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Calvin Trillin on carpetbagging for civil rights

Calvin Trillin and John Lewis in 1961.

Everyone knows that memory, and its penchant for myth-making, obscures a lot of the dirtier shades of truth. Especially when, say, a social movement has been successful. There’s so much heroism on hand that retelling those stories takes up all the time one might otherwise devote to more dead-end details. Hence the curiousness of Calvin Trillin’s essay on the Freedom Rides in the current issue of The New Yorker, “Back on the Bus” (subscription required)—it dwells, mainly, in the dead-end. Curious, too, is the fact that the heroism isn’t really lost in these kinds of details; they’re there nonetheless, even if more by implication.

This, I think, is a lesson for those of us trying to meet the challenge of doing good writing about social movements. You don’t have to be a propagandist, believe it or not. Better not to be. You don’t have to ignore the wrinkles. The truth comes through.

Exactly 50 years ago now, Trillin was jetting around the South covering the civil rights movement—though not exclusively that, as he points out—for Time, which processed and rewrote his dispatches up in New York. He remembers the uncanny things he learned then, such as how to evaluate the degree of a person’s racism by how the word “Negro” was pronounced, and all the verses of “We Shall Overcome.” But he also remembers quite a bit of what we normally like to forget—for instance, the fragmentation and competition among the civil-rights movement’s various factions:

[T]he most cynical view of the Freedom Ride was that it was an attempt by [Congress of Racial Equality leader James] Farmer to gain some standing for CORE in the South, where they were jockeying for influence among the N.A.A.C.P. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

And he remembers the movement’s various modes of unpopularity—we remember the violent suppression, and so forth, but less the apathy and sense of futility:

[A]t a time when the Nashville sit-in movement had pretty much completed the desegregation of the city, … fifty-seven percent of Americans believed the sit-ins and other demonstrations would hurt rather than help the chances of Negroes being integrated in the South.

And he remembers the moral ambiguity, the people caught in the middle:

I … watched … a Greek-immigrant diner owner with tears in his eyes telling black sit-in students in Atlanta that, as much as he sympathized with their cause, serving them would mean the end of his business.

This ambiguity isn’t over, not any more than racism is over in the United States. Trillin takes us to some of the 50th anniversary Freedom Ride commemoration events around the country, and finds just how not-over the movement is. Nonviolent organizer and Freedom Rider Jim Lawson—whom I recently interviewed for Waging Nonviolence—refused to attend a Jackson, Mississippi, event, and co-signed a letter contending that “the Jackson commemoration was part of an effort in Mississippi that amounted to ‘stealing the legacy of the civil rights movement so they can profit from tourism.’ Some dismal statistics in living standards and education and criminal justice were presented.”

Trillin did go to Jackson, though. And, like any good journalist eventually does, he finds more ambiguity in the professional expectation of objectivity. Or fairness. Or “getting both sides of the story,” as we journalists are supposed to do. One question he faced back in ’61, for instance, was whether or not to actually get on the bus with the Freedom Riders.

I didn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides—the side that thought, for instance, that all American citizens had the right to vote and the side that thought that people who acted on such a belief should have their houses burned down—had an equally compelling case to make. It wasn’t like trying to remain objective while covering the Michigan-Ohio State game. But at mass meetings I would never have put any money in the collection cup. When, at the invariable end of the meeting, people in the congregation locked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome,” I always edged away toward the exit. Still, I thought we should be on that bus.

So he bought a ticket and rode the bus. Now, at the commemoration events, Trillin is sometimes treated as if he had been a Freedom Rider himself. Instinctively, he says he’s not, but then he’s not so sure. The essay ends this way:

When one of the sessions in Chicago ended with people linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome,” I made my usual quiet move toward the door. Suddenly, I felt someone lock arms with me. Instinctively, I started to pull my arm away while looking around to see who it was. It was an older woman in a wheelchair. Was I really going to wrest my arm away from an older woman in a wheelchair? I stayed. Then I joined in. It turns out that I still know most of the verses.

And so a white guy from a big Northern magazine, a guy seemingly determined to talk about the wrinkles of a hallowed movement—not vindictively, but because they’re true—gets stuck singing 50 years later. The truth gets a hold of you, I guess; it gets stuck in you like a song.