“Freedom Walkers” Trekked to Protest Racial Discrimination

by

John J. Dunphy

The Lovejoy Monument became a rallying point for those southwestern Illinois residents who embraced the civil rights movement. These idealistic men and women of both races drew inspiration from the Lovejoy saga and resolved to demonstrate the kind of courage and determination he had shown during his struggle against slavery. Little did they know to what degree their commitment to eradicating racism would be tested.

Most Americans with an interest in history are familiar with the Freedom Riders of 1961: intrepid young visionaries, who challenged segregated seating on buses traveling through the South as well as segregation at bus stations. These civil rights activists, white as well as black, were beaten by racist mobs that even set fire to their buses. Southern policemen, whose sympathies were clearly with the racists, did nothing to protect these activists and even arrested them, rather than the mobs that assaulted them.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the Freedom Riders hailed from southwestern Illinois. However, I can proudly state that my region had Freedom Walkers in 1961, who courageously challenged racial discrimination in southwestern Illinois. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which organized the Freedom Riders, was the driving force behind the Freedom Walkers, which also included black and white activists. On August 26, some 85 men and women engaged in a 30-mile trek from Alton to St. Louis. The purpose of the walk was to protest racial discrimination at area restaurants and other businesses.

It was only appropriate that the march began at the Lovejoy Monument. Every Freedom Walker knew that Lovejoy had been killed after numerous warnings that his blistering condemnations of slavery in the Alton Observer were enraging area racists. They also knew that their walk would take them through several Madison County communities that were known as “sundown towns.” These communities had no black residents, and any black passing through was supposed to be out of town by sundown — or suffer the consequences. The Freedom Walkers recognized there was a very real possibility that they would be assaulted by residents who were enraged by even the temporary presence of black civil right activists in their communities.

Most of the participants walked in relays and had cars pick them up to take them home at various points along the journey. A hardy few walked the entire distance. Dr. Alfred E. Kuenzli, who taught psychology at the Alton and East St. Louis campuses of Southern Illinois University, led the walkers by driving a station wagon that was equipped with a public address system. Kuenzli, a member of the Alton CORE chapter, organized the march along with CORE members Robert Jeffries, Frank Falloy, David Peirick, Phillip Armstead and Vular Manley. Homer Randolph and Isaac Byrd of the East St. Louis CORE also helped to organize the Freedom Walk.

Walking in single file 15-feet apart, the Freedom Walkers distributed leaflets to onlookers and carried signs that read “Liberty and Justice for All” and “Discrimination Retards Democracy.” Like all the early civil rights activists, they had taken a pledge of non-violence and agreed to conduct themselves in a peaceful and dignified manner at all times. The sound system of Kuenzli’s station wagon played a recording of “When the Saints Come Marching In.” About 35 participants rode in cars.

Alton resident Corrine Hawkins, who participated in the march and was married to Kuenzli at the time, recalled that the temperature was scorchingly hot and she became badly sunburned. When interviewed by the author and asked why she chose to march, she replied that she was protesting the fact that white-owned area restaurants routinely refused to serve blacks. The late Irene Riehl also cited restaurant discrimination when asked about her decision to march. Several “test teams” comprised of two whites and two blacks traveled in advance of the marchers to determine whether restaurants along the walkers’ route served blacks. These test teams reported instances of discrimination to CORE and the NAACP.

The Freedom Walkers encountered no resistance in East Alton, a long-time sundown town, but met opposition in Wood River, a small city that sprang up when Standard Oil opened a refinery at the site during the first decade of the twentieth century. A group of teenagers tried to block their path but were quickly dispersed by police. The incident was a harbinger of what was to come.

When the walkers entered Hartford, yet another sundown town, a man carrying a club emerged from a tavern. The Hartford chief of police ordered the man to return to the bar, and he complied. Kuenzli later joked to a reporter that he had heard of men being thrown out of taverns, “but this is the first time I know of where a man has been thrown into a tavern.”

Ten or twelve men came out of a bar in Madison and blocked the sidewalk. When police officers who were providing security for the walkers placed their hands on their service revolvers, however, the men quickly returned to the bar. Just outside of Granite City, three or four men emerged from what one walker described as “a run-down, weather-beaten shack with a beer sign” and taunted the walkers with vulgar comments. Most white southwestern Illinois bar patrons of that era evidently had little sympathy for the civil rights movement.

The sundown town of Granite City proved to be especially hostile for the Freedom Walkers. A participant, who didn’t identify himself to the press because of personal safety concerns, stated that “As we approached the Granite City business district, the crowds became heavy and the curses more frequent.” Onlookers let the walkers know that they were not welcome in Granite City. “You could hear curses all the time — not loud, but you could hear them. The hostility grew worse by the moment.” That long-ago young man shared his fears.

When we passed City Hall, a large body of people started moving toward us as one, and I began to be really frightened. They followed us all the way around the block, but nothing happened. They stopped following as we were forced to walk through another crowd which left us only enough room for our single file passage….They looked at us with apparent hatred.

The residents of at least one southwestern Illinois community welcomed the walkers — Brooklyn, the St. Clair County city that was founded in the early nineteenth century by freed and fugitive slaves. Brooklyn functioned as an important station on the Underground Railroad, and its residents often risked their lives during confrontations with armed slave-catchers from Missouri. The citizens of Brooklyn recognized the Freedom Walkers as kindred spirits and greeted their arrival with cheers and applause.

The walkers entered East St. Louis and crossed the MacArthur Bridge into St. Louis. The walk officially ended on the steps of the St. Louis Public Library, where about 100 Freedom Walk participants and supporters celebrated by singing civil rights songs.

Kuenzli told the walkers that “they’d live forever” because “they had achieved a certain social immortality that will be talked about and remembered for years.” The good professor’s exaltation upon completing the march without incurring any injuries from encounters with angry racists might have inclined him toward hyperbole. The Freedom Walkers remained unknown to this historian until he learned of them during a conversation with Corrine Hawkins. Still, they played a significant role in the eventual desegregation of restaurants and other businesses in southwestern Illinois. An important precedent was set when the police departments of southwestern Illinois’s sundown towns protected the Freedom Walkers from unruly mobs along their route. Racists now understood that their local police would not tolerate assaults on civil rights activists.

Even southwestern Illinois residents who were not particularly sympathetic toward the civil rights movement were impressed by the courage of the Freedom Walkers. Like Elijah Lovejoy, these men and women were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the realization of justice and racial equality in the United States.

Bibliography:

Dunphy, John J. “Freedom Walkers Trekked For An End to Discrimination,”

The [Alton, IL] Telegraph, October 30, 2011.

“CORE lists 8 Eating Places,” Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph, August 3, 1961.

“50 Start ‘Freedom’ Walk to St. Louis,” Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph, August 26, 1961.

“ ‘Walk’ Completed Without Violence, Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph, August 28, 1961.

John J. Dunphy is the author of “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois” and “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois.” His latest book, “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” has just been published by McFarland in December.

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