Freedom Rider Honored for Role in the Civil Rights Struggle

Posted March 2, 2016

MP3 Interview with Lula White, a Freedom Rider and recipient of the Quinnipiac University School of Law Thurgood Marshall award, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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In 1961, hundreds of civil rights activists, black and white, rode interstate buses into the Deep South to challenge state prohibitions on freedom of interstate travel. They were known as Freedom Riders, and at each stop, the black riders tried to use facilities designated for whites only, while their white comrades entered the "colored only" facilities. Many faced threats of violence, with some suffering brutal beatings. One bus was set on fire near Anniston, Alabama; luckily the riders inside escaped without serious injury.

Lula White had been born in Alabama, but her family moved to New Haven, Connecticut when she was 6 years old. There, she attended public schools and later studied at the University of Chicago to become a teacher. She was in her first year of teaching when she saw news reports of the burning bus and resolved to become a Freedom Rider herself.

On Feb. 25, White, now 76, was honored with the Thurgood Marshall award by the Quinnipiac University School of Law. When she gave her brief acceptance speech, White thanked everyone who played a role in the freedom struggle, including attorneys, southern blacks, and the black children of the South. She observed that some had criticized "using" young children in the civil rights struggle, but she said, "even a child knows what freedom is." At a reception in her honor before the formal awards ceremony Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with White about her time as a civil rights activist and her arrest and imprisonment for refusing to leave a “whites-only” waiting room at an Alabama bus station.

LULA WHITE: Well, when I saw the photograph of the burning bus, I was just infuriated that something like that could happen in this country. And I couldn’t leave immediately because I was finishing my first year of teaching; I had to wait until school got out, and then I went.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Were you scared?

LULA WHITE: I was scared, but I felt it was something I had to do. But I was afraid, I’m a physical coward.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, just give me a highlight or two. What happened on the bus you were on?

LULA WHITE: We were very lucky. The bus that we were on was not attacked, and we were not beaten up when we got off the bus. But I was very relieved to get arrested, because the crowd that met the bus each day sounded very angry, and I felt I was in better hands with the police, as bad as they were.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And you ended up in Parchman, right?

LULA WHITE: Well, that’s because the city jail and the county jail were full of Freedom Riders, and more were coming in each day and so they had to find a place to keep us, so they thought by sending us to Parchman that would frighten and deter other people from coming, because Parchman has a terrible reputation; it’s one of the worst prisons in the country.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And did it deter people, do you think?

LULA WHITE: No, it didn’t work. People kept coming.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How long were you there?

LULA WHITE: I was at Parchman from July 9 until Aug. 18.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And what was the worst thing about it?

LULA WHITE: Um, not having books. Even though I brought books with me, they wouldn’t allow me to read them.

BETWEEN THE LINES: BTL: Were you with other Freedom Riders inside the prison?

LULA WHITE: Well, I was in the women’s unit, in the women’s unit in the maximum security prison, we were in a wing by ourselves with other Freedom Riders.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And not any other prisoners?

LULA WHITE: No, in the city jail when we were first arrested we were with everyone who happened to get arrested that day, but at Parchman they had a wing all set up for us.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What does it mean to you to be honored with this Thurgood Marshall award?

LULA WHITE: Well, I’m actually overwhelmed. I’m just a foot soldier in the civil rights movement; I’m not one of the leaders, so I’m overwhelmed.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What advice or words of wisdom would you give to people nowadays? There’s been this whole resurgence with Black Lives Matter and actually a lot of other uprisings around the country related to civil rights and the right not to be murdered if you’re black and that kind of stuff. What would you say to people today fighting for equality and justice?

LULA WHITE: I would advise people to do whatever they can. Everyone isn’t ready to go to jail, but there are many other things people can do. So, keep up the good fight. There are a lot of things wrong. Even though we’re a wonderful country in some ways, we have a lot of problems, and people need to address them.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What level public school did you teach?

LULA WHITE: I’ve taught elementary, I’ve taught middle, but most of the years I taught, I taught high school, and I taught history.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And you were part of it. How many years did you teach in New Haven?

LULA WHITE: 28 years in New Haven and three years in Chicago.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Did you talk to your high school history classes about what you did?

LULA WHITE: Not most of the time, not unless they brought it up.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Did you talk about … well, I don’t know what history you taught, if it was ancient history … but did you ever talk about the civil rights period and just not talk about your own role, or that wasn’t what you taught?

LULA WHITE: Well, if they asked me personal questions, like did I ever do anything or was I part of it, I owned up to it, but I didn’t go out of my way to inform them.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Did they know, without you explaining, who the Freedom Riders were or what the Freedom Riders did?

LULA WHITE: Some of them knew, but a lot of them never knew.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And that’s pretty sad, don’t you think?

LULA WHITE: (Chuckles). Well, as a history teacher, I have to admit that’s pretty sad.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you know if it’s being taught now, I mean, the Freedom Rides as part of civil rights history, is that in the history books now in high schools, do you know?

LULA WHITE: Well, now they do talk about the civil rights movement.

BETWEEN THE LINES: But do they include about the Freedom Rider?

LULA WHITE: Yeah, and the sit-in students, and Emmet Till, and the Montgomery bus boycott. It is taught.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, it’s a pretty amazing piece of history. Thank you so much for what you did, and what you’ve done as a teacher.

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