The honor roll of Freedom Riders, those young heroes of the 1960s civil rights movement, includes a local man who says he joined the momentous integration campaign on a momentary impulse.
By boarding a bus in Montgomery, Ala., bound for Jackson, Miss., in May 1961, Peter Ackerberg of Prospect Park put his name in the history books — including a new one, titled Breach of Peace, which features hundreds of Freedom Riders’ police mug shots alongside the stories and current photo portraits of many of them.
Though they are bound together by history, Ackerberg knows none of the others in Breach of Peace, a copy of which resides on a side table in his living room on Melbourne Avenue Southeast. “They all sound like interesting people,” he says.
In the book’s full-page reproduction, Ackerberg’s 22-year-old self stares out from his Jackson Police Department mug shot above numbers 20892 and 5-2461, facing on the opposite page his current self, in a photo taken last November by Breach of Peace author Eric Etheridge.
After discovering the Freedom Riders’ mugshots in historical collections, Etheridge tracked down Ackerberg and 100 or so others to create a riveting picture of the 1961 campaign by bus across the American South, as seen then and now. Alongside Ackerberg’s photos is a brief account in his own words. Ackerberg talked with The Bridge this summer about his experiences.
Meeting in Montgomery went late
In May 1961, Ackerberg was finishing a three-month stint in Montgomery helping assemble materials for the autobiography of Aubrey Williams, who had headed the National Youth Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt. The work was part of his studies at Ohio’s Antioch College.
“The Freedom Riders came through from Birmingham,” Ackerberg recalled. “They had been beaten up, while cops stood by. This was horrible — in the United States of America. The next day, there was a meeting at a big church in Montgomery. They were deciding whether to go on to Jackson, [Miss.].”
He was a guest for dinner that night at the home of Clifford Durr, a civil rights attorney, and his wife Virginia, whom Ackerberg had met through Aubrey Williams. “They were the only two white integrationists in town,” Ackerberg said.
The Durrs had another guest: Jessica Mitford, the muckraking journalist and member of the famed Mitford Girls who would soon publish her groundbreaking expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. She was in Montgomery on assignment for Life magazine to cover civil rights and the city’s elite white society women.
Mitford and Ackerberg (who had written for a Pennsylvania newspaper during a previous college job) borrowed the Durrs’ car to go to the church meeting together. When they saw a big group of white people gathered around the church, they parked blocks away to avoid attracting attention.
Once past the “howling mob” outside, Ackerberg and Mitford joined 1,200 people inside for what Ackerberg recalled as a “pep talk praising the Freedom Riders” by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. On this warm spring evening, smoke began to drift through the open windows when the mob, trying to storm the meeting, lobbed back canisters of tear gas thrown by the U.S. marshals who were guarding the building.
As what Ackerberg calls “the ruckus outside the church” continued, the marshals were replaced by the National Guard, who finally cleared the crowd by 4 a.m. so those inside the church could safely leave under armed escort. Ackerberg and Mitford rode in a National Guard Jeep to the Durr’s car but couldn’t find it. They didn’t know why until their escort said, “You know what? There was a car that was burned.”
It was the Durrs’ only car. “I felt terrible because [the Durrs] were really poor people who just eeked out a living from his law practice,” Ackerberg said. “He represented a lot of [poor] black people and sometimes got paid. He was called when Rosa Parks was arrested, and [he] bailed her out.”
Ackerberg’s account of the meeting at the church appeared a few days later in the York, Pa. newspaper where he’d worked. But by then his involvement with the Freedom Ride had deepened considerably.
On the bus
The Freedom Riders had decided to continue on to Jackson, Miss. on a bus. “I decided I was going to join them,” Ackerberg recalled. “It was such a spur-of-the-moment thing. I didn’t tell Aubrey Williams, I didn’t tell my landlord, I didn’t tell the Durrs.” He also didn’t tell his parents back home in the Bronx.
But in a letter she sent to her husband describing “the saga of Peter Ackerberg,” Mitford wrote that Ackerberg had gone to the Durrs’ house to tell her he was going to the bus station to check out the situation.
The situation bore similarities to that at the church two nights before. “The bus station was ringed with National Guards[men] with bayoneted rifles,” Ackerberg recalled. “I kind of pretended I was an ordinary passenger. I went into the station and bought a ticket to Jackson. I saw some black college kids get on a bus, and I figured that was my bus. So I got on.”
In actuality, there were no “ordinary” passengers. Everyone knew, Ackerberg says, that it was the Freedom Riders’ bus. He was the only white person on board.
He didn’t know anyone on the bus. One other white person, he understands, rode on the second Freedom Riders’ bus from Montgomery to Jackson. (As “Freedom Summer” progressed, hundreds of white students from around the country went south to join the black students in their integration campaign.)
Ackerberg recalled lots of police cars and even helicopters around the Trailways buses, with a tense handoff from one set of authorities to another at the state line between Alabama and Mississippi on a lonely stretch of highway halfway up a forested mountainside.
The “changing of the guard” was captured in an aerial news photo in Ackerberg’s scrapbook. “It was scary because we had heard that one of the dangers could be snipers,” Ackerberg says.
At the time, Ackerberg and the others on the bus weren’t aware of a secret agreement among the governors of the two states and U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had asked King by phone during the Montgomery church meeting “to cool [the Freedom Ride] off for a while,” Ackerberg said. “I guess King said no.”
Kennedy struck a deal with the two governors: “The Freedom Riders would be secure,” Ackerberg recalled. “[We] wouldn’t be attacked and, when arrested, wouldn’t be beaten up.”
The right to arrest the Riders — a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling that people riding buses enjoyed civil rights protections — was the quid pro quo the governors sought.
“We didn’t know anything,” Ackerberg said. “We thought we might get beat up. We didn’t know.” The threat that the Birmingham beatings might be repeated didn’t seem to give the others on the bus pause. “The black guys and women were singing freedom songs,” he says. “They weren’t afraid at all. I was afraid. They knew what they had to do.”
In and out of jail
When the bus arrived in Jackson, the Freedom Riders “went into the whites-only waiting room,” Ackerberg recalled. “We were all arrested. It was very peaceful. They took us to the Hinds County Jail.” There, the arrestees continued singing in their cell, but Ackerberg, the only white guy, was in a cell by himself.
It was from jail that he first told his mother by phone what he had been up to. (By then, she had learned about his arrest from the Riverdale Press, which built a sympathetic editorial around his arrest.)
“They processed everyone individually,” Ackerberg recalled. “A sherrif’s deputy asked me lots of questions. I said ‘yes, no, yes, no.’ Another deputy standing there had a billy club in his right hand that he kept pounding into his left hand. He said, ‘You answer with ‘Sir. Yes sir. No sir.’ I said okay. Then the next question, I answered, ‘Yes.’ I was so scared, I forgot! The pounding got louder. I said, ‘Sir!’
“My cell was around the corner from where the processing was taking place. I could hear one of the ministers from the bus. He was being interviewed. I could hear the billy club coming down on something. It was his head.”
“A day or two later we went before a judge — 60 days in jail or $200 for breach of the peace.” [The offense gives the new book its title.] A rumor had it they’d spend the sentence at Parchwood State Penitentiary, the work farm, a tough place where it wasn’t unusual for prisoners to be killed by guards.
“I didn’t want to take that risk,” Ackerberg recalled. “So I bailed out.” He and several others let a group aligned with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) post their bail. “And I went home,” he says. Back in New York, Ackerberg raised some money for CORE and remembers speaking at another church with Martin Luther King. (His fellow riders were indeed sent to Parchwood, where they were very badly treated, Ackerberg said.)
Ackerberg went on to major in history at Antioch, get a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism, and he later took a reporting job at the Minneapolis Star, where he stayed until 1982. As news work began to lose its luster for Ackerberg, he attended law school and worked in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office from 1985 until 1999.