If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus
If you miss me from the back of the bus, And you can't
find me nowhere,
Come on up to the front of the bus, I'll be
riding up there.
—1960s freedom song1
THE FREEDOM RIDERS' DEPARTURE from Birmingham resembled a staged Hollywood chase scene—but the high-speed drama was all too real. Since none of the Riders had been briefed on the plan to protect them, there was high anxiety on the bus, at least in the early going. When the Greyhound reached the southern edge of the city, there was a moment of panic as the police escort pulled to the side of the road, but within seconds several highway patrol cars appeared in front of the bus. Overhead a low-flying highway patrol plane tracked the bus's progress down Highway 31, with the rest of the convoy—the cars carrying FBI observers, Floyd Mann's plainclothes detectives, and several reporters—following close behind. Additional highway patrol cars were stationed all along the route at intervals of fifteen miles, and at each checkpoint a new patrolman took the lead. All of this was reassuring, and by the time the bus passed over the Shelby County line and approached the town of Jemison, thirty miles south of Birmingham, many of the Riders had begun to relax. State officials had promised the Justice Department that the bus run to Montgomery would include all of the normal stops, so there was some surprise when the bus did not stop in Jemison—or in any of the other towns along the route. No one on the bus, however, voiced any objection to the express-like pace of the trip. For the first time in days the Nashville students felt relatively safe. "No one on the bus said much," recalled John Lewis, but "the mood was very relaxed." Exhausted from several sleepless nights, some of the students "actually dozed off" during the last half of the journey.2