The Cost

The Cost Alabama police attack Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers, 1965
Federal Bureau of Investigation Photograph
Freedom wore an expensive price tag.

Southern blacks who tried to register to vote--and those who supported them--were typically jeered and harassed, beaten or killed. In 1963, the NAACP's Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his wife and children in Jackson, Mississippi. Reverend George Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi, was murdered when he refused to remove his name from a list of registered voters, and farmer Herbert Lee of Liberty, Mississippi, was killed for having attended voter education classes. Three "Freedom Summer" field-workers--Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman--were shot down for their part in helping Mississippi blacks register and organize. Michael Schwerner, a social worker from Manhattan's Lower East Side, James Chaney, a local plasterer's apprentice, and Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology student, disappeared in June 1964. Their bodies were discovered several months later in an earthen dam outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman had been shot once; Chaney, the lone African American, had been savagely beaten and shot three times.

When violence failed to stop voter registration efforts, whites used economic pressure. In Mississippi's LeFlore and Sunflower Counties--two of the poorest counties in the nation--state authorities cut off federal food relief, resulting in a near-famine in the region. Many black registrants throughout the South were also fired from their jobs or refused credit at local banks and stores. In one town, a black grocer was forced out of business when local whites stopped his store delivery trucks on the highway outside town and made them turn around.

Like voter registrants, freedom riders paid a heavy price for racial justice. When the interracial groups of riders stepped off Greyhound or Trailways buses in segregated terminals, local police were usually absent. Angry mobs were waiting, however, armed with baseball bats, lead pipes, and bicycle chains.

MLK in jail Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Birmingham jail
Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Record Administration, 306-PS-68-1130

In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, forcing its passengers to flee for their lives. In Birmingham, where an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor had encouraged the Ku Klux Klan to attack an incoming group of freedom riders "until it looked like a bulldog had got a hold of them," the riders were severely beaten. In eerily-quiet Montgomery, a mob charged another bus load of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life photographer Don Urbrock in the face with his own camera. A dozen men surrounded Jim Zwerg, a white student from Fisk University, and beat him in the face with a suitcase, knocking out his teeth. The freedom riders did not fare much better in jail. There, they were crammed into tiny, filthy cells and sporadically beaten. In Jackson, Mississippi, some male prisoners were forced to do hard labor in 100-degree heat. Others were transferred to Parchman Penitentiary, where their food was deliberately oversalted and their mattresses were removed. Sometimes the men were suspended by "wrist breakers" from the walls. Typically, the windows of their cells were shut tight on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.

Out of jail, the freedom riders joined mass demonstrations where the violent response of local police shocked the world. In Birmingham, police loosed attack dogs into a peaceful crowd of demonstrators, and the German shepherds bit three teenagers. In Birmingham and Orangeburg, South Carolina, firemen blasted protestors with hoses set at a pressure to remove bark from trees and mortar from brick.

Memorial Viola Liuzzo Memorial
National Park Service Photograph
On "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama, police and troopers on horseback charged into a group of marchers, beating them and firing tear gas. Several weeks later the marchers trekked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery without incident, but afterwards four Klansmen murdered Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life for the movement, struck down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee.

When white supremacists could not halt the civil rights movement, they tried to demoralize its supporters. They bombed churches and other meeting places. They set high bail and paced trials slowly, forcing civil rights organizations to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. At a Nashville lunch counter sit-in, the store manager locked the door and turned on the insect fumigator. In St. Augustine, Florida, city officials who had promised to meet with black demonstrators at City Hall offered them an empty table and a tape recorder instead. In Selma, Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies forced 165 students into a three-mile run, poking them with cattle prods as they ran. Random violence accompanied calculated acts. The Klan bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four black girls. On the campus of the University of Mississippi, a stray bullet struck a local jukebox-repairman in a riot that killed one reporter and wounded more than 150 federal marshals. In Marion, Alabama, 26-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson was gunned down while trying to protect his mother and grandfather from State Police. Not far away in Selma, a white Boston minister who had lost his way was clubbed to death by white vigilantes.

The more violent southern whites became, the more their actions were publicized and denounced across the nation. Increasing violence in the South's streets, jails, and public places failed to break the spirits of the freedom fighters. Indeed, it emboldened them.


The Need For Change The Players The Strategy The Cost The Prize


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