May 4, 2011
by Jess Bidgood
BOSTON — Mike Wolfson works in a windowless room at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Fenway offices. His office is bursting with books, boxes and charts, but you get the sense he knows exactly where everything is.
Wolfson pulls a big, heavy book out of a paper grocery bag. It’s a book of historic photographs taken by the Los Angeles Times. “Somebody found this book for me. This is a picture at the Greyhound Station. So there’s three of us who were Freedom Riders,” Wolfson says.
Wolfson speaks softly, but with the painstaking detail of a scientist. Ever since Wolfson moved to Boston almost 40 years ago, he’s worked as a chemist, studying the effects of air pollution on public health.
But when Wolfson was 17 years old, about to begin an undergraduate science degree at UCLA, he joined hundreds of students in defying Southern segregation rules on the 1961 Freedom Ride. The same convictions that sent Wolfson on the Ride have led him to engage in activism in Boston during the whole time he’s lived here — and he now has a spot on the Board of Directors of local non-profit City Life/Vida Urbana.
Joining the Ride
Jack Mikhail Wolfson, usually called Mike, came to the Freedom Ride from a corner of the Civil Rights movement that some Americans are still uncomfortable discussing.
Wolfson grew up in Los Angeles in something of an unusual family: His mother and father were openly Communist. After his parents divorced, his mother married a black man who was also a Communist. So, as the Civil Rights movement was picking up steam, Mike had black brothers and sisters.
Wolfson didn’t then consider himself a Communist, but he said his leftward political leanings propelled him to engage with the Civil Rights movement, and he joined the LA boycotts of Woolworth’s — the local protest against the national chain whose department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, had become the site of the famous lunch counter sit-ins.
“The understanding that I had and the history of efforts in the Communist Party were to unite the working class,” Wolfson said. “And racism and oppression of black people played a big role in keeping workers divided from each other.”
So when a friend of his said her church had raised enough money to send 12 people on the Freedom Rides, Wolfson asked his family if they thought he should go. The ride had begun in May, and it was now July; They knew he’d have to take a Greyhound bus to Jackson, Miss., violate segregation rules in that city’s bus station, and then spend about six weeks in prison.
“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, particularly those who lived under legal segregation,” Wolfson explained.
The Congress on Racial Equality, the body which organized the Freedom Rides, required all participants in the ride to commit to non-violence. That wasn’t going to be a problem for Wolfson. “For some people that was a challenge. For me personally, it wasn’t so difficult, because I was always smaller and weaker in the first place!” Wolfson laughed.
Wolfson got on a bus to New Orleans in early July and made it to Jackson by July 15. “There was a mob, if you will, of very angry white people at the station,” Wolfson remembered. The police were supposed keep them back; by that point in the summer, the state of Mississippi had told the federal government they would protect the Freedom Riders.
“The station was pretty empty. We were an interracial group, and I don’t remember if we went into the white waiting room or the black waiting room. But we went into it and that was breaking the rules of segregation,” Wolfson said. “And therefore we knew we were going to be arrested.”
But Wolfson did not anticipate what would happen next. “The police did let in two or three white men, and they were very menacing. And they kicked two or three 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.”
Although Wolfson did not resist his attack, he was charged with assault, in addition to the breach-of-peace charge given to all Freedom Riders. Ultimately, he would not be convicted of the assault charge.
A birthday to remember
Wolfson ran into another issue while he waited in a Jackson county jail to be transferred to Parchman State Penitentiary, where the Freedom Riders were housed for most of the imprisonment.
“I was five days shy of my 18th birthday when I was arrested, and the state of Mississippi had a law that said you had to be 18 years old to be in the penitentiary,” Wolfson said. That meant that he couldn’t go to state prison with the people he originally rode with.
“I stayed behind, in the city jail. And then, you know… after my birthday I went up with (a new bunch of Freedom Riders) to Parchman,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson remains proud of the role he played in the Freedom Rides. “It was one part of many, many struggles, that together overturned legal segregation in the South. All of these together laid the basis for voting rights,” he said.
A continued commitment to rights
Since moving to Boston almost 40 years ago, Wolfson says he has engaged in activism that’s an extension of the work he wanted to do in the Freedom Rides.
"I saw (the Freedom Rides) as part of what I always wanted to do… being part of a big movement, and doing something that helped the movement succeed, that’s how I saw myself. And more or less see myself that way today as well,” Wolfson said.
He has worked on issues related to political prisoners and workers’ rights; but he’s now most engaged with tenants’ rights through City Life/Vida Urbana. Wolfson has worked with the group on its efforts to create so-called “eviction-free zones,” and to keep tenants appraised of their rights when facing foreclosure.
Wolfson said he’s taken some lessons from the Freedom Rides into his work with City Life/Vida Urbana.
“The most important thing for individuals is to learn that they don’t have to solve their own problems by themselves,” Wolfson said. “And that the only way to make a real difference, in important things in your life, is to work together with other people.”
Wolfson added that it doesn’t have to be a large number of people — the Freedom Rides, in fact, only involved several hundred riders. “At eviction blockings, you might have, 40, 50, 60 people. That’s not a large number, but it makes a huge difference,” Wolfson said.