Bruised, battered, his face and clothing covered with dry crusts of blood, James Peck staggered as he walked. He had been beaten to the point of passing out. And though still a bit disoriented, he was now conscious as he readied himself for the next task.
He looked out of the window as the bus drove in to the terminal in Birmingham, Alabama. Some men stood outside, but nothing that appeared too worrisome. At least not as what happened in the past couple hours. When KKK members boarded the bus and beaten the seven freedom riders aboard. All done 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 as the bus pulled in that there were no police officers around. Which must have struck him as odd, given there were rumors of potential violence towards the bus riders. The police chief would later remark that there were no police officers present because “it was Mother’s Day and they were all visiting their mothers.”
The plan was for James and the others on the bus to get off and walk in to the terminal and sit at the lunch counter. He was one of the first to exit. The other was his fellow co-leader. They walked in to the building, walked towards the lunch counter. Where the 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 in to a corridor. And they beat him. With chains and sticks and clubs and key rings 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 own 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 hopital. Where 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.”