< Calvin Trillin Looks Back on The Freedom Riders


Friday, July 22, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This weekend the first gay marriages will be performed in New York State. And though gay marriage is legal in only a fraction of states, it's become a prominent symbol of a gay rights movement years in the making. Fifty years ago, reporter Calvin Trillin covered another kind of civil rights campaign, one waged for equal rights by and for African Americans in the South. Trillin covered the movement from the fall of 1960 to the fall of ’61 and recalled the experience in this week's New Yorker.

In 1960, He was working at Time Magazine’s Atlanta Bureau. It was a pivotal time, a time when there still seemed to be two sides to the issue, and where you stood literally depended on where you stood.

CALVIN TRILLIN:  When it came to views on race, geography was destiny. So the big question to anybody who seemed at all out of place there was, “Where are you from?”

I mean, I remember when Jackie Robinson first came into baseball they said, well, he can't go to of that team because that guy’s from Louisiana. It didn't mean that the guy shouldn't behave that way because he was from Louisiana, it just meant, well, you would expect somebody from Louisiana to be racist.

But it was thought of something like it was too bad but not disabling.

Outside reporters were thought of as the Yankee Meddlers. So sometimes the greeting was hostile and sometimes a too little too helpful. The people used to burden me with a lot of what I thought of as yard sale anthropology about “the Negro.”

For instance, one of the things that a number of people said to me is that your Negro can understand specific things, but he can't understand general or abstract things. And I said, Give me an example.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You were having trouble grasping the abstraction of that statement? [LAUGHS]


BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] You were a reporter at Time in the Atlanta Bureau from the fall of 1960 to the fall of ’61. A lot happened in that 12-month span.

CALVIN TRILLIN: I happened to be there in a very busy time. The New Orleans school integration, the Atlanta's School integration, the University Georgia immigration, desegregating of Atlanta and Nashville public accommodations through sit-ins by students, the Freedom Rides.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: These where people traveling in buses, white and black, who would go in and desegregate Whites-only places in order to make them conform to what was the standing law, but which wasn't being followed.

ROBERT SHACKNEY: This is Robert Shackney in Birmingham, at the home of a Negro clergymen. With me are part of a group calling themselves the Freedom Riders, an interracial group traveling through the deep South to challenge some of the segregated bus facilities in this part of the country.

Yesterday they ran into trouble; they ran into violence. Today they say they intend to keep up their pilgrimage.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that at the time, a Gallup poll found that just a quarter of Americans supported the Freedom Riders. Is that indicative of the mood of the country towards civil rights back then?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I think sometimes people who are in our business so love turmoil that we don't understand how most people hate it. They don't like trouble. The Freedom Rides were definitely trouble.

About the only way the Freedom Rides could succeed was to get beaten up or killed. A lot of cities simply let them mill around in the white-only waiting room until their boss was ready to leave, and then they went back to being segregated.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote, “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.”

CALVIN TRILLIN: There's a difference in being fair and reporting and pretending that the sides are equally compelling. I think as a reporter, you had to be careful not to become part of the movement.

Particularly, Martin Luther King's father who we called Daddy King – when he passed the plate, then he would look down and say, I want you reporters to give too. I said, well, we can’t do that, Daddy King; you just couldn’t get that much involved.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I want to bring up something I brought up on the show before when we've discussed bias, and that's Daniel Hallin’s spheres. The journalist’s world, he said, is divided into three. If you think of a doughnut, the doughnut hole is the sphere of consensus – that’s the region where everybody agrees, these are unquestionable values, unchallengeable truths.

The doughnut is the sphere of legitimate controversy, where reporters can get in and mix it up. You know, election coverage is like that.

Now, probably right at the moment that you were covering this story, the idea of equal rights for Black people was still somehow resting on the sphere of legitimate controversy. I mean, could you feel the moment when that shifted?

CALVIN TRILLIN: I think that it shifted af - after I left the South. I think it shifted with Birmingham –


CALVIN TRILLIN: - with the police dogs and the fire hose in – on children, much as the story in, in – in England on the hacking of telephones didn’t really gain intensity until this hacking of the phone of the little girl who was kidnapped and eventually murdered.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of this period you wrote, quote, “The country had not yet begun to see segregation as a moral wrong that had to be addressed, rather than as a regrettable regional peculiarity.”

You know, your story reminded me of the moment that we're in now, with regard to gay marriage. The first gay New Yorkers get married this very weekend. There was a discussion on Twitter a few days ago.

A New York Times reporter noted, quote, “that the same reason political or sports reporters don't cheer when their candidate or team wins, we just cover the news and we need to be careful right about now about what we say on Twitter about gay marriage.”

Do you think you would have covered gay marriage as a moral story?

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, it would depend on when. I mean, I knew segregation in the South was wrong when I was in high school. I didn't do anything about it but it was wrong.

I didn't know making jokes about gay people was wrong when I was in high school. And anybody who – who went to high school in the time I did and says that he did know it was wrong is probably – has a very bad memory or is lying.

I mean, I got out of high school in 1953; that was the culture then.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that doesn't mean we have to wait for, you know, a generation to die.

CALVIN TRILLIN: No, no, I al – I always said that the people who said that Black people in the South ought to be patient and that gradualism was the best solution required a belief in reincarnation. I mean, it wasn’t gonna happen in their lives.

No, I absolutely agree. I'm just saying that people in America, in general, - I mean, I think a good example is when the American Psychiatric Association's said that being gay was not some sort of mental illness.


CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, 1973 is not that long ago. I don't think that this has been the same type of struggle as the civil rights struggle. It has similarities, obviously, and the similarities are treating people as full citizens of the country.

But it came much more slowly and reluctantly with gay people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were saying at one point that you gained confidence in writing about racial conflict because you started to understand it really well. You said that you’d been exposed to enough Ku Klux Klan terminology to know a kleagle from a klaxon, from a klavern. What are they? [LAUGHING]

CALVIN TRILLIN: Well, a klavern is sort of a chapter of the Klan. And a klaxon is the sort of PR guy. A kleagle is sort of a like a chief warrant officer. I only met one kleagle, and I had a [LAUGHS] sort of accidental exchange with him because I grew up in a family that were immigrants and spoke Yiddish in a different way. And they always had an argument about how to pronounce kugel or “key-gel”.

And the first time I met –


- a kleagle, ‘cause he had on a green sheet and all the other guys had on a white sheet, I said, how come you have on a green sheet. And he said, because I’m a kleagle. And I said, you mean kugel. He was quite puzzled by that.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Calvin Trillin writes for The New Yorker. His article “Back on the Bus” appears in the July 25th issue of The New Yorker.



The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam.


And I mean every word of it.


Alabama's got me so upset.

Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
Alabama's gotten me so upset



That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Joe Rosenberg and Emily Chin, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Robert Brannis.


Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne

is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.