Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rep. John Lewis on the time he was sent to prison for using a 'white' restroom

On July 7th, 1961, John Lewis was released from Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi after 37 days in prison on a charge of "disorderly conduct" — that is, refusing to follow segregation law. Lewis was a civil-rights leader with the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he and other activists (black and white) spent the summer of 1961 leading a Freedom Ride to protest segregation in the Deep South.

Today, now-Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) commemorated his release from prison by tweeting out his mugshot:

This wasn't Lewis' first arrest, or his last: he's been arrested 45 times during his career, most recently during an immigrant-rights protest in 2013. But Parchman was an infamous prison, and its treatment of the Freedom Riders in 1961 has become legendary. The governor of Mississippi himself instructed Parchman guards to "break their spirit."

Lewis talked about his ordeal during an interview in 1973 for the Southern Oral History Program (a project based out of the University of North Carolina). Here's what he said about the 1961 arrest at the time (emphasis added):

JOHN LEWIS:
We arrived in Jackson at the Trailway Bus Station there and we were arrested for refusing to move on, and disorderly conduct, and disturbing the peace. When the city jail got too full, they transferred us to the Hinds County jail and from Hinds County jail we were transferred to Parchman.

I will never forget the experience going from Hinds County jail in Jackson to Parchman, the state penitentiary. The jailers came to the cell and they did all of this late at night. [unclear]. They had a large van truck and they took all of the male prisoners, black and white, into this van truck. We had been segregated in the city jail, the Hinds County jail. Putting us together in this large van truck was the first integration, I guess. After we got off the bus, they thought of putting black and white people together to transport them to the State Pen. We arrived there and one of the guards said, "Sing your Freedom songs now, we have niggers here who will eat you up; sing your Freedom songs."

The moment we all started stepping off the van truck, walking to the gate through the gate that leads to maximum security, that's where we were being placed. We had to walk right in and you had to take off all of your clothes. So all of us-seventy-five guys, black and white, because during that period you had students, professors, ministers coming in from all parts of the country to continue the Freedom Ride. And we stood there for at least two hours without and clothes and I just felt that it was an attempt to belittle and dehumanize you.

Then they would take us in twos, two blacks and two whites—the segregation started all over again after we got inside the jail—to take a shower. While we were taking a shower, there was a guard standing there with a gun pointed on you while you showered. If you had a beard or a mustache, any hair, you had to shave your beard off, you had to shave your mustache off. After taking the showers in twos, you were placed in a cell and given a Mississippi undershirt and a pair of shorts.

During our stay in Mississippi Penitentiary we didn't have any visitors. We were able to write one person a letter. The second day Governor [unknown] came by with some state officials. We all got out within a forty-day period in order to appeal the charges.

INTERVIEWERS:
You were there for how long?

JOHN LEWIS:
I was there for thirty-seven days.

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