Roger Rocka speaks with Joseph Stevenson, who in August of 1961, at the age of 18, became a Freedom Rider.
The text below was written by Joseph Stevenson in 2021:
My name is Joseph Stevenson, I was born in New York City, grew up in California, and lived most of my life in Oregon. When I was 18 I joined a Freedom Ride from LA, the only one that ever went to Texas. When we arrived in Houston we met up with some black students in a coffee shop sit- in at the downtown train station. Some of these Houston activists had been jailed for sit-ins many times before, but this was our first arrest. The charge was “Unlawful Assembly.”
At the Harris County Jail we were segregated by race and sex into four groups. The white male freedom riders were put in a cellblock with over a hundred white Texans, and they were not happy to see us. They didn’t call us Freedom Riders, they called us “nigger lovers”. The guards had already told them they would have a free hand to mistreat us, and that night the guards looked the other way while we were beaten on and off for hours.
Meanwhile in the white women’s cellblock, the prisoners had gotten the same message from the guards but were divided on whether to beat the freedom riders, or not. There was actually a debate, and in the end a vote was taken and the majority decided not to beat the freedom riders.
Apparently women believe in Democracy.
In the black men’s cellblock the freedom riders were welcomed, but there were a few prisoners who were used to taking out their frustrations on any newcomers, didn’t matter who, but the other black prisoners defended the freedom riders from attack. The black female freedom riders were greeted as heros by the prisoners in the women’s cellblock, and treated like royalty.
I think this is interesting because in American society, then and now, there is what I call a “totem pole of privilege”. You’ve heard the term “low man on the totem pole”, I think you know what that means. In America the white man enjoys special privilege, he’s at the top of the totem pole. Next comes the white woman, then the black man, and then on the bottom, low man on the totem pole so to speak, is, of course, the black woman, who faces discrimination and unequal treatment on the basis of both race and gender.
It could be that in the 60 years since the Freedom Rides that the degrees of privilege have narrowed, that things are better today, but has any group on the totem pole of privilege swapped places yet? I think not.
But in the Harris County Jail on August 11, 1961 the totem pole got turned on its head. The best treatment went to the black women, the black men did okay, the white women escaped mistreatment by a narrow vote, and I got my ass kicked, an interesting reversal of American racism, misogyny and white privilege.
The point is not that the totem pole should be turned upside down, we need to get rid of the totem pole. We need to build a country where all people, men and women, are treated equally under the law, with equal access to good jobs, decent housing, quality education, and most importantly we need to make it possible, we need to make it easy for everyone to vote.
The Freedom Rides helped to end legal segregation. The next battle in the civil rights movement of the 1960s was the fight to end racial discrimination in voting, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But today, in 2021, legislators in dozens of states, including Texas, are introducing bills that will make it harder to vote, especially for racial minorities.
People who do not vote are just not on the radar. Their rights are not
respected, their interests are not represented, and their wishes are ignored.
No matter what their sex or color, they will always be “low man on the totem pole.”
The battle continues. Who’s going to step up next?