Albion Monitor /Features


...A Klan attack on the Freedom Riders ended with Decca barricaded in a Baptist church...

Virginia Durr: Decca was visiting usand doing an article for Esquire on the you-alls and non you-alls. It was a take-off on her sister's book in England about the U's and non-U's -- how to tell the upper class from the lower class. It was supposed to be a rather light piece. She'd been pursuing rather frivolous aspects of Southern life that whole week...

...Decca and I got up on Saturday morning and got ready to go, but we decided to go by the office first and pick up the mail. As we got closer to the office...we saw an enormous crowd of people. Of course, I knew immediately that the Freedom Riders had arrived. They had been expected all week. This was Saturday, May 20, 1961.

Decca, with her journalist's instinct, hopped out of the car and said, "Oh, I want to get to the bus station." We were about a block from the station and you couldn't park. Cars were parked in every direction...I finally spied a used-car lot. I parked there, illegally, but there was no place else to park. Everything else was just jammed.

I went up to our office through this great crowd. From the second floor, I had a box seat. I could see exactly what was going on at the bus station. The Freedom Riders had come in on the bus. They had been escorted to the city limits by the state troopers...[where] the city police were supposed to take over. But the city police hadn't the slightest idea of stopping the Ku Kluxers, or whoever did the beating up.

...I saw the Negroes being frisked by the police. They made each Negro hold his hands up and then they'd take his shoes off -- maybe to keep him from running away; I don't know. And they would systematically proceed to frisk him. The crowd was yelling, "Go get the niggers! Go get the niggers! Go get the niggers! Go get the niggers!" It was the most horrible thing that I have ever seen...

I was also terrified for Decca because she was in the midst of this mob. With that English accent of hers, I thought if she opened her mouth, she'd be attacked. I didn't know what would happen to her. But Decca is brave and takes terrific chances. She was after her story, and she wanted to be right in the middle of what was going on. *

Her friends were right to be concerned. The riot was spinning out of control. An observer representing Attorney General Robert Kennedy was laying in the middle of the street, clubbed unconcious. A judge and the Alabama Attorney General arrived but stood on the sidelines, gleefully rubbing their hands as the Freedom Riders were beaten by the fine citizens of Montgomery.

When the crowd dispersed -- on its own, without intervention of police -- Decca and Virginia returned home. While Virginia was shaking so much that she couldn't drive, Decca was "absoluely thrilled," according to Durr. "She was having the time of her life. Our reactions were diametrically opposite. She was onto a great story. She'd seen it with her own eyes."

Soon they learned that Martin Luther King had arrived in Montgomery, and was planning a rally that night at Ralph Abernathy's Baptist church. Decca was determined to attend.

Virginia Durr: Decca put on her Southern costume -- a lovely sort of fluffy green hat with chiffon on it and pearls around her neck and white gloves and a green chiffon dress. She said, "Nobody would think of attacking me. I look like a perfect Southern lady." I said, "That's exactly why you might get attacked. What would a perfect Southern lady be doing going to this Freedom Rider meeting?" Well, she paid no attention whatever. [A friend and Decca] rode off together in the Buick...

We sat glued to the radio. People began to drop in. I don't remember who. Everybody was in a tremendous state of tension and excitement. Then we heard how the federal marshals began to throw tear gas at the crowd to keep them from storming the church. The mob would take the tear gas bombs and throw them into the open windows of the church. Decca said later that was the most terrible thing you could imagine because it was crowded and hot as hell. She was afraid the whole place would be set on fire...

About two o'clock in the morning, Decca called from the basement of the church and said, "Virginia, I'm all right. It's the most terrifying evening of my life, but I'm all right. The National Guard is here and they will bring us all home." They escorted everybody out of the church area.

Decca came in about three o'clock with this young boy from Antioch. Of course they were quite stirred up. The first thing she said when she came in was, "Oh, Virginia, they burned your car. I'm so sorry." Instead of parking three or four blocks from the church, as we had advised them to do, they drove the car right in front of the church. When the mob saw this very handsome, well-dressed white woman get out and go into the church with this young white boy, they immediately grabbed hold of the car and turned it over. They put a match in the gas tank and it just burned up. There was nothing left but the frame. I saw it afterward, and it was absolutely burned down to the frame. *

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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