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Freedom Rider Lula Mae White: A history teacher who made history

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 “I was greatly moved by the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It happened in my senior year in high school at Hillhouse. ... I was just thrilled that people could see by taking united action that they could win.”    Freedom Rider Lula Mae White

Lula Mae White was born in Eufaula, Alabama. Later the White family moved to Birmingham. Before she was seven, her father moved to Connecticut after being recruited to work for the Armstrong Rubber Company; once he was established his family followed. Though Lula Mae spent most of her school years in New England, summer trips to Alabama gave her a glimpse of the life she might have experienced if her family had stayed in the South. She became aware of the sometimes stark differences in race relations.

After high school, Lula Mae moved to the Midwest to attend the University of Chicago. Living in Hyde Park while attending school, she was aware of the poverty that lay just beyond the perimeter of the college. It was from the vantage point of experiencing the many layers of racial divide in America that, in 1961, Lula Mae White viewed a shocking photograph of a motor coach bus set ablaze by southern White anti-integrationists. The bus had been ridden by Black and White freedom riders.

That photograph printed in her morning paper inspired her to join the ranks of freedom riders traveling into the South to

Freedom Rider Lula Mae White
challenge laws that sanctioned racially segregated bus and train stations.

At the end of her first year of teaching, Lula Mae paid up her rent for the summer, joined with other young people interested in participating in the movement, and headed south. She expected to be arrested. As she learned from the training sessions that prepared new volunteers for civil rights activism, being jailed was inevitable for a freedom rider. Innocently, she packed books, stamps and supplies to make her incarceration productive; however, once arrested all of her personal effects were confiscated, and her summer was spent confined in cell.

The personal risks she took as a freedom rider have given Lula Mae White a heightened perspective of history, as well as of current events. In an interview just days before New Haven Black firefighters and policemen recognized her as a pioneer, Lula Mae White shared some of her views below.

While you were growing up in the Dixwell and Newhallville communities in New Haven, your family took yearly trips back to Alabama. What differences did you notice between New England and the South?

Some of the obvious differences were that we didn’t have Jim Crow laws [in Connecticut], but we did have de facto segregation. I realize living in the Dixwell area, and then living in Newhallville, all of the Whites moved out. Everyone at Winchester Elementary School was Black. I did notice that more economic opportunities were here but it wasn’t equal. Traveling south, we couldn’t eat in a lot of places.

We always carried a lot of food with us.

Later, as you went to the University of Chicago, what kind of differences in race relations did you notice?

I didn’t really get a good view of Chicago until I graduated because I always went to one neighborhood, Hyde Park. But, Chicago was a very segregated town.

The image of a burning bus inspired you to join the Freedom Riders. What did you think when you saw it?

I was just very outraged to see that this was happening in our country. I just felt outraged, so as soon as school ended that year, I decided to go. I paid my rent up in advance, so I would not be evicted while I was gone, and so I took off.

What in your personal history made you so daring?

Arrest shot of Lula White, July 8, 1961

I was twenty-two. I had finished a year of work. I had become very independent at a young age because when my mother died I was the oldest child and I had to take over the household duties, and so I was used to deciding things.

I would not say I was daring, but I was greatly moved by the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It happened in my senior year in high school at Hillhouse. My father, my brother, my sister and I went down to Woolsey Hall to a rally in December of ’55. It was a rally of support for the Montgomery bus boycott, and I was just thrilled that people could see by taking united action that they could win. I mean, it took a year to win—by the time the boycott ended I was in my freshman year of college—so I was thrilled that people could do something in a group, something they couldn’t do all by themselves.

Setting out, were you afraid? Did you fear violence? 

I was nervous. I was aware of the all the terrible beatings that took place when the movement first started. You couldn’t be sure when some kook would jump out and beat you or shoot you. We had vowed to be nonviolent, not to run or hit back. No one hit me. There was yelling and

 screaming, but no one actually hit me. But I was also nervous because I had never been in jail, and no one I knew had been in jail.

How have you drawn on this experience as a teacher? Do you think the curriculum covered the period well?

I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my own students about it.

When I taught U. S. History, I could discuss the Civil Rights Movement in the late seventies. I didn’t think it was adequately covered. You had to go outside of your regular curriculum to find things. I used Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” History books are much better now, but they still don’t, I think, do an adequate job.

You obviously made a sacrifice to stand up for what you believe in. What problems and challenges facing our community and country do you think people should join forces to change today?

Jobs for one thing. I don’t see how they expect young people to learn when their fathers are off and they aren’t living at home. There aren’t enough jobs. Also, I don’t think there is enough motivation to go to college anymore. I saw my college as my way of escaping poverty. And now you can graduate from college and not get a job. Education is obviously an issue, but nobody seems to know what to do.

Everybody’s running around thinking they are going to find a quick fix. It’s very complicated. I don’t think there is a quick fix. It involves the economy; it involves parents; it involves good parenting. It involves changes that need to be made in schools, the system itself. The idea that they are going around testing everybody means that they are teaching to the test, which I don’t think is a good idea.

Crime is a problem.

When do you think the Civil Rights Movement ended?

Well, it hasn’t ended. We’re in a different phase of it now. Now we’re dealing with really hard problems. I think we are going to have to form coalitions with other groups. There’s an expression, “the rising waters lift all the boats.”

What do you think of [President Barack Obama] whom you note was born that same summer you spent in jail?

I was thrilled when he was elected, but I have some issues with him. He hasn’t stopped those two wars—the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. But I know he can’t do it all by himself. We don’t live in a dictatorship. He hasn’t been able to do much about the poverty situation. He tried to do something to make sure everyone had health insurance, but the Republicans want to even take [back his achievements.]

If Obama runs [for re-election], obviously I am going to vote for him because he is the lesser of two evils. Obviously, he isn’t all evil but I think he just doesn’t have enough support.

How do you think we can create a more activist based community?

One thing, people have to have is hope that they can make a difference and see change. And I don’t think a lot of people have a lot of hope right now. They see the world as kind of shattering and falling apart. I don’t’ think there is as much hope as there was in the Sixties.

The Supreme Court decision in ’54, they were excited about the Montgomery boycott, and Greensboro [sit-ins] and other cities throughout the south and the freedom rides, and the summer of ’64 when we began to agitate for the right to vote. I think there were encouraging signs. But government moves very slowly.

I felt so horrible when King was shot. I know one man doesn’t make a movement, but you need someone who is inspirational and also a good tactician, someone who can plan what to do.

Susan Monroe is an editor at Devotion: A Journal of Cultural and Christian Perspectives. She can be reached at getsignature@aol.com.