Reporter: Moore, Ray, 1922-.
In this WSB newsfilm clip from the summer of 1961 in Washington, D.C., WSB reporter Ray Moore interviews United States attorney general Robert F. Kennedy about the Freedom Rides and school integration.
The clip begins with United States attorney general Robert F. Kennedy sitting in a room with an Americanflag behind him. WSB reporter Ray Moore appears to be listening to something; in front of him are several pages with portions of text blacked out. The clip breaks a few times before the audio portion of the interview beings. Moore's first question to Kennedy about riots in Montgomery, Alabama, is incompletely recorded. In response to the question, Kennedy declares the unspecified charges are "simply untrue." Asked about his relationship with the Freedom Ride sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Kennedy claims that he first heard about the Freedom Ride on Monday, May 15, 1961, the day after the attack and bus burning in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. He asserts that he had not had any prior conversations about the rides with "CORE or anybody else." According to accounts of the civil rights workers involved in the Freedom Rides, the CORE office sent informational letters about the Freedom Rides two weeks before the May 4 departure from Washington, D.C. They reported sending letters to president John F. Kennedy; Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, attorney general Robert F. Kennedy; the chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and the presidents of Trailways and Greyhound bus companies. CORE received no responses. Simeon Booker, a reporter who traveled with the riders from Washington D.C. also met with Robert Kennedy and his assistant John Seigenthaler the day before the ride began but felt after the visit that the attorney general had not been paying full attention.
Kennedy then volunteers to tell Moore about his experience with the Freedom Rides. He opens with the events following the May 14 bus burning in Anniston and the beatings in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. According to Kennedy, the Freedom Riders were in Birmingham on Monday, May 15 and were trying to continue their journey to New Orleans. Kennedy reports he spoke with Alabama director of public safety, Floyd Mann, after having been unsuccessful in his attempts to contact Alabama governor John Patterson. Mann was able to get governor Patterson to agree to provide some protection to the Freedom Riders. However, after Kennedy relayed that information to the Freedom Riders and they got on the bus in Birmingham, Mann called Kennedy and told him that the bus driver wouldn't drive the bus. Kennedy confirms that after hearing from Mann, he called the manager of the Greyhound station in Birmingham, George Cruit, and expressed his desire the Freedom Riders make their trip. Cruit recorded that conversation, and it later received significant attention in Alabama.
At this point, Moore interrupts Kennedy to repeat the statements made by George Cruit. At an unspecified hearing about the Freedom Rides, Cruit testified that Kennedy said he had gone to a lot of trouble for the Freedom Riders and would be upset if the riders did not complete their trip to Montgomery. Kennedy admits that he and his staff at the Justice Department had put a lot of effort into getting the Freedom Riders safely from Birmingham to Montgomery. He refutes allegations that his attention to the Freedom Rider's safety proves that he supported their protest and that they were sent by the Federal government. Kennedy asserts that those allegations are untrue and explains again that he was concerned with the safety of the travelers. Asked about governor Patterson's assurance that the riders would be safe, Kennedy clarifies that he did not personally speak with governor Patterson. Through Kennedy's conversations with Mann the governor assured Kennedy that the riders would be protected "and that they wouldn't have difficulty or problems." Unfortunately, Mann later called Kennedy to say the governor changed his mind and that if the riders traveled, they would do so on their own and without protection. Kennedy expressed his frustration to Mann, telling Mann "that where I come from is somebody gives their word about something that they live up to their word." When Moore asks Kennedy if he spoke to Mann as calmly as he is speaking in the interview, Kennedy says he did.
Moore asks Kennedy about Governor Patterson's call to President John F. Kennedy on Friday, May 19. Kennedy postpones the question and returns to the events of May 15. He recounts that after the challenges at the bus terminal on May 15, the Freedom Riders flew to New Orleans that evening. Kennedy recalls that after the first group of riders arrived in New Orleans, he began hearing about other groups coming to Birmingham to continue the plan to travel by bus to New Orleans. Although he did not question the legal right of civil rights workers to travel on Freedom Rides, Kennedy confirms the situation was stormy. Kennedy tried to contact Governor Patterson for several days to talk about the situation but was unsuccessful. Finally, President John F. Kennedy tried to get Patterson to promise to protect the new Freedom Riders. Kennedy points out that the rhad safely traveled through several states, without any intervention by the federal government. He confirms the desire of the Justice Department and the president that Alabama officials handle the situation. On Friday, May 19, Governor Patterson through a messenger asked to meet with a personal representative of the president. Robert Kennedy says he sent John Seigenthaler, a staff member at the Department of Justice, to Alabama that day. Seigenthaler met with Governor Patterson that evening and, as Kennedy reports, received assurance from Patterson that Alabama had "the means, the ability, and the will to protect" the Freedom Riders. Kennedy reports that twelve hours after these assurances, Seigenthaler "was lying on the ground in Montgomery, unconscious, having been beaten" by a mob about which the FBI had warned the Montgomery Police Department. Kennedy blames a small group of people for the mob attack, although he recognizes that many people in Alabama do not support the Freedom Riders. Since Kennedy and others in the federal government "found that law and order couldn't be maintained for people traveling in interstate commerce," they sent federal marshals "to ensure that there was protection in interstate commerce."
Moore follows up on the decision to send federal marshals to Alabama, asking why the government chose to send marshals instead of troops. Kennedy replies that he is against sending troops in when he feels marshals can do the job. Moore asks if the Justice Department had organized a plan for using federal marshals following the riots surrounding the court-ordered integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Kennedy denies that the department had organized a plan for using marshals, although a few had subsequently received training to deal with riot situations. Kennedy affirms that there is now a plan to make better use of trained marshals in future cases of unrest.
Next, Moore asks Kennedy to comment on governor Patterson's claim that the federal government does not have the authority to move federal forces into a state unless they are requested. Kennedy counters Patterson's assertion and insists the law clearly "shows that we had a legal right to move the marshals into the state of Alabama." Moore then asks Kennedy why he waited until after rioting in Montgomery to request a "cooling off period." Kennedy replies that after the mob attack and riots in Montgomery, he felt the situation "became more acute." Continuing, Kennedy again recognizes the legal right of integrated interstate travel and praises authorities in Chicago who have protected travelers rather than letting them be attacked for several minutes before responding. Returning to the question of federal intervention in Alabama, Kennedy maintains he would not have sent marshals if state leaders had met their responsibility. He also argues that if he had not sent marshals he would be derelict in his duty, responsibility, obligation, and oath.
Following this, Moore asks the cameraman to pause recording; after the pause, Moore asks Kennedy about a "friend of the court" brief the Justice Department filed supporting a case by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) against segregated transportation in Jackson, Mississippi. Asked why the department did not follow the NAACP's lead asking for an end to police harassment, Kennedy recognizes the department opposed the NAACP on that issue because they felt "it would impede the operations of the police department and policemen in Jackson." In July 1961, the NAACP on behalf of three African Americans from Jackson, Mississippi, filed a suit seeking an end to segregation in interstate and intrastate travel. The case was brought before a three-judge circuit court in September 1961. In February 1962, the United States Supreme Court in Bailey v. Patterson ruled in favor of the NAACP and against segregation in transportation facilities.
Finally, Moore brings up the topic of school desegregation, beginning with tuition grants in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Moore asks Kennedy why the Justice Department tried to enter the case as a friend of the court on behalf of African American parents challenging the closing of the public schools and the issuance of tuition grants for private educational facilities. In his reply, Kennedy explains that there are 1,700 African American students who have not had access to public education since the school system closed in the fall of 1959. Continuing, he expresses his belief that tuition grants are not the proper way of handling the situation. Moore comments that the judge in the case did not accept the Justice Department's friend of the court brief. Kennedy responds that the Justice Department only took action in the case when their attempts to encourage local leaders to reopen the public schools were unsuccessful. He declares that the Justice Department will remain interested in the school situation in Prince Edward County. Asked if the department will ask Congress for power to initiate school desegregation suits, Kennedy replies that they have no plans to do so.
Moore then turns to upcoming school desegregation of the eleventh and twelfth grades in Atlanta in the fall of 1961. Moore quotes Georgia attorney general Eugene Cook who condemns visits by two Justice Department employees as implying that Atlanta will not comply with court-ordered integration. Kennedy counters by expressing his confidence in the citizens of Atlanta and Georgia. He recognizes that school integration is a challenging situation and affirms that discussions recognizing the challenges of desegregation help smooth the process. He asserts that he does not anticipate problems in school desegregation in Atlanta and that it is also wise to "make sure that we all understand what the situation is and to assure that we also have met our responsibilities." Kennedy then refuses to make a firm statement on tuition grants, expressing his need to review specific laws before making judgments. The clip ends with an image of Kennedy and Moore sitting across the table from each other.
Title supplied by cataloger.
The Civil Rights Digital Library received support from a National Leadership Grant for Libraries awarded to the University of Georgia by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for digital conversion and description of the WSB-TV Newsfilm Collection.