Helen Singleton looks out at you straight ahead with the self-assured smile of a college girl about to be whisked off to jail. Next to her mug shot is another photograph, this one taken 44 years later, of the same woman now older but no less handsome and self-assured.
It’s the cover of “Breach of Peace—Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders,” a remarkable book by Eric Etheridge focusing on 70 some contemporary photographs alongside those telling original mug shots and interviews “literally giving faces to the faceless and anonymous heroines and heroes who changed America in 1961,” according to National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chairman Julian Bond.
The Freedom Riders converged by bus in Mississippi in the summer of 1961 to challenge the state segregation laws, and forever impacted the course of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the future of American society itself culminating in the election of Barack Obama.
Etheridge moderated a discussion panel of three Freedom Riders—Hezekiah Watkins, Joan Pleune, and Lewis Zuchman—at a Jan. 14 event at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I was there because Neshama Carlebach was performing new material being recorded with the Green Pastures Baptist Choir, led by the Reverend Roger Hambrick, Minister of Music for the National Baptist Canvention.
Neshama, of course, is the daughter of the late, legendary folksinging Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (the musical “Shlomo,” which is based on his life, was mentioned in a previous post.) Not knowing anything about her or her father, I discovered her years ago at the Bottom Line when Alan Pepper implored me to come see her, and since Alan always welcomed me into his club and asked so little, I couldn’t say no—even though his description of her left me cold.
And then I saw her. She looked right out of the Bible, like she could be Moses’s sister, though I should probably concede that my idea of what Moses’s sister would look like comes more from Charlton Heston movies than Bible study. My understanding of angels isn’t much better, but I’ve never heard any singer more angelic than Neshama. I’ve been hooked ever since.
At the Museum on what would have been her father’s 84th birthday, she started her opening segment of the program with his English language classic “Return Again,” performed here with her four-piece backup plus the 13 voices of the Green Pastures. The repeated “return again…to the land of your soul…to who you are…to what you are…to where you are born and reborn again” refrain, sung together by Jewish and African Americans, virtually returned two oppressed American minority groups to a time when they worked closely together to end discrimination—while reasserting a natural musical bond in that so much of African-American spiritual music emanated from Old Testament stories.
The importance of music to the Freedom Riders—indeed, to the entire Civil Rights Movement—was underscored when those present recalled how annoyed the white prison guards at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman state penitentiary were at the incessant singing by Freedom Riders who were taken there following their arrest for “breach of peace.”
Hezekiah Watkins was only 13 years old when he participated in the Freedom Riders in his hometown of Jackson, Miss. (since he was born in my hometown of Milwaukee, the authorities considered him and “outside agitator,” a codeword, incidentally, used also in Madison, Wisconsin, where it signaled the “New York Jews” whom the right wing always blamed for instigating the university student antiwar protests).
Still not sure what prompted him to join, he recalled running through the streets with his fellow Riders from a vicious pack of police dogs. One Rider, luckily, was a track star and drew the dogs away from the rest: When he dashed through a busy intersection, five dogs were hit. As the dogs and their quarry were way ahead of the cops, Watkins figures he would otherwise have been badly mauled or worse; to this day he is deathly afraid of dogs.
But Watkins, who now runs a small grocery store in Jackson, also recalled how both his mother and preacher had urged him to stay home and not join the Riders. Joan Pleune, now a member of the Granny Peace brigade who was arrested again just last week at an antiwar rally, said that her mother asked her essentially the same thing: “Why are you doing this to me?”
Matching the classic connotation of the outside agitator, then, New Yorker Lewis Zuchman likewise recounted his mother’s opposition to his Mississippi trip (“she wouldn’t talk to me before or after”), then described the situation at Parchman when a local rabbi came to visit the incarcerated Riders who where Jewish and said, “Look what you’re doing to us!”
They were going against their parents, their religious leaders. Even famed NCAAP executive Roy Wilkins was against the Riders: Zuchman had watched a TV talk show in which Wilkins felt the rides were too dangerous. But Henry Thomas, one of the original Riders, strongly defended them, at which the great Jackie Robinson—the young Zuchman’s hero—said of Thomas, “We’ve got to support this young man.” Zuchman was tear-eyed and volunteered for the Riders in Manhattan the next morning.
For certain it was the young people, black and white, who paved the way—then and now. With the inauguration of the first African-American president only days away, Watkins noted that Obama was born that same summer they were arrested. “In 1961 we were being thrown in rivers or in shallow graves,” he observed.
Still the Freedom Riders came, their brave young faces evoking tears among us as they’re flashed on a screen above the panel.
“African-Americans did not put Barack [in the White House],” concluded Watkins, in today’s spirit of inclusiveness counting all of us in. “We all did.”
The evening ended with Neshama and the Green Pastures choir, sanctifying the moment with “One and One,” a song she wrote with her bandleader/pianist David Morgan, after 9-11. It is based on one of her father’s favorite teachings, she said.
“1 and 1 is 1,” she explained. “The problem with the world is thinking that 1 and 1 is 2—when we are all one.”