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Courage and convictions

The segregated '60s in the Deep South called out to two young people destined to cross paths with their passion and their purpose. They'll not forget their turn as Freedom Riders.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published March 4, 2006


ELLENTON -- Winonah Myers, a gray-haired contrarian of 64, wakes long before dawn. Then she drives her yellow Ford pickup through Manatee County to the Sunshine Skyway and collects tolls. The best part of her job is watching the sun come up. The worst part is feeling perpetually sleepy and having to work in the cramped dimensions of a tollbooth.

She has bad memories of tight spaces. When she was 19, she spent much of a year in the most notorious lockup in the South, Mississippi State Prison, better known as Parchman Farm. The gas chamber was a few cells away from her death row cubicle. At night she whispered through the ventilation system to an inmate who later was executed. "I was a little baby when I was in prison," she'll tell you now. "I was scared to death."

On June 9, 1961, Myers and four other young civil rights activists, some black and some white, walked into a train station in Jackson, ignored the "colored" waiting room and took their seats in the "white" waiting room. They were quickly arrested for breaching the peace.

Myers and her friends were known as Freedom Riders. A U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibited segregation at interstate public transportation facilities - at airports, train and bus stations - but the law was ignored in the Deep South. People of color were supposed to know their place, no matter what federal judges said.

Freedom Riders, including white people like Myers, challenged the tradition by drawing worldwide attention to the reality of Southern living. They got themselves arrested. Then they clogged the jails. Eventually the government was embarrassed into enforcing the law.

Before the year was out, nearly 400 Freedom Riders had been arrested. Many served brief jail sentences and happily got out. Not Myers, who stubbornly refused bail, refused even to file an appeal. Jailed on June 11, she stayed behind bars until Christmas Day.

Of all the Freedom Riders, white or black, she served the longest sentence.

 

* * *

You know what she likes best about winter on Tampa Bay? White pelicans. Visitors from the north, they migrate to Tampa Bay in late fall and remain until spring. Some mornings the gargantuan birds, larger than their common brown cousins, fly over her booth on their way to the feeding grounds. She can also see white pelicans from her mobile home on the Manatee River. Myers and her husband, David, sit at their dining room table and admire them through a big picture window.

Growing up in Ohio, Winonah appreciated nature, too. After prison, she worshipped it. "The sky," she says. "The fresh air. The birds."

The story of the Freedom Riders for years served as a footnote to the civil rights movement. New generations learned about Rosa Parks, lunch counter boycotts and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the achievements of the Freedom Riders often slipped through the cracks. Now they are being talked about again, thanks to a new book by University of South Florida historian Raymond Arsenault. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice has received national attention. Winonah is in the book. So is her husband, David, 65. He was a Freedom Rider, too.

About half the Freedom Riders were white and half African-American. Many were college students, preachers and attorneys. David Myers was 21, a poor Indiana farm boy and one of the few white students enrolled at Central State University in Ohio. Winonah had grown up in poverty in Cleveland. She ended up at Central State because it was inexpensive.

"It was an exciting time to be alive," she says. "There was all this idealism. There was the Peace Corps. There was VISTA. There was the space program. There was Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Life was full of possibilities."

David Myers was a handsome upperclassman, excited about making the world a better place, excited about the civil rights movement, excited about dating Winonah - Winonah Beamer then - who shared his idealism. He says from the moment they met he knew they would end up together. At their dining room table, with their cat Moe on her lap, she says, "Oh, please. You never said anything to me."

"Well, I meant to," he says.

History happened first.

 

* * *

David Myers is a talker. He is a dreamer. The wide-eyed boy has heart disease now, and diabetes, but he still rides his Honda motorcycle every day. He still likes to canoe. He talks too fast and seldom stays seated more than a few minutes at a time.

Among mainstream civil rights activists, Freedom Riders were initially seen as radicals, or fools. It was considered suicidal for black men and white women, or white men and black women, to travel together into the heart of Klan country as if they were friends or even intimates.

John F. Kennedy had been elected president in a close race, thanks in part to black voters casting ballots for the first time. Kennedy felt beholden to them, but he was also loath to write off conservative white Southern voters. Meanwhile, the Soviets were active in Berlin and Cuba. The last thing the Kennedy administration wanted was another racial crisis in the South.

But that's what it got.

On May 4, Freedom Riders boarded a bus in Washington, destination Deep South. In South Carolina, the Klansmen waited with clenched fists. While visiting his family home on Mother's Day, David read in the paper about a Freedom Ride in Alabama, where activists were beaten with pipes as they fled a burning bus.

David told his mom he wanted to be a Freedom Rider. "This has to be done."

"But not by my boy," she said.

Over in Ohio, Winonah was having a similar conversation with her mother. They became Freedom Riders about a week apart. David first.

On May 28, Myers and seven other Freedom Riders boarded a Trailways bus in Montgomery, Ala. It was escorted by federal troops and law enforcement officials into Mississippi. David remembers thinking he might be killed, but nobody approached the bus. Still, the moment they walked into the bus station in Jackson they were arrested for breaching the peace.

They pleaded no contest and were pronounced guilty. Myers served 32 days, mostly in city and county jails. He remembers the experience as fairly pleasant. He shared a cell with 16 other white men - even in jail the races were segregated. The food was lousy, but conversations were grand.

Jail keepers allowed the national press in. David was flattered to grant an interview to the famous columnist Westbrook Pegler. Naive, David didn't know that Pegler had come south to discredit the Freedom Riders. Pegler lamented that "bands of insipid futilities of the type called bleeding hearts" were giving Jackson, Miss., a bad name. Working himself into a tizzy, Pegler complained about Myers and his "wispy whiskers and the start of beatnik sideburns" and his Quaker background. "His soul suffered at the thought that someone (God, of necessity) had created a difference between him and his black brethren." Pegler was so angry he wrote about Freedom Riders a week later. "They wouldn't fight anybody for anything, but they didn't think it wrong of them to affront a local social system and kick up riots and civil war with painful, even fatal results . . ."

Eventually David and other inmates transferred to Parchman, a prison where inmates often picked cotton by day. Life was especially trying for black inmates, historically punished with lashings from the whip known as "Black Annie." The famous bluesmen, Leadbelly, Bukka White and Son House, had been inmates during the 1930s; Leadbelly's Midnight Special is about life there.

After an uneventful week, David was returned to the county jail and a few days later was released.

Winonah's ordeal was only beginning.

 

* * *

Winonah is usually quiet. Quiet - and taciturn. She'll listen for a while, maybe as she eats, as everybody else talks. She'll cock her head as she takes in the bushwa, then she'll interject a sharp remark, accompanied, perhaps, by a swear word. Eventually the sentences pour out.

On June 9, she and four Freedom Riders boarded an Illinois Central train in Nashville and got off in Jackson. As she remembers it, hardly anyone took notice in the station except city police captain J.L. Ray. When she mimics him, he sounds like the white sheriff of In the Heat of the Night. "You in a heap a trouble, now. Git up and move on."

Nobody in the train station budged.

"I said git up and move on."

Nobody budged.

"You cain't set here. Ah'm arresting you for breach of peace."

Winonah says forgive and forget, but her tone suggests no forgiveness.

The sheriff escorted everybody to Hinds County Jail. Twenty inmates were housed in a cell intended for eight. Ten days later the women were trucked to Parchman.

"Female guards strip-searched us. There wasn't a place they missed if you know what I mean. I was scared to death. They took us to the maximum security unit - at the other end of the hallway was death row and the gas chamber. Two of us shared a cell 6 feet by 9 feet, but that included a toilet and a sink and two beds.

"We never got out of the cell to exercise. We got to shower twice a week. This was summer with no air conditioning. You got two minutes to shower before the water went off automatically.

"A lot of the other inmates, I mean the Freedom Riders, were kind of, pardon my French, bitches. They wanted to control every minute and every hour of every day. Our leaders wanted us to exercise in our cells, all together, do ballet plies, jumping jacks, you name it. Somebody in another cell would shout out French lessons. Somebody else lectured on Greek and Roman mythology. Then we'd have to sing. My cellmate would say, 'Winonah isn't singing.'

"One girl had an asthma attack. The other girls began chanting in unison 'E-MER-GEN-CEE!' I could see the guards laughing, so I just grabbed the bars and rattled my cage, made such a racket they had to come out. They took the sick girl away and some of the other girls were mad at me. They said the way I had rattled the cage was uncivilized. I didn't care what they thought. And after that they left me alone. I didn't mind solitude.

"We had only the Bible to read. I tore out the stiff cardboard frontispiece and used it to block the light on the ceiling. They left the light on all night. Shine right in your eyes all night. I had to train myself to wake up at 2 and at 5 when they did the inspections and take the frontispiece off the light, else I'd get in trouble.

"Breakfast was always corn bread that had these chunks of corncob still in it, grits with gravy and fatback. Lunch and dinner were always beans, potato, something mushy. We drank chicory coffee. Your digestive system always cycled between constipation and diarrhea.

"We were allowed to write a letter to blood relatives once a week, but they always censored your mail going out and coming in. We got a piece of toilet paper 5 feet long every day. One time I wrote a letter to David on the toilet paper and gave it to an inmate who was being released from prison. She hid it in a sanitary napkin and smuggled it out. That's how David found out how I was doing."

Most inmates, feeling like they had sacrificed enough, left prison within a month, bailed out by the civil rights group, the Congress of Racial Equality. Winonah remembers being in no hurry to leave. "To stay even longer was going to be even more dramatic. I did the crime so I was going to serve the time, so to speak. Let the nation see what they were doing to us. I stayed. That was it."

Eventually she was the only Freedom Rider in the prison. With no cellmate, she had room to run in place to keep up her strength. She says she lost track of time - couldn't have told you if it was Friday or Thursday or Sunday. Sometimes she talked to the guys on death row through vents. High school kids, studying civics, toured the prison. Everybody wanted to set eyes on a real Freedom Rider.

"She don't look very dangerous to me," Winonah heard a student whisper.

Winonah snorted to herself: "You'd be surprised!"

Sometimes the prison matron visited her cell for a talk. The matron urged Winonah to think about the error of her ways and to repent. The matron liked to play gut-bucket country music in her office loud enough for Winonah to hear. One day she must have switched stations by accident because Winonah suddenly heard Johnny Mathis singing Chances Are.

Winonah burst into tears. She used to listen to that song at home.

 

* * *

They let her out on Christmas Day. David came to fetch her. From prison they took a bus to the black part of Jackson and visited friends on Lynch Street. Winonah enjoyed her first bath in more than six months. Then they grabbed a bus back north, eager to escape Mississippi.

She and David married on April 7, 1962. David never finished college, but had a long career as a newspaper photographer in the Midwest until his retirement four years ago. Winonah finished her education and taught mentally challenged adolescents and adults for years. She and David had three daughters and now have three grandchildren.

David never stops thinking about his days as a Freedom Rider. A few years ago he was watching television and the documentary Eyes on the Prize came on. He couldn't stop crying.

Later he talked to a psychologist. The psychologist said, "You feel guilty that you didn't do more. And only now are you acknowledging how frightened you were. You also feel that what you did has been sadly unappreciated."

"You hit the nail on the head," David said.

Winonah says she never feels guilty or sad. She says she never cares whether or not anyone appreciates her.

"When I was mad in the cell, I was mad in the cell. When I was sad in the cell, I was sad in the cell. When I got out of prison, I was glad."

David keeps his souvenirs in a box in the living room, mostly newspaper clippings about the Freedom Riders. He prizes those Westbrook Pegler columns that attacked him as a bleeding-hearted wimp. He wishes he had kept Winonah's toilet paper letter. He doesn't remember what she wrote. She doesn't either.

He has a part-time job working for the Department of Agriculture inspecting fruit flies. Winonah likes her humble job at the tollbooth. It pays $6.25 an hour but she feels lucky to have it.

When she filled out the application, she answered honestly about her prison record. The interviewer told her, sorry, we can't hire you. Winonah, remaining calm, explained the circumstances of her time in prison. She explained how the Kennedy administration eventually enforced the desegregation laws in the South. She explained the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the convictions of every Freedom Rider who had filed an appeal.

Of course, Winonah's conviction still stands. She never appealed. But she got the job.

 

* * *

On a winter morning, the sun rises like a glorious pumpkin over Tampa Bay. Pelicans glide over the mangroves, and belted kingfishers raise a ruckus from the power lines. As the morning ripens, Winonah Myers has little time for watching birds.

All these anonymous people going to work. All these anonymous people going to play. On a good shift, 1,500 cars driving past her tollbooth for destinations unknown. Winonah, the taciturn woman, nevertheless wishes they would stop for a chat. She would tell them: "Prison wasn't all that bad. In fact, it's a good place for thinking about who you are and what you did. It really gives you time to ponder life. In a strange way, I liked it. I learned something about myself. I could survive. I recommend going to prison."

Of course, Winonah never actually shares her thoughts with anyone passing in the slow lane.

"Thank you" is all she says, collecting their dollar. "Have a nice day."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at

(727) 893-8727 and klink@sptimes.com.

 

Additional reading

Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault. Oxford University Press, $32.50.

Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, by David M. Oshinsky. Free Press, $14.

On the Web

To hear excerpts from Leadbelly's Midnight Special, Son House's Country Farm Blues and Bukka White's Parchman Farm Blues, please click on www.sptimes.com/links.