From the Archives: Freedom Riders Describe Ordeal


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The UAW has a long history of supporting civil rights. From demanding the integration of factories to helping to fund the March on Washington, the UAW has been there to help amplify the voices of those who for so long went unheard. We dug through the archives of Solidarity Magazine to find the article below, which profiles a speech given by two Freedom Riders arrested in Mississippi. Throughout the 1960s, Walter Reuther and the UAW raised thousands of dollars to bail out protestors like Shirley Thomas and Sandra Nixon who had been unfairly arrested for standing up for the rights of African Americans across the south.


Freedom Riders Describe Ordeal

From Solidarity Magazine – August 1961

East Moline, Ill. – Robert Johnston, director of UAW Region 4 hailed the courage of two young feminine freedom riders who had spent 40 days in a Mississippi jail for attempting to integrate a “for whites only” restroom.

The young women, Shirley Thomas, 17, and Sandra Nixon, 20, told an overflow crowd of more than 700 persons of the humiliation and physical abuse they had experienced during their southern ordeal.

Johnston, in praising the heroic effort of the two young women and other Freedom Riders, drew a parallel between the fight of the Negro to achieve their basic rights of human dignity and labor’s struggles to gain recognition in the Thirties.

“The fight of people in the South to eat in a restaurant of their choice, to get the vote and to travel anywhere they please, is like the fight of labor for recognition and I’m talking about the strikes in the 1930s in Flint and Detroit, Mich. and in Toledo, Ohio,” Johnston said.

He emphasized that the UAW has always been in the forefront of the battle to eliminate racial discrimination in industry hiring practices and that the Union backed completely the fight of the Freedom Riders in the South.

“Discrimination isn’t found just in the South,” Johnston observed, “you can find it right here in the Quad Cities.”

Miss Nixon assured the attentive audience gathered in the UAW auditorium that the freedom rides would continue in the South until all people are accorded the same rights in the use of public facilities and until all citizens attained their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Miss Thomas vividly recalled some of the almost inhuman abuses the Riders had experienced in the county jail in Jackson, and in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

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