Eyes on the Prize interviews: Jo Ann Robinson and Frederick Leonard

2 Jul

One of the things that made Eyes on the Prize unique was the fact that it included stories of unheralded activists. Many important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement came from people who were relatively unknown outside their local area or did not garner news coverage at the time.

Jo Ann Robinson

Jo Ann Robinson

One such figure was Jo Ann Robinson, a college professor in Montgomery, Alabama, who helped start the boycott against segregated buses in 1955. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, Ms. Robinson and a few other activists made and distributed 35,000 circulars calling for a one-day boycott of the bus line on December 5. The result was amazing. Ms. Robinson described the scene in her interview.

It was a cold morning, cloudy, there was a threat of rain, and we were afraid that if it rained the people would get on the bus. But as the busses began to roll, and there were one or two on some of them, none on some of them, then we began to realize that the people were cooperating.

At a mass meeting, Montgomery’s black citizens decided to boycott the bus line until it was integrated.

I don’t know if there was one vote that said, no, don’t continue. The people wanted to continue that boycott. They had been touched by the persecution, the humiliation that many of them had endured on buses. And they voted for it unanimously, and that meant thousands of people.

Under the leadership of local ministers such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the boycott made national news and, after a federal court order, integrated Montgomery’s buses in 1956.

Fred Leonard

Fred Leonard

Another activist included in Eyes on the Prize was Frederick Leonard. A college freshman in Nashville, Tennessee, he joined the 1961 Freedom Ride, which was designed to force southern states to comply with a federal court order integrating interstate bus lines. On a Freedom Ride, black activists sat in the front of the bus while white activists sat in the back. When the bus made its stops, black Freedom Riders would enter the whites-only terminal. The white activists would go into the “colored” terminal. In Montgomery, Alabama, the bus Leonard was riding was attacked by a mob. John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, and James Zwerg, were beaten with particular savagery.

In his interview, Mr. Leonard described the beginning of the attack.

Jim Zwerg walked off the bus in front of us and they was so, it was like they were possessed, or they couldn’t believe that there was a white man who would help us, and they grabbed him and pulled him into the mob. I mean it was a mob.

Later, in Mississippi, the authorities protected the Freedom Riders from mob violence—but at a terrible price. Though the law was on the Riders’ side, the U.S. attorney general, Robert Kennedy, made a deal with Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator, James Eastland. In return for providing police protection, Mississippi authorities were allowed to prosecute the Freedom Riders for violating state segregation laws. Mr. Leonard and other activists received 60-day jail sentences. He was sent to Parchman Prison, a notorious, maximum-security facility.

During his interview, Mr. Leonard told a story about how prison authorities confiscated the Freedom Riders’ mattresses to punish them for singing freedom songs. One time, he refused to give up his mattress.

They drug me out into the cell block; I still had my mattress. I wouldn’t turn it loose, and one of the inmates, they would use the black inmates to come and get our mattresses. I mean the inmates, you know? And there was this guy, Peewee they called him . . . they said, “Peewee, get him.” Peewee came down on my head, man–wamp, wamp. He was crying. Peewee was crying. And I still had my mattress. That’s when I—do you remember when your parents used to whup you and say, “It’s going to hurt me more than it hurt you”? It hurt Peewee more than it hurt me.

That clip appeared in the final program. Orlando Bagwell, a producer of that episode, titled “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails,” conducted the interview. At a 2005 panel discussion on Eyes on the Prize, he said that Mr. Leonard’s family was just off-camera listening along with him. Mr. Leonard told him that the interview was the first time he had recounted his experiences on the Freedom Ride, even to his family. Mr. Bagwell stated that that interview was his favorite one in the series.

Transcripts for these two interviews and the others filmed by Eyes on the Prize production teams are part of the archive’s Henry Hampton Collection, and can be found here on the Washington University web site:

Eyes on the Prize I Interview Transcripts.

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6 Responses to “Eyes on the Prize interviews: Jo Ann Robinson and Frederick Leonard”

  1. John Berard March 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    Fred Leonard had a lot of guts to join the Freedom Riders in 1961. In his interview for Eyes on the Prize , Leonard describes the terrible events they went through. I was moved by his candid recall of those events. I was the same age as Fred at the time. I often wonder if I would have had the courage to take the challenge that Fred took. I guess looking back that I would have done the same. In the end we realized that what they were doing was the right thing to do at that time in our history. I was pleased to see that TSU gave him a degree after all those years. He deserved one……John Berard in New Iberia, Louisiana .

    • Yana Yseanger June 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

      Frederick is my father. It is nice to see comments that do not degrade the idea of those Freedom Riders who received their degrees after all this time. Thank you both for your positive comments about what they endured. It is ashame that many of the sites that I visit containing information about my father, my mother and other Freedom Riders make you feel as though you are there, (in the 60’s) with them.

      • Retornzia February 1, 2016 at 3:19 pm #

        I was born in 1964. And my heart and soul give praise to your father, and other activist that fought for our rights. Still in 2016, we are still fighting for our rights! The only difference now is…. They hide behind badges, courtrooms, government. And they know not being fair to us is wrong, this is why they hide like cowards! Don’t get me wrong….there were alot of white people fighting right beside us, who lost their lives, and because of their dedication…I want to say God Bless you! Some kids today, don’t have a CLUE about the struggle! Not realizing: when they go to Any restaurant, sit where they want, use any bathroom they choose, sip from any water fountain they see…. That simple freedom to our youth today, cost many their lives. Countinue the fight! We’ve come a long way from where your father started, praise God, but we will Never forget, and we will not stop fighting for human rights that belong to us in the first place!

      • retornzia February 2, 2016 at 3:24 am #

        I sent you an email message. But I really want to know if you received it.let me know

      • wufilmarchive April 4, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

        Hello, thanks for your comment. I don’t know if we received it, can you resend to: spec@wumail.wustl.edu ?

  2. wufilmarchive April 7, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    Thanks for your comment. The courage displayed by the Freedom Riders is inspiring and the interviews and film clips in “Eyes on the Prize” help put us back in that place and time and to get a sense of the experience through their eyes. Thanks too for the update on Mr. Leonard. It’s great to hear he was awarded his degree after all these years!

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