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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Freedom Rider tells her story

Lula White knew what to do

By Randall Beach
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
-- Lula White is again stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight, just as she did when she was a 22-year-old joining hundreds of other "freedom riders" challenging segregation in the South.
White is now a retired high school history teacher who usually lives quietly in her Hamden home. But with publication of the book "Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders," she has been rediscovered and enlisted as a "teaching tool."
Today’s students will doubtless be amazed by her story: facing down a mob of angry racists and later a group of Mississippi policemen before being convicted of breach of peace and spending two months in prison.
White came to the New Haven Free Public Library Monday morning for a press briefing to help launch the library’s civic engagement program.
The goal is to raise funds for the library while galvanizing public awareness about how individuals can make a difference by taking a stand, just as White did in the summer of 1961.
White will join two other "freedom riders," the Rev. Reginald Green and Ellen Ziskind as well as "Breach of Peace" author Eric Etheridge and Yale Professor Jonathan Holloway Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. at the library for a "civic engagement conversation." The event is free and open to the public.
Earlier that day, those panelists will speak at a private luncheon at Union League Cafe. The Patrons of the New Haven Public Library have entitled this "a book lover’s luncheon" to benefit the library.
Heidi Hamilton, who represents "Breach of Peace" publisher Atlas & Co., said Monday a local committee is forming to bring together community leaders, agencies, activists and other supporters to shape programs concerning civic engagement and civil disobedience.
"The idea," Hamilton said, "is to talk and think about what you might do as an individual to make a difference."
White had no notion she was making history in 1961; she said she simply felt she had to do something when she saw a newspaper photo of a "freedom riders" bus that had been set on fire by proponents of segregation.
"I was just so enraged that in this country people would try to kill you because you were demanding the rights that you were entitled to," she said. "Those flames spurred me on."
"We couldn’t imagine going to jail," she added. "But we overcame that to leave our comfortable lives and do what we thought was right."
White was not unfamiliar with the South, having been born in Alabama. But she hadn’t lived there since age seven, when she and her family moved to New Haven. When the first "freedom riders" headed southward in the spring of 1961, she was living in Chicago. In addition to having their bus set on fire, some of those "riders" were badly beaten.
After White resolved to join the movement, she decided not to tell her father. "I knew he wouldn’t want me to risk my life. I dropped him a postcard the day I left: ‘If you can’t reach me in the next few months, I’ll be in Mississippi.’"
On the group’s way to Jackson, Miss., their bus was intercepted by a mob of about 50-60 angry whites, who rocked the vehicle while shouting racial epithets. When the "freedom riders" finally reached Jackson, they were confronted by another, larger crowd who had surrounded the bus station, the planned site of the riders’ protest.
But White and the eight others in her group walked off the bus, made it past the mob and went into the bus station’s "whites only" waiting room.
"The arresting officer came up to me and said, ‘You have to leave; your presence here is breaching the peace,’" she recalled. "I told him, ‘No, I have a Constitutional right to be here.’"
When she was sent to prison, she was stunned to learn she was not allowed to have any books, not even the Bible she had packed. No visitors were allowed and food was slid into her cell.
Asked how those days relate to today’s civil rights climate and the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, White said, "It’s part of a long journey. We’re nowhere near our goal."
White said she had preferred former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Obama but hopes Obama is elected.
She also said recounting the civil rights era "reminds me of a time when I was more hopeful. I thought things would change quickly. But that’s not the way things work."
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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