The major political concern of those days was the Civil Rights Movement and the attempt by Southern “Negroes” to integrate American society. In the North, there was considerable support for this push for integration and political equality, some of it taking the form of Freedom Rides.
Some of these Freedom Rides were sponsored by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, under its president James L. Farmer, which was much in the news in those days for taking busloads of people, both black and white, to protest in the South. Naturally, these buses were not welcome in the South, and the passengers on these buses were often arrested, abused and beaten by the white members of the local communities they sought to integrate. Three Freedom Riders were even murdered. Linda and I, now a couple, decided to join one of these Freedom Rides, this one to integrate the restaurants of the Southern city of Baltimore.
We reached a destination at a church somewhere in Baltimore, and milled around a basement with many chairs arranged in rows waiting for the other buses to arrive. When everyone was there, the peaceful character of what was about to happen was emphasized, and we were warned against becoming violent ourselves. The idea was to integrate the restaurants of the city, which had a history of discrimination against Black people. The plan was that we would enter the restaurants as bi-racial couples (in our case a trio), we would be refused service, we would be asked to leave, we’d refuse to do so, and then we’d be arrested for trespassing. It was all clearly outlined for us, and with a bit of luck there would be no violence. We stood up, joined hands, sang some freedom hymns, and were assigned our partners.
Naturally, we were paired with a partner of another race. Our partner was a light skinned, willowy young woman of about my age named Mary Aston, who was so pale-skinned that she could have passed for my sister. And therein lay the problem.
We were taken to our first restaurant, a rather fancy one, by bus. We entered, picked a table, sat down, ordered a meal, it was served to us, and I announced to the waiter that he had just served a Negro. He didn’t respond, but after we’d eaten he brought us our bill, I paid it, and we left. Needless to say we were disappointed. We had expected to be to be denied service and arrested, but absolutely nothing had happened. This was not in the script.
So, we left for our next restaurant, ordered only coffee and cake, and the same thing happened. I think the waiters didn’t believe that Mary was really a Black woman. She didn’t look it. We spent the day going from restaurant to restaurant, and each time the same thing happened or failed to happen. In some of the restaurants, we even got to watch television on which could be seen some of the other members of our group being arrested and jeered by crowds, but nothing happened to us. By the end of the day my only fear was that our activities were going to be curtailed by the fact that at some point I was going to run out of cash, as I had to pay for everything we ordered. In any case, for me this was not a successful Freedom Ride, although I did eat a lot of cake and drink a lot of coffee. I was looking for something more heroic.