Freedom Rider Mimi Real was arrested at the Trailways Station in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 21, 1961. At the time she was a sophomore at Swarthmore College. Today she lives in the Bay Area and works as an administrator in a private school.
We all gathered at the Montgomery [Alabama] bus station [on June 21]. There was some more excitement at the station because, of course, everybody knew who we were, and there was much scurrying around of law enforcement people. The first thing we learned was that there had been a bomb scare on the bus that we were supposed to get on. So the police had to come in and search the bus. And, of course, there wasn't anything on the bus.
Then the other thing that happened – I can't remember what order these things happened – is the bus driver, whose shift that was, showed up, realized what he was gonna be doing, and promptly turned around and went home. So there was additional delay, while they rounded up another driver.
Then we all got on the bus. The bus driver kept insisting that the whites all sit in the front and the blacks sit in the back. We refused and all sat in the back. This was a milk-run — the bus stopped at every little cow town in Alabama and Mississippi. The poor bus driver, I guess he figured he was stuck with us, but he sure wasn't gonna get in any trouble. So he made it quite clear that we were not allowed to get off the bus.
We couldn't go to the restroom. We couldn't buy anything to eat. But we were fine with that. But then, in one of the many stops in the middle of nowhere, a lovely black man, probably in his 20s or early 30s, got on, and he had this huge picnic basket of food.
His mother or whoever he had just been visiting had packed it for him, knowing that he probably wasn't gonna be able to go into any of these little bus stops along the way, and had packed him enough food to feed an army. And he got to chatting with us, and when he learned that we hadn't anything to eat, he insisted on giving us his entire picnic basket.
So we feasted on fried chicken and all kinds of stuff. And included in this feast was a chocolate layer cake in this big cake box. We ate everything else, but we decided to save the cake. And I was somehow given the responsibility of holding onto the cake. Other than that, the bus ride was totally uneventful.
There was no crowd at all when we arrived at the Trailways station [in Jackson]. The police were there and it was almost perfunctory. As we drove past the front of the bus station, we saw that there was a paddy wagon, a Black Maria, sitting in front. The bus driver insisted that everybody get off the bus first before we got off. Then we got off, and we all filed into the white-only waiting room. The police were waiting for us. The whole thing was very engineered. There weren’t supposed to be any surprises.
We went through this little song-and-dance routine. They asked us to move on. We didn't. And they said that two or three times, and said they'd have to arrest us if we didn't move, and we didn't move. So they put us all under arrest. We had come in the back door of the waiting room, and then we just walked out the front door right into the paddy wagon, me still clutching the cake. I still had that cake with me when I got to the Hinds County Jail, where we ate it.
In 1962 Real returned to the South to work as a CORE volunteer for more than a year on voter registration projects in southern Louisiana. In 1966, about a year after the Voting Rights Act had been signed into law, she returned to the parish where she had worked to see the changes the new law had brought about.
I was totally totally blown away. By this time virtually everybody who could register was registered and there were elections in progress and blacks were running for office. The one scene that crystallized the change for me was a mass meeting in a Masonic Hall somewhere in the boonies in West Feliciana Parish. There was a mass meeting and it was candidates night. The place was packed, standing room only, and who was there to speak but the sheriff, who was running for re-election.
Now this was the same guy who had arrested a lot of them and who had harassed them and under whose watch all manner of things had gone on. There had been all kinds of harassment at that very same Masonic Hall there when we’d had our voting clinic meetings there years before. He gets up in front of this group to plead for their vote. That scene was the fairy tale ending. It’s not that everybody lived happily ever after, but that scene to me vindicated everything we had done.
The poor guy. I can vividly feel what I felt then, almost being embarrassed for him. It was the most painful thing he’d ever had to do in his life. Get up in front of a room of whatever he thought this was a room full of and be at the begging end.
Everybody knew exactly who he was but nobody was rude, nobody heckled him. They gave him polite applause afterwards; of course everybody kind of cluck clucked to each other. Everybody thought it was very funny. He obviously couldn’t say very much—“I did a fine job of beating you over the head”—so he just said he’d appreciate their votes and he’d be sure that the law was enforced fairly.
By this time the black power movement was in full swing in most of the rest of the country. Not that they were black power people in West Feliciana, but they all had televisions and they all saw Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael and all these people speak. They were all charged up. My feeling then was, okay they’ve arrived in the 20th century, I can leave now. There was a bittersweet element, in the sense that the fight to get registered and vote was so morally clear-cut. It was so clear who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. That battle had been won, and they were now joining the messy world of politics in a democratic republic, where it's no longer good versus evil or black versus white, but it's lots of shades of gray.
Mimi Real photographed in 2007.