In the summer of 1961, as an undergraduate, Helen Singleton became a Freedom Rider along with a group of students from UCLA, and other campuses in Los Angeles. Her husband, Robert Singleton, was one of the organizers of the group. The Freedom Rider movement, which tested discrimination in travel accommodations, was one of several forms of non-violent civil disobedience that we undertook to bring about social change. The group were arrested and incarcerated at Parchman Penitentiary near Jackson, Mississippi.
Singleton was born on November 27, 1932, in Philadelphia, which is where she spent her childhood and most of her adult life. She grew up on her grandparents’ farm with her mother and eight siblings. It was because of the segregation she witnessed as a child during summer trips with her mother that she later became a civil rights activist. “We could feel her exhaustion and the tension in the car,” Singleton recalled. “And when we got there, there was always some incident — stores we couldn’t go in because it’s not the right day for blacks to shop…. It marred the joy of our summer vacations. I carried that with me for a long time.”
The exact date of Helen Robert Singleton’s arrest was July 30, 1961. In the 2010 documentary Freedom Riders, Singleton spoke about how she was arrested at the Illinois Central train station. She also described the conditions under which she was arrested:
- The paddywagon was laid out in the sun, make sure it was hot for everyone inside.
- The policeman simply said, “Are y’all gonna move?” He asked us more than one time, and we didn’t. We were taken to the city jail. The person booking us was using what looked like an elementary school composition book. He said, “What school do you go to?” I said, “Santa Monica City College.” He said, “How do you spell Santa Monica?” I was young at the time and though he should know how to spell.
- We went to New Orleans and got more training in nonviolence. We were told the night before, “Don’t go into town unless you have at least a dollar.” You could get arrested.
- When we got off the train, there were men standing around with dark glasses. I assumed they were FBI, but turns out they were Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. I saw a sign that said “White Only” and so the group and I walked in and sat down. I felt free, we were asked to leave, but we were committed to this…. We were surprised, but the arresting officer was actually black.