I never thought, I don’t want to be here, I’m too scared, I wanna get out of here,” Breines said.
Breines remembers his bus pulling up to the station in Jackson. He says he realized then what black people in the South faced every single day.
“I can remember very vividly the necks, of the crowd, the people in the crowd, who were at the bus terminal when we got there. The veins, bulging in their necks, and realizing, this is real f___ hatred,” Breines said. “Looking back, they were completely freaked out that their world was going to be turned upside down and inside out.”
The police were supposed to protect the riders, but things didn’t go as planned when Wolfson got to the bus station’s waiting room.
“The police did let in two or three white men, and they were very menacing. And they kicked two or 3 of us in the leg. And of course being committed to non-violence we didn’t fight back,” Wolfson said. “I was one of the people who was kicked.”
|A news clipping reported Breines' arrest. (via Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Online)|
Most of the Freedom Riders were charged with breach of peace, a misdemeanor. But Wolfson also got an assault charge — a felony — although he hadn’t fought back. He ran into another hurdle, too. He was a little too young to get arrested in Mississippi.
“I was 5 shy days of my 18th birthday when I was arrested. So the rest of the group went on to Parchman. And I stayed behind, in the city jail. And then after my birthday I went up with them to Parchman,” Wolfson said.
Parchman was the maximum-security Mississippi state penitentiary the Freedom Riders filled, hoping to show of sacrifice and unity while placing a burden on Mississippi’s state coffers.
“About seven feet off the ground there were rectangular windows with bars on them,” Breines remembers. “You could see the sky, but you weren’t supposed to bring your bed over to the windows and look out. And that’s where I was for about a month,” Breines said. “It was a very weird experience.”
When Breines got out, and he prepared to go back to Scarsdale, he was floored by the bravery of Southern Freedom Riders, who would return to segregated towns to face dangerous anger over what they had done. “It was very humbling, realizing how astonishing they were. The risks they had taken. Mine seemed almost small compared to what they had done,” Breines said.
Fifty years later, Breines lives in a brightly decorated loft apartment sitting right between the South End and Roxbury, retired after a distinguished academic career that also saw him draw some attention for taking a vocal pro-life stance at the Jesuit Boston College. Although he’s a historian, he says it’s strange to think that the Freedom Ride is now viewed as an important historical event. Because it didn’t feel like a hyper-orchestrated, party-motivated Moment. It was just, he says, part of a current.
He sings a title line of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round, by Sweet Honey in the Rock. “And you’re singing that with a group, and you come to believe it. And that was being part of a different — that is, not the America of racing and segregation and bulging neck veins and hatred, but of this other thing that was not going to accept that,” Breines said.
Since he retired, Breines has been spending a lot of his spare time picking up trash on the street outside his apartment, a pursuit he says comes out of the same impulse that sent him on the Freedom Ride. “To do what you can to positively affect whatever’s going on around you.”
Wolfson has been active in social justice ever since he moved to Boston, working on labor rights and tenants rights. He’s now on the Board of Boston non-profit City Life/Vida Urbana and says he’s carried lessons from the Freedom Ride into his work.
“That unity. And it doesn’t have to be at a huge number of people. At eviction blockings, you might have, 40, 50, 60 people. That’s not a large number, but it makes a huge difference,” Wolfson said.
That unity appears to have inspired a new generation of activists, with students from across the country signing up to follow in the footsteps of Breines, Wolfson and the hundreds of others on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, which wraps up this week down South.