Frances Bergman was born in 1904. She became a teacher and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was also a member of the Socialist Party of America and a great admirer of Norman Thomas and shared his pacifist beliefs. (1)
After the Second World War she fell in love and married Walter Bergman, who was also a teacher and a political activist. In 1948 became director of research for the Detroit Board of Education. A victim of McCarthyism, in 1953, the State Department seized his passport while he was teaching at the International People's College in Elsinore, Denmark. After protests by civil liberties groups and education organizations, the passport was restored. (2)
In 1958 the Bergmans retired they decided to spend their time campaigning for the civil rights movement. This included joining the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Members were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. CORE became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America. (3) This included picketing campaigns against segregated hotels, chain stores and swimming pools in Detroit. (4)
Frances Bergman and Civil Rights
In February, 1961, the Bergmans attended a CORE conference in Kentucky where the organisation laid out its plans to have Freedom Riders challenge racist policies in the south. It was decided they would ride interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation in seating. (5) John Lewis, a student at Nashville American Baptist Theological Seminary, commented later: "At this time human dignity is the most important thing in my life. This is the most important decision in my life, to decide to give up all if necessary for the Freedom Ride, that Justice and Freedom might come to the Deep South." (6)
Frances Bergman and her husband volunteered to become a passenger on the first bus that left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. At fifty-seven she was the oldest of the women Freedom Riders. Others on this bus included John Lewis, James Peck, James Farmer, Genevieve Hughes, Ed Blankenheim, Hank Thomas, Benjamin Elton Cox, Charles Person, Herman K. Harris and Jimmy McDonald. Farmer later recalled: "We were told that the racists, the segregationists, would go to any extent to hold the line on segregation in interstate travel. So when we began the ride I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us. We were prepared for the possibility of death." (7)
Susan Herrmann, 20, a student at Fisk University, Nashville, majoring in psychology, later recalled: "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... trying to ride in buses through Alabama to New Orleans to help the cause of true freedom for all the races." (8)
The Freedom Riders were split between two buses. They traveled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. Governor John Malcolm Patterson of Alabama who had been swept to victory in 1958 on a stridently white supremacist platform, commented that: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers." Patterson, who had been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan added that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body." (9) In his inaugural address Patterson declared: "I will oppose with every ounce of energy I possess and will use every power at my command to prevent any mixing of white and Negro races in the classrooms of this state." (10)
The Birmingham, Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local Ku Klux Klan groups. Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informer, and a member of the KKK, reported to his case officer that the mob would have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any arrests being made. Connor said he wanted the Riders to be beaten until "it looked like a bulldog got a hold of them." It was later revealed that J. Edgar Hoover knew the plans for the attack on the Freedom Riders in advance and took no action to prevent the violence. (11)
On 14th May, 1961, a mob of Klansmen, attacked the bus at Anniston, Alabama. Some, having just come from church, were dressed in their Sunday best. One man threw a bomb through a broken window. When the Freedom Riders left the bus they were attacked by baseball bats and iron bars. Genevieve Hughes said she would have been killed but an exploding fuel tank convinced the mob that the whole bus was about to explode and the white bomb retreated. Eventually they were rescued by local police but no attempt was made to identify or arrest those responsible for the assault. (12)
James Peck later explained: "When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital." (13)
Attack in Montgomery
The surviving bus traveled to Birmingham, Alabama. When they arrived at the Greyhound Bus Station they saw an angry mob. Gary Thomas Rowe was a member of the KKK who had arrived in the town that day: "We made an astounding sight... men running and walking down the streets of Birmingham on Sunday afternoon carrying chains, sticks, and clubs. Everything was deserted; no police officers were to be seen except one on a street corner. He stepped off and let us go by, and we barged into the bus station and took it over like an army of occupation. There were Klansmen in the waiting room, in the rest rooms, in the parking area." (14)
James Zwerg later recalled: "As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up." (15)
The driver had a brief conversation with the white mob. He returned to the bus with a small group of white people and told the passengers: "We have received word that a bus has been burned to the ground and passengers are being carried to the hospital by the carloads. A mob is waiting for our bus and will do the same to us unless we get these blacks off the front seats." The white men began to try and remove Charles Person and Herman K. Harris from the front seat. Walter Bergman and James Peck attempted to intervene but they were soon knocked to the floor. (16)
Harris later testified that there were "two main guys" kicking Bergman, and that they "just kicked him and kicked, just kicked him... his head and shoulders in the back. I thought maybe they would break his, bust his head." (17) The men adhered to Gandhian discipline and refused to fight back and all the men took severe beatings, but this only encouraged their attackers. Walter Bergman was knocked unconscious, and one of the attackers continued to stomp on his chest. Frances Bergman begged the Klansman to stop beating her husband, he ignored her plea. Fortunately, one of the other Klansmen - realizing that the defenceless Freedom Rider was about to be killed - eventually called a halt to the beating. (18)
The FBI and the Freedom Riders
Bergman suffered a severe stroke 10 days after the beating. He retained most of his speech, but had to learn to write and feed himself again. He never regained the ability to walk and used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In 1975, Gary Thomas Rowe, an undercover informer for the FBI who joined the Ku Klux Klan, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had told the agency about the planned attack on the Freedom Riders but that the agency had done nothing to stop it. Rowe's testimony prompted Bergman and his wife to sue the FBI. However, Frances Bergman died in 1979. (19)
Playboy Magazine acquired a confidential 1979 Justice Department 302-page report on Rowe that confirmed that the FBI knew the plans for the attack on the Freedom Riders in advance and did nothing to protect them. Nor did he tell Attorney General Robert Kennedy about this information. The Justice Department stated: "it is indeed unfortunate that the bureau did not take additional action to prevent violence, such as notifying the Attorney General and the United States Marshals Service, who might have been able to do something." (20)
This report enabled Freedom Riders to sue the FBI. In 1983, Judge Charles E. Stewart Jr. of Federal District Court in Manhattan ordered the Government to pay $25,000 to James Peck, one of the Freedom Riders who had been badly beaten in Birmingham. (21) Later that year Bergman was awarded $35,000. The estate of Frances Bergman was awarded $15,000. All proceeds were donated to the American Civil Liberties Union. ''The suit righted the essential history of the period,'' said Howard L. Simon, who was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan when the suit was tried. ''It proved the Federal Government was not an ally of the civil rights worker, but in fact was in league with local law enforcement and the K.K.K.'' (22)
(1) Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders (2006) pages 148-149
The Trailway Riders' ordeal began even before the group left Atlanta. As Peck and the other Riders waited in line to purchase their tickets, they couldn't help noticing that several regular passengers had disappeared from the line after being approached by a group of white men. The white men themselves - later identified as Alabama Klansmen - eventually boarded the bus, but only a handful of other regular passengers joined them. The Klansmen were beefy, rough-looking characters, mostly in their twenties or thirties, and their hulking presence gave the Riders an uneasy feeling as the bus pulled out. There were seven Freedom Riders scattered throughout the bus: the Bergmans, Jim Peck, Charles Person, Herman Harris, Jerry Moore, and Ike Reynolds. Simeon Booker and his Jet magazine colleague, photographer Ted Gaffney, were also on board. Seated in the rear of the bus, the two journalists had a close-up view of the entire harrowing journey from Atlanta to Birmingham. "It was a frightening experience," Booker later reported, "the worst encountered in almost 20 years of journalism."
He was not exaggerating. The bus was barely out of the Atlanta terminal when the Klansmen began to make threatening remarks... Once the bus passed the state line, the comments intensified, giving the Riders the distinct impression that something might be brewing in Anniston. Arriving at the Anniston Trailways station approximately an hour after the other Riders had pulled into the Greyhound station, Peck and the Trailways Riders looked around warily before leaving the bus. The waiting room was eerily quiet, and several whites looked away as the unwelcome visitors walked up to the lunch counter. After purchasing a few sandwiches, the Riders walked back to the bus. Later, while waiting nervously to leave, they heard an ambulance siren but didn't think much of it until the bus driver, John Olan Patterson, who had been talking to several Anniston police officers, vaulted up the steps. Flanked by eight "hoodlums," as Peck later called them, Patterson gave them the news about the Greyhound riot. "We have received word that a bus has been burned to the ground and passengers are being carried to the hospital by the carloads," he declared, with no hint of compassion or regret. "A mob is waiting for our bus and will do the same to us unless we get these blacks off the front seats." His bus wasn't going anywhere until the black Freedom Riders retreated to the back of the bus where they belonged.
After a few moments of silence, one of the Riders reminded Patterson that they were interstate passengers who had the right to sit wherever they pleased. Shaking his head in disgust, he exited the bus without a word. But one of the white "hoodlums" soon answered for him: "You ain't up north. You're in Alabama, and blacks ain't nothing here." To prove his point, he suddenly lunged toward Person, punching him in the face. A second Klansman then struck Harris, who was sitting next to Person in the front section of the bus. Both black Freedom Riders adhered to Gandhian discipline and refused to fight back, but this only encouraged their attackers. Dragging the defenseless students into the aisle, the Klansmen started pummeling them with their fists and kicking them again and again. At this point Peck and Walter Bergman rushed forward from the back to object. As soon as Peck reached the front, one of the attackers turned on him, striking a blow that sent the frail, middle-aged activist reeling across two rows of seats. Within seconds Bergman, the oldest of the Freedom Riders at sixty-one, suffered a similar blow, falling to the floor with a thud. As blood spurted from their faces, both men tried to shield themselves from further attack, but the Klansmen... proceeded to pound them into a bloody mass. While a pair of Klansmen lifted Peck's head, others punched him in the face until he lost consciousness. By this time Bergman was out cold on the floor, but one frenzied assailant continued to stomp on his chest. When Frances Bergman begged the Klansman to stop beating her husband, he ignored her plea... Fortunately, one of the other Klansmen - realizing that the defenseless Freedom Rider was about to be killed - eventually called a halt to the beating. "Don't kill him," he said coolly, making sure that no one on the bus mistook self-interested restraint for compassion.
Although Walter Bergman's motionless body blocked the aisle, several Klansmen managed to drag Person and Harris, both barely conscious, to the back of the bus, draping them over the passengers sitting in the backseat. A few seconds later, they did the same to Peck and Bergman, creating a pile of bleeding and bruised humanity that left the rest of the passengers in a momentary state of shock. Content with their brutal handiwork, the Klansmen then sat down in the middle of the bus to block any further attempts to violate the color line. At this point a black woman riding as a regular passenger begged to be let off the bus, but the Klansmen forced her to stay. "Shut up, you black bitch," one of them snarled...
Moments later, Patterson, who had left during the melee, returned to the bus, accompanied by a police officer. After surveying the scene, both men appeared satisfied with the restoration of Jim Crow seating arrangements. Turning toward the Klansmen, the police officer grinned and assured them that Alabama justice was on their side: "Don't worry about no lawsuits. I ain't seen a thing." The officer then exited the bus and motioned to Patterson to head out onto the highway. Realizing that there was a mob waiting on the main road to Birmingham, the driver kept to the back roads as he headed west. When none of the Klansmen objected to this detour, the Freedom Riders were puzzled but relieved, thinking that perhaps there were limits to the savagery of the segregationists after all, even in the wilds of eastern Alabama. What they did not know, of course, was that the Klansmen were simply saving them for the welcoming party already gathering in the shadows of downtown Birmingham.
During the next two hours, as the bus rolled toward Birmingham, the Klansmen continued to taunt and torment the Riders. One man brandished a pistol, a second threatened the Riders with a steel pipe, and three others served as "sentries," blocking access to the middle and front sections of the bus. As Booker recalled the scene, one of the sentries was "a pop-eyed fellow who kept taunting: 'Just tell Bobby [Kennedy] and we'll do him in, too.'" When one of the Klansmen approached Booker threateningly, the journalist nervously handed him a copy of Jet that featured an advance story on CORE's sponsorship of the Freedom Ride. Over the next few minutes, as the article was passed from Klansman to Klansman, the atmosphere became increasingly tense. "I'd like to choke all of them," one Klansman confessed, while others assured the Riders that they would get what was coming to them when they arrived in Birmingham. By the time the bus reached the outskirts of the city, Peck and the other injured Riders had regained consciousness, but since the Klansmen would not allow any of the Riders to leave their seats or talk among themselves, there was no opportunity for Peck to prepare the group for the impending onslaught. He could only hope that each Rider would be able to draw upon some combination of inner strength and past experience, some reservoir of courage and responsibility that would sustain the Freedom Ride and protect the viability and moral integrity of the nonviolent movement.
Though battered and bleeding, and barely able to walk, Peck was determined to set an example for his fellow Freedom Riders. As the designated testers at the Birmingham stop, he and Person would be the first to confront the fully assembled power of Alabama segregationists. The terror-filled ride from Atlanta was a clear indication that they could expect some measure of violence in Birmingham, but at this point Peck and the other Trailways Riders had no detailed knowledge of what had happened to the Greyhound group in Anniston two hours earlier. They thought they were prepared for the worst. In actuality, however, they had no reliable way of gauging what they were up against, no way of appreciating the full implications of challenging Alabama's segregationist institutions, and no inkling of how far Birmingham's ultra-segregationists would go to protect the sanctity of Jim Crow. This was not just the Deep South — it was Birmingham, where close collaboration between the Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement officials was a fact of life. The special agents in the Birmingham FBI field office, as well as their superiors in Washington, possessed detailed information on this collaboration and could have warned the Freedom Riders. But they chose to remain silent.
(2) Court Listener, Bergman v United States (7th February, 1984)
Plaintiffs contend that when Walter Bergman was beaten in Anniston, he suffered an injury to one of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. At trial in October, 1983 on the bifurcated issue of damages, Plaintiffs sought to prove that such an arterial injury, though essentially asymptomatic for several months, caused Dr. Bergman to sustain serious and permanent injury to a portion of his brain when he underwent an appendectomy some four months after the beating. The testimony presented to the Court during the five days of trial on damages focused almost exclusively on this causation question, and its resolution is the most difficult task before the Court at this final stage of the litigation against the United States.
Plaintiffs seek damages for Walter Bergman's permanently disabled condition since the operation, and for the toll that condition took on Frances Bergman during her lifetime. Plaintiffs also claim damages based on the events of the ride itself, including the beating, the fear and emotional injury they both suffered, and the Constitutional deprivations that they endured. Each plaintiff requests an award of one million dollars for these injuries, although they argue that in fact the value of their claims exceeds even that amount...
On May 14, 1961 the Trailways Bus carrying Walter and Frances Bergman, and other freedom riders, stopped in Anniston, Alabama. There, Walter Bergman was beaten into unconsciousness by a group of attackers who entered the bus carrying brass knuckles and clubs. Dr. Bergman recalled being floored by blows to the head and face, but once on the floor of the bus he quickly blacked out. Other witnesses provided details of the severe beating Bergman sustained.
Schooled in nonviolence, Bergman had offered no resistance to the blows, but Isaac Reynolds testified that it "took something for them to beat him down to the floor where they began to kick and stomp him." Herman K. Harris testified that there were "two main guys" kicking Dr. Bergman, and that they "just kicked him and kicked, just kicked him... his head and shoulders in the back. I thought maybe they would break his, bust his head... Another freedom rider, Ivor Moore, ended up on top of Bergman, and he was also kicked and stomped. According to Reynolds, the beatings lasted a total of maybe seven or eight minutes, then Bergman was picked up and thrown over several seats to the rear of the bus. At the time of the incident, Bergman was 61 years old.
When Bergman regained consciousness, he was seated, and the bus was moving on its way to Birmingham. Both of his eyes were blackened from the blows he had received, and his jaw was so sore and swollen that he had to live on a liquid diet for several days. Bergman testified that he felt he had recovered his "normal sensibilities" when he came to. He does not recall feeling dizzy, and he was aware of his surroundings. Over the next few days he had no visual problems, no headaches, suffered no further loss of consciousness, and did not feel faint. He believed his wounds needed only time to heal, and he did not seek medical attention for his injuries.
The freedom riders, unable to continue their bus trip from Birmingham, flew to New Orleans where they stayed for a few days, participating in civil rights activities. The Bergmans then returned to Detroit, Dr. Bergman resuming work he had begun before the trip, on the grounds of their new home. Bergman testified that in April he had cleared a path up a hill from a creek on the property, and that after returning to Detroit he was taking pebbles from the creek bed and using them to cover the path he had already cleared. He testified that the work was fairly strenuous; the hill was steep enough to require five switchbacks, and Bergman was pushing the rocks up the trail in a wheelbarrow. His time that summer was divided between the work on his property and a busy schedule of civil rights activities, including speaking engagements and training events in the midwest and east.
At trial, Dr. Bergman recalled that much later his wife told him that she had noted he had been dragging one of his feet slightly since the beating. The medical records contain reports of this "foot drop" and that Bergman had been acting somewhat "hazy" and had shown some personality change during the summer. It appears that this information came largely from Frances Bergman, although in one notation, a doctor states that "this peculiar demeanor was noticed by the physicians and later confirmed by the patient's wife." A history taken by Dr. Mogill on September 16, 1961 noted that after the beating in Anniston, Bergman "was somewhat dizzy for sometime although there was no apparent sequelae of unusual moment." However, Bergman's present recollection is that he did not suffer any dizziness during the summer of 1961, and he testified that he could not say whether he had in fact been somewhat "hazy" during the months following the beating. The secondhand reports in the medical record are the only evidence before the court of any possible sign during the summer of 1961 that the injury Bergman received in Anniston might be more serious than Bergman had at first believed.
(3) Douglas Martin, The New York Times (10th October, 1999)
Dr. Walter Bergman, an indefatigable civil rights advocate who was savagely beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1961 as one of the first Freedom Riders and won compensation for the attack from the F.B.I. more than two decades later, died on Sept. 29 in a nursing home in Grand Rapids, Mich., his wife said. He was 100.
He suffered a stroke 10 days after the beating and used a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
In 1983, after an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation had testified that the agency had ignored warnings of the impending attack, Dr. Bergman won a damage suit against the Federal Government, though he was awarded only $35,000 of the $2 million he had sought.
''The suit righted the essential history of the period,'' said Howard L. Simon, who was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan when the suit was tried. ''It proved the Federal Government was not an ally of the civil rights worker, but in fact was in league with local law enforcement and the K.K.K.''
The attack and its aftermath were emblematic of a life lived at the barricades of social activism. By profession an educator, Dr. Bergman over the years took such controversial stands as declaring in a public debate in 1935 that the New Deal was too timid in its attack on poverty, and that the United Auto Workers was wrong to bar officials from claiming their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when asked about Communist leanings. He was a founder of both the Michigan chapter of the A.C.L.U. and the Michigan Federation of Teachers.
In 1953, the State Department seized his passport while he was teaching at the International People's College in Elsinore, Denmark. His wife, Patricia, said the reason was a trip he had made to the Soviet Union to study that country's educational system. After protests by civil liberties groups and education organizations, the passport was quickly restored.
Dr. Bergman, the son of a Swedish immigrant farmer, was the third of three siblings born in Youngsville, Pa. He graduated from high school at 15, and attended Greenville College in Greenville, Ill.
He was drafted into the Army during World War I and served in the Signal Corps, where he learned to fly. The war ended before he could participate in combat, and he was sent to Germany to help administer the Allied occupation. Seeing the devastation, he became a pacifist.
He returned to a factory job in Youngsville, then began teaching in Cherry Creek, N.Y. He moved to Detroit, where he taught high school classes and studied nights at the University of Michigan to earn a master's degree and then a doctorate in education. He rose to research director of the Detroit school system and taught education at the system's universities, which were later merged into Wayne State University.
During World War II, he received conscientious objector status, but later enlisted to participate in what he had come to believe was a moral war against Hitler. He participated in the Normandy landing. After the war he stayed on in Germany to work with the United Nations helping refugees.
On his return home, he continued working for the Detroit schools and universities.
He also continued to act on social and political beliefs. He was the first white to join a black Unitarian church, which then gradually became integrated. He formed a pacifist American Legion post.
When the Congress of Racial Equality began its Freedom Rides, with blacks and whites riding buses through the South to test the efficacy of a Supreme Court ruling that desegregated interstate transportation, he joined up. He and his first wife, Frances, were two of three whites in the first group of 14 to travel to the South, Mr. Simon said. Both were brutally attacked as the bus was parked in Anniston, Ala.
Less than two weeks later, Dr. Bergman suffered a severe stroke. He retained most of his speech, but had to learn to write and feed himself again. He never regained the ability to walk.
In 1975, Gary Thomas Rowe, an undercover informer for the F.B.I. who joined the Klan, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had told the agency about the planned attack on the Freedom Riders but that the agency had done nothing to stop it.
While testifying, Mr. Rowe wore a cotton hood that resembled a Klan headpiece without the point to protect his identity. He died in 1998, his death initially reported under another name.
Mr. Simon, now the A.C.L.U.'s executive director in Florida, said Mr. Rowe's testimony prompted Dr. Bergman to sue the F.B.I., and he won in 1983. After ruling in Dr. Bergman's favor, Judge Richard A. Enslen of Federal District Court in Kalamazoo, Mich., limited his award to $35,000 because his condition might have resulted in part from an appendectomy he had four months after the beating.
The estate of Frances Bergman, who had died in 1979, was awarded $15,000. All proceeds were donated to the A.C.L.U.
Dr. Bergman remained active in social causes until he entered the nursing home less than two years ago, said his second wife, who, as Patricia Verdier, met him and his first wife at a peace demonstration in 1970. They were married in 1982.
From his first marriage, Dr. Bergman has two surviving daughters, Margaret Dickson of Detroit and Barbara Boyd of Galesburg, Ill., as well as 10 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.
Years after he was beaten by Klansmen, Dr. Bergman revisited the Anniston bus station. He noticed four nail holes that had once been used to hold a sign segregating two drinking fountains; now both black and white people were drinking freely from the fountains.
''I had a part in pulling out those nails,'' he said.