Passing by Former journalist and lawyer Peter Ackerberg was a civil rights activist who was one of the Freedom Riders in the United States in the sixties. He talks to Saraswathy Nagarajan about that memorable journey
It was the ride of a life time that changed his outlook and made the then 22-year-old student a fellow traveller of the civil rights movement in the United States. As Peter Ackerberg retraces his tumultuous journey with the Freedom Riders in the sixties, he pauses many a time, overwhelmed by images and memories of those days when racial discrimination was still a way of life in the southern states of the United States (U.S.).
“There was so much of violence and killing. For decades the blacks in the U.S. had been subject to such terrible discrimination that, at times, it reminded me of the Holocaust,” remembers the septuagenarian. Shaking his head to get rid of the unpleasant memories, he says with a smile: “Now when I talk to students in colleges, many of them come and ask me ‘You shook hands with Martin Luther King Jr.? I want to shake your hand too.’ Then there is a rush to come and shake hands with the guy who actually met the famous civil rights leader of the U.S..”
He says it was a dream come true to see Barack Obama being sworn in as the President of the U.S. “I never thought he could do it. I felt glad that in a very small way I was part of the change that helped make that possible,” he says.
Ackerberg, a former journalist and lawyer from Minnesota, says it was circumstances that made him board the Freedom Ride, a movement that fought for racial integration in the United States.
“I was a student of Antioch College in Ohio, which followed an alternative system of education. We had to study for three to six months and take up a job for the next three to six months. I took up a job in Alabama, one of the southern states. I started working in a printing press. My employer introduced me to the Durrs, a young couple – Clifford and Virginia. Clifford was perhaps the only lawyer there who would represent the blacks. A dinner with them was the turning point. In May, 1961, the first Freedom Bus reached Montgomery and there was a huge meeting at a church,” recalls Ackerbeg.
Along with a journalist Jessica Mitford, Ackerberg decided to attend the meeting. “It was a warm day and the church was full of black activists. Children were there and babies were sleeping in the pews. Women were fanning themselves with paper fans. We must have been the only whites there. Martin Luther King addressed the crowd and told them to keep calm. In the meantime, the big windows were opened and then we saw smoke,” he recounts.
The restive crowd had to stay in the church till 4 a.m. It was only after reinforcement arrived that law enforcement officers could clear the way for the activists to leave safely. Later, Ackerberg learnt that a huge group of militant whites had gathered outside the church to attack the gathering. What they thought was smoke had been tear gas! Ackerberg and his friend found that the car they had borrowed from the Durrs had been burnt by the mob.
He wrote about the scene in the church in a newspaper. Moved by the violence and the prejudices, he decided to travel on the second freedom bus that was travelling to Jackson in Mississippi, the “most racially segregated state in the U.S.”
“It was partly to observe what was happening and partly to be with the Freedom Riders,” admits Ackerberg.
He remembers a tense scene at the bus station where he bought a ticket for the ride and boarded the bus. Inside the bus, filled with students and minsters of the church, it was gospel music that kept their spirits up. “The travellers in the first bus had been beaten up. I was scared and unsure of what would follow. Once, we reached Jackson, we moved into the ‘whites only’ waiting room. From there, we were arrested and taken to prison,” he recalls.
[Later in the year, anti-segregation rules were put in place and racial integration was gradually happening in the deep south of the U.S. as well. ]
After being bailed out from prison after five days, Ackerberg returned home and then to college. He did his post-graduation from the Columbia University School of Journalism and worked for the Minneapolis Star. “But I felt I was falling into a rut and wanted to challenge myself. So I studied law and became a lawyer. I saw my work as a journalist and lawyer as an extension of my work as a civil rights activist for racial integration,” he says.
As a lawyer in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, he took up cases to help the blacks fight for their rights in different spheres of life. He says what made him a votary of the movement was the thought that someday when he would have children his child might ask him: ‘Daddy where were you during the civil rights movement? “And I did not want to tell my child: “I sat and watched.’”
Would he do it again? “Yes, of course, now that I know that the results would be sweet, yes!” he says with a laugh.
Ackerberg has accompanied his wife, Lynne Ackerberg, a teacher of English to Mitraniketan in Thiruvananthapuram. A team of academics are testing the waters to see how students would best benefit from a course in English, and to understand how volunteers from Antioch College could help in Mitraniketan.
They were civil rights activists who rode inter-state buses to the southern U.S. in 1961, in order to challenge the non-enforcement of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said racially segregated buses were unconstitutional.