James Peck, a freedom rider

Bruised, battered, his face and clothing covered with dry crusts of blood, James Peck staggered as he walked. He still felt a bit disoriented after being beaten to the point of passing out. But as he regained consciousness, he readied himself for the next task.

He looked out of the window as the bus drove into the terminal in Birmingham, Alabama. Some men stood outside, but nothing appeared too worrisome. At least not as what happened in the past couple of hours, when KKK members boarded the bus and beat the seven freedom riders aboard. They had done so to enforce the color line, the line dividing where blacks could and could not sit on a bus, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated buses were non-constitutional.

James noticed that there were no police officers around as the bus pulled in, which must have struck him as odd, given prevailing rumors of potential violence towards the bus riders. The police chief would later remark police officers were not present because “it was Mother’s Day and they were all visiting their mothers.”

The plan for each freedom rider was to walk into the terminal and sit at the lunch counter. James was one of the first to exit. The other was his fellow co-leader. They walked into the building towards the lunch counter, where men inside began to heckle them. They accused his black co-leader of beating James.

“You’ll have to kill me before you hurt him,” James responded, which enraged the men even more.

So they attacked the two riders. More than twelve men dragged James into a corridor. And they beat him. With chains and sticks and clubs and keyrings and bare-knuckled fists. They beat him to a point where his face was a little more than a “bloody pulp.”

There was an agreement between the police and the men for a fifteen-minute time gap before the police would arrive. The fifteen minutes passed, so the men left, leaving James on the floor in a pool of his blood. One can only assume they left him there to die.

He woke up in that pool of blood. Too tired to move, he just stayed on that floor. A fellow bus rider came up to him. He helped him up, and James was taken to a hospital. His face, described as a “mass of blood,” was stitched up—fifty-three stitches in all.

James never fought back during any of the attacks that day. At least not with his fists.

Looking back on his life, he would remark, “My life has been nonviolent direct action to try to make this a better world. It is my philosophy that the struggle has to be a non-ending one, because I am not one of those idealists who envision a utopia.”


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“James Peck, a freedom rider” sources: Interview with James Peck – Eyes on the Prize Interviews, https://nyti.ms/2I7nlLc, “Get On The Bus: 50 Years Of ‘Freedom Rides’” – NPR