Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Floyd Mann And The Freedom Rides

  The South has a sad and terrible history in the area of race relations but history teaches us that it has been Southerners who have done more to right America's wrongs than anyone else. Lincoln was born in Kentucky and was raised in a family heaped in Southern culture. Harry Truman was from Missouri and Lyndon Johnson was from Texas. Both regularly used racial slurs and the N word. Truman nearly joined the Klan at one point and Johnson was considered a segregationist but these three presidents did more to free black people than any other presidents in American history. Martin Luther King was from Georgia and Frederick Douglas was from Maryland. Southerners have been very much part of the problem but they understand the problem of race better than anyone. Martin Luther King once said that when he visited John Kennedy in the White House Kennedy asked questions for the whole hour they were together. When he visited Lyndon Johnson, LBJ talked the whole hour. Like many Southerners of the 1960's Floyd Mann was a segregationist and a racist. He was a decent man however and had a innate sense of justice. At the time of the Freedom rides in 1961 he was the head of the Alabama Department of Public Safety, which meant he was in charge of the Alabama Highway Patrol. From 1950 to 1958 he was Chief of Police in Opelika Alabama and helped to clean up corruption that spilled over from Phoenix City Alabama which was then one of the most corrupt cities in the United States. 

  Floyd was born on August 20, 1920, the same year as my father, and he was not only a good and decent man he was a brave one. He was a tail gunner on a B-17 in the air war over Europe, and was involved in the first daylight raid over Berlin. Most American Airmen were only required to fly 25 missions because these missions were so dangerous. Floyd on the other hand flew 27 missions.. He worked his way to the top of the Department of Safety through his friendship with Governor John Patterson of Alabama who was also a committed segregationist. Patterson called the Freedom Riders "fools" and "agitators" for whom he did not want to "play nursemaid". Mann approached his job in a professional manner however and offered to protect them if he was given the proper resources and the understanding that the state and city police would offer assistance. What was actually happening was that local police departments had agreed to stand down long enough for the Klan to meet these riders at the bus stations in places like Birmingham, Anniston, and Montgomery Alabama so they could have their way with them. The first busloads of the Freedom riders were manned by C.O.R.E. or Congress of Racial Equality. Seven blacks and six whites were passengers on two busses. A Continental Trailways bus and a Greyhound bus that set out on May 4, 1961. Their intention was to test a Supreme Court decision which had declared segregation on interstate transportation to be unconstitutional. When the Trailways bus arrived at the Birmingham station the Klan attacked the Freedom Riders. The white riders were singled out for the most savage treatment. The Greyhound bus was attacked in Anniston but the driver managed to pull out of the station and drive out on to the open road. The mob followed in cars and pick-up trucks blowing out the tires of the bus. Someone threw a fire bomb through the window and others held the doors closed so the passengers couldn't escape the flames. Unknown to the passengers Floyd Mann had placed a plain clothes officer on the bus. The officer drew his weapon and threatened to shoot the men that were blocking the doors. This action saved the lives of the passengers. James Farmer, the leader of C.O.R.E. was so shaken by the violence that he decided to end C.O.R.E.'s involvement in the Freedom Rides. 

  There were a large group of Nashville students that had been preparing for such a moment as this. They had trained under the tutelage of a black Vanderbilt Divinity student named James Lawson who conducted non-violent workshops that taught non-violence as a strategy for defeating segregation. It was based on the philosophies of Jesus, Ghandi, and Thoreau. They were black and white students like Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, Marion Barry, Jim Zwerg and Bernard Lafayette just to name a few. They attended local black colleges like Tennessee State University, Fisk University, and the American Bible College. John Lewis was a part of the original C.O.R.E. group that had endured the beatings in Birmingham and waited there as Diane Nash organized the Nashville students to resume the Freedom rides in Birmingham. They boarded a Greyhound bus for Montgomery that was escorted by police. The police escort abandoned them just before arriving in Montgomery. The local Montgomery authorities planned to give the Ku Klux Klan fifteen minutes to do their dirty work there in the bus station.. Mann was ready for just such of a possibility so he posted 100 highway patrolman nearby in the event of trouble. When the bus arrived a mob of Klansmen began beating the riders mercilessly . John Sieganthaler, who recently died at the age of 86 here in Nashville, was working for Robert Kennedy and was the Justice Department representative in Montgomery. He was nearly killed trying to protect two white girls when he was hit in the head with a lead pipe fracturing his skull. One rider was paralyzed and would die a few years later from the beating. John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, a white rider, were beaten to a pulp and nearly killed. As a Klansman was about to hit John Lewis with a baseball bat a white man stuck a gun to his head and threatened to blow his brains out if he swung the bat. It was Floyd Mann. He ordered the attackers to disperse and called in his troopers to assist, although some of them were insubordinate. 

  All white ambulances were placed in the shop for maintenance that day.This was so they could not respond to the Montgomery bus station. Jim Zwerg was beaten so badly that many thought he was dying. People attempted to send him to the hospital in a taxi but both white and black driver's refused to take him. Mann placed him in a patrol car and sent Zwerg to the white hospital but they refused to take him. He was accepted at the black hospital where he made a full recovery. Although I don't agree with John Lewis's political views, he is a Democratic Congressman today, Lewis is one of the bravest men alive. He was beaten to within an inch of his life on several occasions and was always at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. These brave students continued the Freedom Rides throughout 1961 until the Commerce Department, under the urging of the Kennedy administration, ordered all segregation ended in interstate travel terminals. Floyd Mann went on to finish a distinguished career in both the public and private sector. He died in 1996. John Lewis attended the dedication of the Montgomery Civil Rights memorial in 1989, after he was elected to Congress from Georgia. An elderly white man walked up to him and said ''I remember you from the freedom rides.'' Lewis took a moment to recall the face. Then he whispered to Floyd Mann, ''You saved my life.'' The two men hugged, and Lewis began to cry. As they parted, Mann said, simply, ''I'm right proud of your career.''
Floyd Mann

The Klan beating up the Freedom Riders in Birmingham

Anniston Alabama

John Lewis and Jim Zwerg

Jim Zwerg

Jim Zwerg in the hospital

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