Apr. 27, 2011

by Jess Bidgood

Ellen Ziskind sits in her Brookline apartment. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Ellen Ziskind didn’t think she’d have anything very interesting to tell me.
She knew, of course, that there was some inherent interest in the fact that she joined the 1961 Freedom Ride. But Ellen said her part of that story isn't very important.
She wasn’t on the Ride's first bus — the one that had, in May 1961, plunged through Nashville to Jackson, Miss., carrying a group of white and black riders with unprecedented plans to defy segregation laws in the South.
Ellen, who grew up in Lowell, was living in New York that summer and about to start her senior year of college. She joined the Freedom Ride in July, along with several hundred other students who committed to aid the Freedom Riders' effort to demonstrate against Mississippi’s segregation rules — and do jailtime for it.
Ellen is about seventy now, a lively woman with wide, green eyes. She still works as a psychotherapist and lives in Brookline.
Ellen approaches her story of the Freedom Ride very matter-of-factly. She’s not sure if she effected change by participating. She’s not even sure if it changed her. It was all, as she says, “seamless.” Natural. It didn’t feel bombastic.

But historical moments wouldn’t become so if people like Ellen didn’t decide to step up and turn singular actions into movements, carrying their stories with them. And that story is critical to understanding what the Freedom Ride was, how it touched Massachusetts and how it is very much alive with us today.

I asked Ellen to tell me what happened when she joined the Freedom Ride. Her words, abridged for brevity, follow. 

I grew up in Lowell, a very conservative city with a very right-wing newspaper.

Lowell is seen in 2010. (dougtone/Flickr)

I went to the Cambridge School of Weston when I was 14, and there were some black students there, and there was a black girl in my dormitory named Jane. It was really the first black person I’d ever had a relationship with, but then, you know, color didn’t fall away. I knew she was black. But we were friends.
We were walking in downtown Lowell. And by then I was really unaware of her difference, or that there was anything strange about a black and white girl walking together, which had probably never happened in Lowell — or not publicly. And I noticed people turning around to look at us. And I feel like it was my last moment of innocence in a way. It was like, What’s going on. And then I got it. This was not something anybody wanted to see.
By the summer of 1961, Ziskind was volunteering at the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in New York City, before beginning her last year of college.
Maybe a handful, maybe five or six young black men from the South came up to the CORE office to talk about their experiences, because they were Freedom Riders and they had gotten out of jail already. This was in July of ‘61. Even though they were young — they were about my age, about 20 — they had been active in civil rights for several years. And they’d all been pretty brutally beaten. They’d all gone to jail a couple of times.
And I think they kind of took my breath away. I wasn’t a naïve person, but it was kind of like a story from another country. And I was so, kind of, struck by, swept away by their working to have a democracy.
I just was kind of seized with… it was sort of like a moral crisis in a way, for a young person. And it was like, Oh my God, if I really believe in this stuff that I’m sort of in the office working on, and that I’ve believed in for kind of my whole life, I have to put my money where my mouth is.

Members of the first group of Freedom Riders posed in Washington, with a map of a route they plan to take to test segregation in bus terminal restaurants and rest rooms in the South, May 1961. All were members of CORE, where Ziskind was a volunteer. (AP)

And it was just one of those moments that is seamless. It’s kind of like a kaleidoscope, it just sort of clicks into place and there’s a decision there, and it’s clear. Unambivalent and clear. And so that’s how I came to go.
I didn’t know anyone who was going. To my knowledge, I wasn’t even a particularly brave person. I can’t even remember a single preparation. It all felt like a seamless going forth.
Before we got to Nashville for our training in non-violence, we stopped in Selma (Ala.), for our rest stop. And we had no longer gotten into the ladies room that there was an announcement saying, Everybody on the bus to Nashville, get back on the bus immediately. A group of hostile men had gathered and they wanted to get out of there. And I think the police, the powers that be, always let hostile people know when busses were coming.
In Nashville, the local black population was picketing and trying to get (a) store to integrate. So they had us — some of us — go with them that night to picket. And they told us that if the men got attacked, that we should surround the man, because these people would be less likely to hurt a woman. And that if any violence started, we had placards, and we should take them off our neck so that nobody would strangle us with the string. And also that there was always somebody in the black community who was at the ready to come rescue us if things got really bad.
There was a group… and they had knives, I can’t remember now if they had guns, I know they had knives. And they started throwing eggs at us. That’s the most I remember. And I really forget if I was scared. Obviously I must have been, though I don’t know how much I allowed myself to feel it.
When you really see the authority people, policemen — who you’ve always though of as protecting you, know, if you are white and live in the North — I mean, to see them really participating actively in getting you hurt or killed, was sort of a beginning to a reorientation, or to a new orientation, to this strange land. I’m perfectly aware that terrible things went on in the North. They just weren’t so blatant most of the time. It was just sort of amazing.
When we did ride the bus to Jackson, Mississippi, and I went into the black waiting room and the blacks went into the white waiting room, I saw (the police) threaten a legally blind woman on the bus with us from New York. They told her if she didn’t get out of the way, they’d throw her in an institution for the blind.
So they said their usual words, “Move on, if you don’t move on, I’m going to arrest you,” and he said it three times and then he arrested us. And then we were taken to a county jail.

Ellen Ziskind, then 20, is seen in her mug shot. (via Mississippi Sovereignty Commission online)

I remember seeing black prisoners there — we were segregated. Though we didn’t exchange any words, we didn’t want to be heard, they knew who we were, and we could see their appreciation in their faces. And they handed us letters to mail for them. It was another odd experience of being in a strange new world, where these weird things are happening.
We stayed overnight there, and the next morning we were taken to be fingerprinted and mugged. And the next morning we were taken to court, and they wouldn’t let us comb our hair and wash our faces, so we wouldn’t look like the people said we were — drug-addicts, whatever. Somehow I saw a newspaper that morning, and it had a front-page story about the Freedom Rides, and it referred to us as “commie-Jews.”
Then there was this cop who wanted to interview us all individually… For some reason, I volunteered to go first. I seemed to be gaining confidence, which I didn’t really have a lot of in myself at that age.
And I went in, and the first thing he said to me, was, What kind of a name is Ziskind? I knew what he was asking, but I was sort of playing dumb. I said, finally, Are you asking me if I’m Jewish? And then he said, Come down here to sleep with niggers, huh? And I said, That’s none of your business, I didn’t say yes or no. And then he kept it up. And I finally looked at him, straight on, and I said, Sergeant, I’m sure there are many things in your private life of which I’m sure you are not ashamed that you don’t care to discuss in public.
That was when I looked around and said, Who is this person talking? I couldn’t believe it! He was just, totally, he didn’t know what to do. I think that was the end of the interview.
I think that same day, we were put into a paddy-wagon and on our way for the 140-mile drive out to Parchman State Penitentiary. On the way, the driver would jam on the breaks so we’d all fall on the floor and he’d keep tossing lit cigarettes back.

An article from Mississippi's State Times, July 30, 1961. (via Mississippi Sovereignty Commission online)

(When we got to Parchman State Penitentiary) I think we had to give up our clothes, probably kept our underwear. We were given striped prison skirts, some kind of blouse. And we had no shoes, and we couldn’t have anything, like books. There was a Bible in every cell. We went into a cellblock that was death row. And behind us, there were actual black men on death row, some of whom probably did die. And it was a horizontal cellblock so you could not see anybody, except if you had a cellmate, which I did.
It was sort of a remarkable experience. When do you ever get to know people without the visual? Just to form impressions of people for who they were. Which was kind of linked up to the whole civil rights movement, in a way.
I was kind of impressed with the structure the women had created. We woke up every morning and sang, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,’ with lusty, heartfelt voices. It just lifted us. It was wonderful. I probably should do it now!
And then the day was sort of divided up into word games, lectures, maybe somebody was teaching a language. It was very convivial, very interesting, very stimulating.
When people’s time was up, and they left, there was a song that we sang, that was really sad and really wonderful. We sang a lot, actually. One time, the guard told us to stop singing. And we would be very cooperative if something made sense, but if it didn’t, if they were just exerting their dominance over us, we would not cooperate. And so we continued to sing, and I remember they took our mattresses away so we were lying on cold steel, with the air conditioning, for the rest of the time.
But as tends to happen, when you have the kind of spirit that we had, hardship only kind of makes things sweeter. Because it doesn’t stop you. You can feel the strength of your conviction and your commitment in the face of these things. It’s kind of a wonderful feeling.
CORE asked us to stay for 6 weeks and then have our bail paid, so that’s what I did. I think it takes something, I think it’s different for each person, what it takes, to stand up against that and really risk everything to do the right thing. And I don’t feel like I was risking everything.
I never, ever thought about (whether I was making a difference). I didn’t think of it as radical, I didn’t really think of it as anything, except the right thing to do. It was just, like, something happened inside, and it was just about justice and injustice, and we were going. No fanfare, no self-consciousness.
(Getting out) felt pretty strange, because we hadn’t been outside in six weeks. The best part — the best and the worst — was that families in Jackson took us into their homes. These lovely people took us into their homes.
They had to drive me into downtown Jackson to pick up some money that my mother had wired. And when we got in the car, they said I had to lie down in the backseat, because there was a law in Mississippi that said no white or blacks could be seen together. They would be arrested because it was against the law.
So, I wasn’t even thinking then, that they took us into their home, which could have put them into jail or worse. So there I was, lying on the floor of their car, sort of stunned by this. I don’t think I took in that in that moment they were risking something terrible.

The label on the back of Ziskind's mug shot showed she had been charged with "breach of peace" for entering the Jackson bus station with an integrated group. (via Mississippi Sovereignty Commission online)

That Sunday night, we went to a church service. Where, again, I didn’t appreciate until fairly recently that they were taking a big risk, too, to have a service with whatever Freedom Riders were there that night.
And I was thinking, Oh my God. We kids, going back where it’s safe. We just came down and did this and now we’re leaving them. It just felt so empty, and so fruitless, and so kind of stupid. And I felt spoiled, just kind of ashamed.
I talked to this really elderly black man, probably in his 80’s. (Jackson) had, I think, the largest black middle class of all the major cities. And they had been reluctant to get involved in civil rights action because they had so much to lose. And he said, But you kids coming down here, and doing this for us, now we know we have to do things for ourselves.
And it was true, Jackson got much more mobilized as a result of our having been there.
I spoke to a group of people in Lowell that my mother invited over, like friends of hers. And I was telling them all about it, and they didn’t believe me. Like, ‘This cannot happen in this country.’
In some ways I feel so disappointed in myself that I haven’t kept up that level of commitment (to civil rights). But when I can think of that young woman that I was, who was thrilled to be in jail in her 21st birthday — 'cause I thought that was really the place to be — I mean, I kind of rejoice in knowing that I was that person who felt that strongly, and who went. And who felt so glad that she went. And nothing that I faced in that time ever made me feel any differently.
I feel (what I did in the Freedom Ride was) totally insignificant. And it’s very hard to have so much attention showered on us, because we don’t feel like heroes. And I’m sure, like any political movement that happens, people don’t think of it that way.
I think the only thing that feels good about going to Mississippi in May is to meet young people. And if there’s any kind of inspiration or something that can happen across the generations, that’s important to me.

Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor