Freedom Rider: ‘We Were All Prepared to Die’

  May 22, 1961, Birmingham, Ala  

  May 22, 1961, Freedom Riders  

May 22, 1961:  Susan Herrmann, 20, an exchange student from Whittier College at Fisk University, Nashville, majoring in psychology, was one of two white girl "freedom riders" mobbed in Montgomery's race riot. Here is her account by phone to The Times of what happened.

We were all prepared to die — and for a while Saturday I thought all 21 of us would die at the hands of that mob in Montgomery. We did not fight back. We do not believe in violence.

We were freedom riders, two white girls, one white boy and 18 Negroes, trying to ride in buses through Alabama to New Orleans to help the cause of true freedom for all the races.

We stayed with the rest of the group. The mob kept closing in and starting yelling "Get 'em! Get 'em!"

They picked up Jim Zwerg of Beloit College in Wisconsin, the only white boy in our group, and threw him on the ground. They kicked him unconscious.

Still, we didn't fight back. But we didn't believe in running either.

I saw some men hold boys, who were nearly unconscious, while white women hit them with purses.

The white women were yelling "Kill them!" and other nasty shouts.

The police came and said they would put us in protective custody. They acted like we were crazy. They just couldn't understand why we would be freedom riders. But even though they did not believe in what we were doing, they did protect us and in that sense upheld the law.


Montgomery 50 years later.


  May 22, 1961, Freedom Riders  
  May 22, 1961, Freedom Riders  

  May 22, 1961, Freedom Riders  

  May 22, 1961, Freedom Riders  

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1961, Countdown to Watts. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Freedom Rider: ‘We Were All Prepared to Die’

  1. Mack says:

    White mob violence in the South functioned as a type of compensation for the cultural and military defeat they suffered as a result of losing the Civil War. To have white Northerners travel to places like Montgomery to fight for black equality meant a resurrection of unresolved hostilities over the war that tore this country in two. As our political experiment goes through various phases of revision, we should be mindful of how the past defines who we are and what we should expect from America moving forward.


  2. conraddobler says:

    The ugly kind of history that “somehow” escapes the history books in school…


  3. David in Los Angeles says:

    thanks for re-publishing this … really sobering …


  4. Mark Diaz says:

    I experienced this type of racism in Tennessee in 1995 when as young Marines stationed at a Naval base there, my fellow Marines came under attack by security guards at a ‘white only’ night club and the police turned the other cheek when called. It so unfortunate that racism still persists.


  5. Catherine Herrmann says:

    This is my fathers cousin and mine. I am very happy to say and so grateful for what she and others did. I have many adopted siblings of all races including African American. They are my family and my life. I hope to meet my cousin one day, thank her personally and show her pictures of the family. My grandpa Carl Herrmann was Susan’s uncle. Thank you Susan Herrmann with all my heart.


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