In the spring of 1961, Jet magazine asked Theodore Gaffney, a Washington freelance photographer, to travel with the Freedom Riders, a group of activists from across the country who planned to challenge segregation in the South by riding Greyhound and Trailways buses.
Gaffney, who died Easter Sunday of the coronavirus at age 92, eagerly signed up. He found himself risking his life and documenting one of the most tumultuous 48 hours in civil rights history.
Gaffney’s own history helped make him the perfect person to chronicle the civil rights movement. He was the descendant of people who had been enslaved at a plantation near the town of Gaffney, S.C., according to his first cousin Patricia Johnson, 72.
His parents Flora and O.P. Gaffney moved from South Carolina to the nation’s capital in the 1920s, Johnson said. Gaffney was born Nov. 22, 1927, the second oldest of four brothers.
When he turned 18 in 1945, Gaffney enlisted in the Army. He entered active duty just after World War II in March 1946 and, standing at 5-foot-5 and weighing 139 pounds, he specialized as an amphibian truck driver and M-1 rifle sharpshooter, according to his military papers.
After his military service, Gaffney took college courses at Catholic and Howard universities. Soon, he developed a deep interest in photography, taking classes with one of Washington’s most famous photographers, Addison Scurlock, who documented much of segregated black Washington with tens of thousands of pictures. Eventually, Gaffney became one of the first African Americans to take photos inside the White House and for The Washington Post, Johnson said.
He made national news in 1956 when Sen. Olin D. Johnston (D-S.C.) ordered a Senate guard to seize Gaffney’s film after he’d snapped a picture of the senator talking with Clarence Mitchell, a representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mitchell accused Johnston — one of 19 senators who signed the “Southern Manifesto” in 1956 decrying the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling barring segregated schools — of violating press freedoms and “said it happened because Mr. Gaffney was a Negro,” according to the New York Times. The guard, however, "had seized the wrong film, the Times wrote. “Mr. Gaffney kept the plate showing the Senator and Mr. Mitchell talking.”
When Jet asked Gaffney, then 33, to team up with its reporter Simeon Booker in 1961, Gaffney knew the Freedom Riders would eventually make their way to Birmingham, Ala., where Eugene “Bull" Connor, the city’s commissioner of public safety, was notorious for using fire hoses and setting dogs on civil rights protesters.
“But I didn’t think anybody was going to be violent because there was nothing violent about me," Gaffney said in an interview he gave for the “Freedom Riders" Interview Collection, footage of which appeared in the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders." ”And I never intended to let anyone hurt me.”
So, on May 4, Gaffney joined more than a dozen Freedom Riders as they boarded two buses out of Washington and headed South. The plan was to make it to New Orleans — via the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi — by May 17, the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
After they checked their bags, they boarded and made sure that at least one black rider sat in the front rows with whites and that one interracial couple sat together. Gaffney, though, did not consider himself an activist, he said in his interview for the documentary.
“My job on the Freedom Ride was to document what happened when blacks and whites together sit on the bus in the front, go to the counters in the bus terminals, drink out of the white or black fountain, go to the ‘colored’ restrooms . . . and see what happens when they used those facilities," he said.
But Gaffney kept his distance from the other riders, for his safety and theirs. He said being a photographer was perhaps even more dangerous than being a Freedom Rider.
The interviewer, Stanley Nelson, asked if he thought the Freedom Riders were crazy.
“Well, I was wondering if I was crazy,” Gaffney said. “They took a nonviolent course . . . before they left. I don’t know how they train you to be nonviolent when you’re getting your head beaten. I was afraid I might..not come back. The further South I got, and they found out I had the camera? When we hit North Carolina, the headline in the newspaper said, ‘Stormtroopers Coming’ in the largest type they could have. So I said, things are getting rough.”
In North Carolina, one rider was arrested for sitting in a whites-only shoeshine chair inside Charlotte’s Union Station, according to the book “Freedom Riders” by Raymond Arsenault.
But the real danger didn’t unfold until the riders were making their way from Atlanta to Anniston, Ala., a pit stop to Birmingham. One group of riders boarded a Greyhound bus out of Atlanta at 11 a.m.; while another group, including Gaffney, took a Trailways bus an hour later.
When the Greyhound arrived at the bus terminal in Anniston, white racists attacked the windows and cut the bus tires. When the Greyhound eventually left the station, its tires blew out and white protesters surrounded the bus and set it on fire before police arrived. The Freedom Riders escaped, but the image of the burned-out bus was seen all around the world in press coverage.
Gaffney’s bus wasn’t spared, either. It turned out that Alabama Klansmen had secretly boarded the bus in Atlanta. As soon as it departed, they began harassing the black riders, calling them the n-word repeatedly.
“These big husky guys said, ‘This bus can’t go nowhere like this!’ They grabbed [the riders] and was rolling them down the alley and throwing them in the back. They looked back and said, ‘This is more like it,’ " Gaffney recalled in his documentary interview. “As the bus was going , everybody was scared. The thugs, they rode the bus with us..I am looking around saying, ‘Where’s the police?' ”
One Freedom Rider was hit so hard he was “sent reeling across two rows of seats,” Arsenault writes in his book. Another, who was 61 years old, was hit equally as hard. Blood gushed from their faces and the Klansmen continued to “pound them into a bloody mass.”
“For two hours, the bus roared toward Birmingham, its CORE passengers and Negroes terrorized, intimidated, afraid to even move,” Booker wrote in his dispatch for Jet magazine.
Gaffney said when the bus finally rolled up in Birmingham, they were met by a white mob, some of its members appearing as young as 9 or 10. He kept his camera in his coat.
“They had these iron pipes around 18 inches long and started beating the Freedom Riders,” Gaffney recalled. “I went into the [bus station] waiting room [for black people]. I could hear them clunking them on the head. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Slamming them against the wall."
He figured he was safe, waiting out the melee inside the “colored” waiting room. But, then, someone saw him and called him the n-word.
“I said, ‘Oh hell,’ ” Gaffney said.
The door flew open. Gaffney, who described himself as being “too scared to be scared,” didn’t look at the people who emerged. And then, they just left.
Eventually, he just walked out of the station, physically unscathed. The rest of the riders found refuge with local black religious leaders. News of the attack that on the Greyhound bus in Anniston and at the Birmingham station would dominate the press.
The next day, the Freedom Riders were stuck in Birmingham. Bus drivers refused to take them out of the city. Finally, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy stepped in and helped arrange for them to fly out late that night to New Orleans. Gaffney was elated. He said he believed that, absent Kennedy’s intervention, “all of us would have been killed that night.”
“I’d never flown before but it felt good when that plane got off that runway. I’d rather take a chance on getting killed in a plane crash than to to get beat to death by hoodlums with iron pipes.”
Gaffney would live six more decades and take many more pictures of presidents, and even Queen Elizabeth, according to his family. But in early April, Gaffney tested positive for the coronavirus and died April 12 at George Washington University Hospital, according to his wife Maria Santos-Gaffney, 58.
Now, his wife Maria spends her days sorting through the old photos and documents of the husband she met in 1986 when she was 24 and he was traveling in her native country of Brazil researching the African diaspora. They married two years later. Together, they had two sons, Theodore Santos-Gaffney, 26, and Walter Santos-Gaffney, 24.
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