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The Golden Rule

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Courtesy of Brett Hoover,
Former Associate Director for Communications

Photos courtesy of the Lakeville (Conn.) Journal, National Civil Rights Museum and Harvard Athletic Communications

With the exception of 1963's March on Washington, most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s evoked fear, anger and sadness.

The truth is that horrific moments fueled the Movement. The heroism of the men and women -- swallowing their fear and enduring the pain for a better tomorrow -- inspired action. Those photos and film clips often compelled others to join, forced politicians to serve and allowed the media to hold a mirror of embarrassment to those in opposition.

Albert Smith Bigelow -- once a punishing defenseman on the Harvard University ice hockey team and a U.S. Navy Commander in World War II -- owns a curious place in the nonviolent initiative to defeat Jim Crow. As one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, he was in the middle of one of those iconic images -- aboard a burning Greyhound bus on the side of a highway in Anniston, Ala., in May 1961.

Born in Brookline, Mass., Bigelow was the son of a Harvard-educated lawyer. The elder Albert would serve in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for two decades as well as on his alma mater's Board of Overseers.

So it came as no surprise when young Albert, along with twin brother Hugh, enrolled in Cambridge and joined future Olympic silver medalist John Chase on the Crimson hockey team. With the Bigelow brothers forming a wall on the defense, the Crimson met with success, dominating arch-rival Yale in the process. While scoring goals is not among the high priorities of a defenseman, Bert lit the lamp six times in his 28-game varsity career.

After graduating from Harvard in 1929, Bigelow headed just a few hundred yards down the Charles River to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study architecture and soon thereafter began his professional career in that field in New York, even designing buildings for the 1939 World's Fair. He also pursued artistry with seascapes and other nautical themes serving as his specialty.

The tranquil life he'd made with his wife and daughters came to a close when he was called to serve his country after the United States' entry into World War II.

A U.S. Navy Commander, he was on the bridge of a destroyer escort -- the USS Dale W. Peterson -- sailing into Pearl Harbor when he learned of the explosion of the Enola Gay over Hiroshima.

"Although I had no way of understanding what an atom bomb was, I was absolutely awestruck, as I suppose all men were for a moment," he wrote. "Intuitively it was then that I realized for the first time that morally war is impossible."

Bigelow searched for understanding for the next two decades. He and his wife took joined the Society of Friends and, through the Quakers, housed two of the 25 Hiroshima Maidens who came to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery in 1955.

Two years later, when the United States announced it would employ a series of tests of nuclear weapons on the island of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands the following April, Bigelow was compelled to act.

Armed with lifelong sailing expertise, he became the captain of The Golden Rule, a four-man ketch that attempted to sail to the South Pacific to disrupt the atomic testing. While the Boston Herald called the crew 'Thoreauesque,' the U.S. Government took a lesser view of the protest, jailing the crew in Hawaii for 60 days.

Civil disobedience had become Bigelow's focus. In 1961 he would take another dangerous mission, this time heading into the American South as one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. It was a journey intended to challenge non-compliance with federal court rulings that had struck down segregation at interstate facilities, including train and bus stations.

James Peck -- another Harvard alum and shipmate on The Golden Rule -- had taken a similar interstate venture in 1947, the Journey of Reconciliation, which had begun after a woman became sick and tired. Literally.

Irene Morgan was a 27-year-old African-American, the mother of two. Feeling ill, she got up on a Sunday morning in July 1944 and boarded a Greyhound bus bound for her hometown of Baltimore, Md., so she could see her doctor.

Morgan took a seat four rows from the back of the bus, within the section of the bus reserved for "colored" people, yet as the bus moved into Northern Virginia, a white couple boarded and wanted Morgan's seat. She took a stand.

The bus driver summoned a sheriff, Morgan vigorously resisted, and ultimately she was dragged off the bus.

Morgan eventually paid a fine for resisting arrest, but she refused to pay a second fine, for violating Virginia's segregation law. Her appeal made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946 with the chief counsel of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, arguing on her behalf.

The Court's landmark ruling went in her favor, striking down for the first time state laws requiring segregation in interstate travel. And James Farmer -- the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality -- wanted to make sure that the victory was not simply a paper one.

So CORE planned to test and challenge the rule with an interracial bus trip into what seemed the least antagonistic part of the South, a two-week trek through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. The 16 Riders -- Peck included -- returned home with some nicks and bruises, but Marshall's dire prediction of extreme violence proved unfounded.

Thirteen years later, Marshall would find himself before the U.S. Supreme Court yet again, this time trying to overturn a judgment against Bruce Boynton, an African-American law student, for trespassing in a Richmond, Va., bus terminal restaurant for "whites only." He won again, this time a ruling forbidding segregation not only in interstate travel, but in the bus and train stations themselves -- integrated riders on a bus no longer would be forced to segregate at the terminal stops along the way.

Farmer was convinced to do it all again, but this time would be different. The plan was to head deeper into the South, including Alabama and Mississippi, in May of 1961.

"We felt that we could then count upon the racists of the South to create a crisis," said Farmer. "So that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal law."

It required uncommon people like Bigelow to answer the call -- those endowed with the courage to lay their lives on the line for merely a hint of hope that they, as the Freedom Riders, could change the world. Some completed their last will and testament before setting out.

Bigelow got a quick dose of what was in store at a bus terminal in Rock Hill, S.C., on May 9, 1961, when future Congressman John Lewis, then a 20-year-old college student, attempted to integrate the whites-only waiting room. He was confronted by a group of white teenagers.

"I have every right to enter this waiting room according to the Supreme Court of the United States in the Boynton case," Lewis told the men. The response was an obscenity, followed immediately by a punch to the jaw. In his 1998 memoir Walking With The Wind, Lewis described what followed.

"At the point Al Bigelow stepped in, placing his body between mine and these men, standing square with his arms at his sides. It had to look strange to these guys to see a big, strong white man putting himself in the middle of a fistfight like this, not looking at all as if he was ready to throw a punch, but not looking frightened either.

"They hesitated for an instant. Then they attacked Bigelow, who did not raise a finger as these young men began punching him. It took several blows to drop him to one knee."

In a rarity for this trip, a white policeman then came to the aid of Bigelow and Lewis, breaking up the melee and asking the men if they wanted to press charges. Doing so would have been in conflict with the tenets of non-violent resistance, so the Riders refused the politically risky offer.

The full story from Brett Hoover is continued in .pdf form here.

[ed. note: In the days following Barack Obama's inauguration a 72-year-old named Elwin Wilson admitted that he was one of the men who battered Al Bigelow and John Lewis in the Rock Hill terminal in 1961. He also told the Herald of Rock Hill that he wanted to apologize to Congressman Lewis. "This is one of the best things I have ever done," he said. "I am sorry. I'm just now trying to do what's right." Lewis accepted Wilson's apology, adding that he was "deeply touched" by it.]

That story can be found at the Herald Online.

The Ivy League takes great pride in honoring February as Black History month. For more inspiring stories about former athletes that helped shape movements within African-American history, please check out Ivy Black History.