In advance of Black History Month and in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Peace and Freedom Party member Joe Delaplaine looks back at Dr. King’s interaction with and inspiration of activism in California. Click on any of the embedded images for a full poster-sized version suitable for printing.
This month, we celebrate the ongoing accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Born January 15, 1929, Dr. King is closely associated with his leadership, organizing Southern states in the middle half of the last century. What’s forgotten, however, are the hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians he inspired. From the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968, King spoke at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, L.A. Sports Arena, Jefferson High School, in Willowbrook/Compton, Chapman University, UCLA, the Hollywood Palladium, among many other locations in California.
(For a map and other details on Dr. King’s major public appearance in California between 1956 and ’63, click here.)
The Freedom Riders
In 1961, over 400 men and women across the country, many inspired by Dr. King, organized themselves into the Freedom Riders. These brave volunteers of all ages and nationalities openly confronted racial segregation on buses, in interstate transportation waiting rooms and in depot restaurants in order to win the right for anyone to sit, eat, or travel wherever they pleased without fear of discrimination or violence.
Although integrated interstate public transit was technically legal in 1961, many states continued to very violently enforce “whites only” segregation. The Riders knew they faced being beaten and most likely killed simply for riding public transit in such states; however, they did so to end discrimination once and literally “for all”.
Ironically, by directly confronting white supremacist violence with integrated non-violence, the Freedom Riders brought an abrupt end to segregation on U.S. interstate buses, trains and planes.
In fact in 1961, the Riders accomplished in seven months what many prior decades of litigation, appeals and lobbying had not. The violence they faced was fierce, immediate and tolerated by many different layers of government: lynch mobs fire bombed their buses; the Ku Klux Klan ran Riders buses off the road and beat passengers; racist police, biased newspapers and corrupt politicians protected and championed the white supremacists, while simultaneously vilifying, burning, assaulting and imprisoning the non-violent Freedom Riders.
Most disappointing was the indifference of the federal government, under then-president John F. Kennedy and his brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy, who publicly called the Riders civil disobedience “embarrassing” – This was actually the entire purpose of the Riders’ non-violent, direct action.
In exercising their legal Constitutional rights, the Riders were focusing worldwide attention on the escalating racist violence perpetrated not only on the Riders, but also on African-Americans living inside the United States daily. Most pointedly, this was at the same time the Kennedy administration was very widely promoting the United States as the promoter of “peace, democracy and human rights” everywhere else in the world, especially in Vietnam where the U.S. was ramping up a war at the time. The Riders actions were “embarrassing” in the sense that they were forcing the Federal government to actually uphold and protect the civil rights, legal protections and defend the equally of all its citizens. All this was happening during a rapidly approaching election.
In all, 60 separate acts of civil disobedience took place, organized initially by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), then by hundreds of student and civil rights activists, many taking part for their first time. Of the dozens of Freedom Riders from California, we highlight Helen and Robert Singleton of Inglewood and the Rev. James Lawson. However, more complete information can be found about all 400+ Riders (including mugshots of those arrested and their updated, 2007 interviews) in the books Breach of Peace by Eric Etheridge and Freedom Riders by Raymond Arsenault.
Rev. James Lawson, theoretician of nonviolence for the Civil Rights Movement went on the “1st Phase” of the Freedom Rides. Prior to this, he spent a year in prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War as well as three years as a Methodist missionary in India. There he was influenced by Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolent resistance; he returned to Ohio, met Dr. King and left the seminary to help lead the Civil Rights Movement.
“We don’t have anyone like you”, King said to Lawson. As field secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rev. Lawson organized the Nashville Student Movement’s successful sit-in campaign of 1960 and ironically was expelled from the Vanderbilt University School of Divinity as a result. He trained Diane Nash in Nashville, and Nash went on to organize the second and third waves of the Freedom Rides.
In 1968, Rev. Lawson chaired the Memphis strike committee for sanitation workers and, at Lawson’s request, Dr. King spoke to the striking workers. The following day, Dr. King was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. Following King’s death, Lawson moved to Los Angeles, serving as Holman United Methodist Church’s pastor for 25 years from 1974 to 1999. Although retired, he is still active organizing for immigrant rights and against war. He is a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service commemorated Lawson’s original Freedom Ride in a three-day commemorative program in 2007, reuniting many of the original Riders.
Helen Singleton joined the “2nd wave” of the Freedom Riders traveling from Los Angeles to Mississippi. En route, she was arrested in Jackson in the summer of 1961. At the time, she was a student at Santa Monica College, then transferring to UCLA. She recalls the arresting officer in Parchman, Mississippi, asking her, “What school do you go to?” She replied, “Santa Monica City College.” After a pause he asked, “How do you spell ‘Santa Monica’?” She remembers feeling embarrassed for him. After she was released from Parchman, she returned to UCLA, graduating with a master’s degree in Fine Art. She went on to Loyola Marymount University, graduating there with her master’s in Public Administration.
Returning to UCLA, Helen developed special arts and humanities programs and in 1992 became a consultant for the California Arts Council, the L.A. County Museum of Art, and the Missouri Arts Council. She and her husband Robert continue giving talks about their experiences as Freedom Riders.
Robert Singleton was one of the few African-American platoon sergeants in his unit in Georgia in 1954 in spite of that state’s Jim Crow segregation laws. “I took a bus from the base to Augusta to meet my Georgia relatives,” he recalls. “Here I was, in my Army uniform, training to go kill for this country, but I had to listen to a bus driver tell me I had to sit behind a sign. That bothered me and stuck with me.”
After leaving the service and marrying Helen, the Singletons’ travels across Europe drove the point home: “We encountered not a stitch of segregation throughout our travels in Europe,” Robert said. On their return to the U.S., he was accepted to UCLA, won the presidency of the on-campus NAACP, and together with Helen organized Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins in Santa Monica and Hollywood in 1960. Their student organizing gained the attention of Dr. King and the following year, the Singletons joined the Freedom Riders’ second and third phases. Robert graduated UCLA with his master’s degree and became an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University. He’s now retired, but he and Helen continue speaking on their experiences and continue to organize for equal rights. They currently live in Inglewood.
Diane Nash was already a brilliant 21-year old African-American student who had transferred from D.C.’s Howard University to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. There she met Rev. James Lawson, and by the end of her first semester was his leading student organizer. At 22, she led the first successful civil rights campaign to integrate lunch counters in Nashville, which in turn inspired 69 similar actions in cities across the United States.
In ’61, after the KKK shut down the “1st Phase” of the Freedom Rides by fire-bombing two Freedom Riders buses, Nash stepped in, insisting that the civil rights movement could not allow white supremacist mob violence to win out over their coordinated non-violent direct action.
In doing so, Nash led the Riders to their ultimate victory: As a leading organizer with the Nashville student movement and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), her call for a new wave of Freedom Riders was answered by hundreds of 18- to 28-year-old students from all over the country, including Los Angeles. They fearlessly confronted racist violence head-on, permanently desegregating public interstate travel nationwide. She went on to organize the Alabama Voting Rights Project and Selma Voting Rights Movement, which in turn led to the Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In all, Lawson, Nash, the Singletons and hundreds of other activists, organizers and volunteers have kept Dr. King’s legacy of protests, boycotts, education and organization going strong into the present day. They are all currently alive, well and continuing to unite the struggles for women, the undocumented, unions, Muslim and Arab people, LGBTQ, homeless, youth, the elderly and other oppressed communities locally, nationally and worldwide.
Happy birthday, Dr. King!
– written by Joe Delaplaine
For more on Helen and Robert Singleton’s past and current activities, please visit the website SingletonFreedomRiders.com.