Rights of Passage
Published May 9, 2011 8:30 AM
For Helen Singleton '74, one childhood memory stands out: her mother spending hours in a hot kitchen preparing food for the 14-hour drive from Philadelphia to Virginia for the annual family reunion.
"We would not be able to stop along the way and get served at any restaurant because we were black," she says.
Husband Robert Singleton '60, M.A. '62, Ph.D. '83, associate professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University, also remembers widespread discrimination — around UCLA.
"Problems in Westwood in the '60s were pretty dismal," he laments. "We couldn't get good jobs. We couldn't get apartments anywhere near [campus]."
Determined to help change things, the Singletons, who married in 1955, worked to integrate housing in Westwood and organized picket lines outside the Santa Monica Woolworth's in support of the lunch-counter sit-ins in the South. Robert became president of the UCLA chapter of the NAACP.
Then came the Freedom Rides in May 1961.
As scores of civil rights activists — many of them college students — rode buses and trains through the Deep South to test a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation in interstate transit facilities, Robert and Helen knew they had to take part.
"We realized that we were, in a sense, leaving it all up to the youngsters down South to fight this battle if we didn't go and respond, and that was unfair. So this gave us a chance to show that they had some backup," says Robert, who organized a Bruin contingent.
Thirteen UCLA students joined the Freedom Rides. Eight of them traveled with the Singletons on a train from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss., where they were arrested upon arrival on July 30. After a quick trial for breach of peace and a few days in local jails, they were transferred to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.
"We were [housed] on Death Row, in maximum security," recalls Helen. "We could see the gas chamber at the end of the hall."
"We weren't supposed to sing. … You weren't supposed to pray out loud," Robert says. "If you violated those rules, they would put a fire hose on you. … If you acted up, they would take your mattress."
Ultimately, their resolve got results: Pressed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a desegregation order for interstate bus travel, effective November 1, 1961. It was a significant victory for the civil rights movement — and an empowering experience for Freedom Riders like the Singletons.
"It did teach me that I can change things," Helen says. "I was not a 'get-out-of-my-way' kind of person, but I felt, 'Well, if you're standing there in my way, I can move you.'"
Robert, a onetime UCLA professor and director of what is now the university's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, notes another legacy of the rides.
"It just so happens that [Barack Obama] was born on the day we were put in Parchman," he says. "That's sort of poetic."