by Jo Freeman(2005) I stood on the shoulder of the highway with my thumb out, half frightened and half excited about what promised to be a great adventure. & I lugged a large plaid suitcase, the only one I owned, that was much too large for a 5,000 mile trek.
(Editor's Note: In the summer of 1964, Berkeley student Jo Freeman, veteran of the Bay Area civil rights movement, hitchhiked across America. Her destination was the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were challenging the segregationists for control of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
Jo Freeman was the editor of Voices of the Women's Liberation Movement, the first national publication of the women's liberation movement, and is a contributor to the Herstory Project.)
Read this exciting chapter from Jo's book At Berkeley in the 60's now and then order the book published by Indiana University Press. It tells the story of Jo Freeman's coming of age as a political activist during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. At times highly personal, it also traces the complex history of a political movement. As such it speaks across generations to today's young activists who face many of the same challenges that Jo Freeman did as a student at Berkeley during the Cold War.)
I stood on the shoulder of the highway with my thumb out, half frightened and half excited about what promised to be a great adventure. I lugged a large plaid suitcase, the only one I owned, that was much too large for a 5,000 mile trek. I had filled it with everything I could think of that I might need -- buttons, camera, film, and clothes. It weighed about fifty pounds. I also carried a large purse and a coat. I had thought long and hard about what to wear, one of the very few times in my life that clothing concerned me at all. Personally I preferred pants. But the dress code of the day required respectable middle-class girls to wear skirts in public. In all my years at Berkeley I never saw a girl go to class in pants or shorts; they were prohibited at dinner in the dorms. I knew girls got rides quicker than boys. Despite my long hair, from a distance a driver might think a hitchhiker in trousers was male and pass me by. On the other hand, I didn't want drivers to get the wrong idea. I had heard that girls who dressed provocatively invited assault. And while I did not personally know anyone who had been sexually assaulted (it wasn't something good girls talked about) I believed the conventional wisdom that you ask for what you get. I finally settled on a blue pleated skirt hanging a few inches below my knees and a plain blue striped blouse as the best compromise between attracting a ride and deterring assault. I had not yet thought about who would stop to pick me up, and whom I should refuse. I soon found out.
When I hitched with Toni, and the other girls, the drivers who stopped for us varied. Most were men, but there were also families and even single women, and the guys were often young like us. Ninety percent of the cars which stopped for me when I hitched alone were occupied by single males, mostly middle-aged. Initially I turned them down. Soon I realized that if I kept refusing rides from men I'd never get anywhere. I changed my rules to include cars with only one man, but never more than that. Offers from men were not in short supply.
Neither were problems. For a young California woman of the early sixties, I was relatively naive and innocent. I knew little of the animal side of men from direct experience; most of what I knew I had learned from Toni. The first truck that stopped to pick me up had two men in the cab. When one eagerly leaned out his window to invite me in I could see lust contorting his face. It scared the shit out of me. It was a long time before I would accept a ride from a trucker, though they were the most likely long distance drivers. I was wiser when I returned a month later. I calculated that roughly 90 percent of my rides were with single males, and about 90 percent of those propositioned me. Initially I tried to figure out which men were safe, based on the few seconds I had to size them up before deciding whether to get into a car. I avoided those who seemed too happy to see me, any car with more than one male in it (most of the time) and anyone not going a long distance. I also refused anyone who wanted to make a short stop, any place, or take a short detour. "Just let me out," I would say, "and I'll find another ride."
I quickly figured out that a good story was crucial. The first ride I accepted took me onto Highway 40 past Vallejo. He asked my age, and I truthfully said 18. He then asked why I was hitching, and once again I was too truthful -- no money, I replied. "How would you like to earn a couple dollars," he asked. I didn't need to ask how. I just said NO definitively, and that ended that. This taught me my first two mistakes: I admitted to being of legal age, and implied I might need money. After that I lowered my age to 17, sometimes to 16, and talked about a need to go see my boyfriend or my brother, who had suddenly become ill, was conveniently located several hundred miles away, and would be concerned if I didn't show up soon. Someone had told me to hint that I had VD -- that would be the best deterrent -- but I just couldn't do it. Saying NO early and often was generally my best defense. I was often surprised at some of the men who thought a girl in his car was sexually available. In the midwest I was picked up by a fortyish man who said he had just dropped his daughter off at college, and I reminded him of her. Ten minutes later he asked if I would go to a motel with him. By the end of my trip I had learned that it was neither provocative dress nor physical attractiveness that turned a female into potential prey; it was vulnerability. As one guy told me: "a piece of ass is a piece of ass is a piece of ass." All he cared about was could he get some.
Most of the men wanted to talk, and conversation was the one thing I was willing to provide. Some of the guys were interesting. Outside Sacramento an immigrant from Holland picked me up and told me about all the people who called him a "damn foreigner" because of his accent. I spent the first night in a bus station someplace in Nevada; I wasn't willing to hitch at night. The second night I lucked into a driver doing an all-nighter. I dozed, but was reluctant to sleep. I carried maps -- available free from gas stations -- planned my route, and if a driver wanted a different one, checked to be sure it would get me where I wanted to go. I had been told to avoid Utah -- the cops were merciless -- so I turned north at Highway 93 before Highway 40 entered that state, and picked up Highway 30 near Twin Falls. Superhighways were just being built; these Western roads were generally two lanes. From there it was a straight drive to Chicago. I had no reason to go to Chicago, but I needed some sleep, and had the address of the CORE Freedom House where I expected, and got, a warm welcome and a comfortable pad on the floor.
Dear Mom: August 15, 1964
Made it to Chicago. This is a BIG city. And it has subways, though I think they call them "els." It feels so crowded here. The buildings are tall and they are so close together. Have you ever been here?
Hitching out of a city was often harder than hitching in, but Chicago made it easy. Just south of South 61st Street a ramp rose from Michigan Avenue into the Chicago Skyway, which took you to the turnpike. I waited on the block before this entrance until someone stopped who was going well into Indiana, and would let me off at a rest stop. I didn't want stand with my thumb out on an exit/entry road where toll takers might look askance on my solicitation of a ride from a private vehicle. The rest stops were a challenge. I tried standing at the exit lane, but cars were accelerating and didn't want to stop. Eventually I moved to outside the restaurant and just asked those departing where they were going and could I have a ride. A lot of people looked at me strangely, but it worked. The turnpike went to New York; I was going to DC. I had to find just the right car taking the US 70 turnoff. When I arrived it was late, and all I had was a phone number. I didn't phone the aunt I had lived with two summers before, or the two that lived in Arlington, because I knew that they would disapprove of what I was doing and my mother would catch flak for "letting" me hitch (as if she had a choice). Fortunately someone answered for CORE, and gave me the name of a CORE couple who housed civil rights workers. I ended up in a large house in Northwest Washington, with four times the number of rooms as people.
Dear Mom: August 18, 1964
I'm in DC. No, I didn't call Leslie. Don't think she really wants to hear from me. Besides, I found a great place to stay. I've got an entire room, not just a couch in a crowded studio. I'm trying to get press credentials; will see if my local pols can help.
It was one week before the Democratic convention began. I went to the MFDP/SNCC office to tell them I would be in Atlantic City and available for whatever was needed. The staffer gave me an address to go to when I got there, but didn't know of anyone driving I could ride with. I showed her my anti-Goldwater buttons and said I was going to finance the trip by selling them. Someone in the office was fascinated by them (maybe another collector?) and offered to make a large poster replicating the button, as advertising, in exchange for a few. I returned two days later to pick it up. I also visited all the campaign headquarters to collect more buttons. My largest finds came from the Goldwater headquarters; Republicans seemed to have more of everything and were eager to give it away.
My primary task in DC was to get press credentials so I could get inside the convention hall. The Democratic National Committee told me that all media credentials were given out by the Congressional Press Galleries, and it was really too late to get anything. I went to see Joe Beeman, now working as Cong. Philip Burton's administrative aide, whom I knew from CFYD. He made a couple phone calls. The bad news was that my Daily Cal press letter was useless; college publications were not given credentials to the Democratic convention. The good news was that my letter from KPFA might get me something. Joe sent me to the Radio/TV Press Gallery, and the man I showed my letter to told me to see him in Atlantic City and he'd see what he could do; while all the press passes had long since been allocated, not all would be claimed.
Despite the fact that my Daily Cal letter was of no use, I still felt obligated to interview the ANP leader as I had promised, or at least to make a good faith effort. The leaflet I had picked up when Forbes was on campus gave the address of the National Headquarters as 928 N. Randolph Street in Arlington. I hopped on a bus and went looking for Nazis. At that address I found a small house on a large but bare lot on a nondescript street lined with other small houses. A sign over the porch said "WHITE MAN... FIGHT! SMASH THE BLACK REVOLUTION NOW." I knocked on the door not knowing what to expect and was rather surprised when a polite young man answered the door. He was dumbfounded when I said I was from the Daily Cal and had come to interview Rockwell.
After asking me to wait, he brought the "duty officer" to see me. Frank Mengele said that Rockwell was not there, and only gave interviews by appointment, but if I wanted to come in and talk to them, I could do so. I did.
Inside were four rooms; one had an offset press and printing paraphernalia; another was a wood paneled office with a shrine to Adolph Hitler. Pictures of Hitler, Rockwell and George Washington stared from the walls. I interviewed four men, ranging in age from 22 to 36. Two were high school dropouts; one had served in the Navy and then gone AWOL; all had been in jail. The one who had gone AWOL was recruited to the ANP while in jail.
He said the party gave him a sense of purpose in life; he no longer fought the cops, he fought for the white race. Most of them said they had stopped drinking, smoking and brawling after joining. While the ANP tried to distinguish itself from the German variety of Nazis, the ones I spoke to made no distinction between "kikes" and "niggers" -- terms they used as though they were names rather than epithets. As for the whites who supported race mixing, they were all dupes. Mengele told me that the ANP had 700 members nationally, 20 working full time, seven in jail, and a mailing list of 15,000. I took several photographs with my Brownie Bulls-eye camera and left. Back in Berkeley I took my notes to the Daily Cal and offered to write a story, but there was no interest in anything but an interview with the ANP's main man, and that I did not have.
Saturday I hitched to Atlantic City. I thought it would take a couple hours, but it took all day. I caught a bus to the Beltway, the large expressway which surrounds DC, but while I got a ride on to it with no trouble, it was a long time before a car stopped that was going to Baltimore, and he wasn't going all the way. Although the expressway had shoulders, the cars were going so fast and were so close that it was somewhat dangerous for drivers to stop. After two hours I was only on another beltway outside of Baltimore. The next car that stopped had lights and sirens; it was the Maryland Highway Patrol. My heart sank. I had visions of being arrested or at best driven far from the expressway and dumped. I told the officer that I was going to New Jersey where my sick brother was anxiously awaiting me. He noted the CORE button I had forgotten to remove, and said "This is the South, you know." I quickly removed the button. "Get in the car," he said, opening the door to the back seat. He drove off, with me quaking in the rear, but didn't get off at the next exit. I heard him talking on his radio phone to another officer about me, but wasn't sure what he was saying. Many minutes later he pulled up under an overpass where another Highway Patrol car was waiting. I was moved from one car to the other, and the second one drove off. The officers didn't tell me what was going on, but at least we were going in the right direction. Miles later I was transferred again; the third officer let me out at the Delaware border. The Maryland Highway Patrol solved the problem of what to do with an errant female hitchhiker by ferrying me out of their state. I should always be so lucky.
I wasn't. Getting to Atlantic City took the rest of the day, many, many rides, constant consultations with my map as drivers took local routes to their destinations, lots of waiting with my thumb out, some walking with my fifty-pound suitcase, and a fair amount of trepidation. It was like tacking against the wind. I couldn't get there directly, but I did get there eventually. When I checked in at the CORE/SNCC headquarters, I was even given a place to sleep. Local families housed those who came early; those who came later would sleep in a church. For the next week I shared the home of Mrs. Evelyn Moore on North Ohio Street.