Walter Gerald Bergman's Freedom Ride
and Brutal Government Violence

by Gerald (Jerry) Bergman Ph.D

(Investigator 143, 2012 March)

Martin Luther King Day often makes me think of a distant relative, Walter Gerald Bergman.

Walter attended Greenville College and later earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His claim to fame was not due to his academic achievements, though, but for his faith motivated civil rights activities.  

"Always passionate people, the Bergmans have always had passionate foes" said a Parade article by Paul Magnusson. Of all Bergman's civil rights battles throughout the years, none was more significant than the one that took place in a Trailways bus in tiny Anniston, Alabama. For his stand, Walter Bergman spent almost half a lifetime in a wheel chair after he suffered a brutal beating during the famous 1961 Freedom Ride that began the modern American civil rights movement.  

In 1960, the Supreme Court integrated all interstate buses and bus stations. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), decided to test the Court's decision by sending an interracial team of civil rights workers called the Freedom Riders into the Deep South to use the newly integrated facilities. On Saturday night, May 13, 1961, the group had dinner with Martin Luther King. The next day two buses left, a Greyhound and a Trailways, to test the law by integrating the buses and the restaurants.  

In Anniston, the Trailways bus driver told the seven black and three white freedom riders when they were seated in the bus, "Niggers get to the back of the bus. White people up front." None moved, and no one spoke. Then, the bus doors burst open and eight white men pushed their way past the driver. After pulling iron bars and chains from paper bags, the eight yanked the blacks from their seats and pushed them to the back of the bus.

James Peck, a former Harvard student, said only, "Can we talk about this?" before a fist crashed into his face. Walter Bergman, then 61, was pushed to the floor and kicked repeatedly in the head. Behind them, Bergman's wife, Frances, 58, heard the sound of human flesh being brutally beaten for the first time in her life. Frances pleaded with the men to stop. She said later, "I had never before experienced the feeling of people all around hating me so... I kept thinking, ‘How could these things be happening in 1961?' "   

A reporter on the scene wrote: "Bergman was battered into semi-consciousness and as he lay in the aisle, one of the whites jumped up and down on his chest.... Peck's face and head bled profusely, making the aisle a slippery, bloody path." Only then did a policeman step on the bus. The first thing he said was "You can sue if you want to, but I didn't see a thing".
For Bergman and his wife, the beating was much more than one day of terror. Doctors concluded Bergman was beaten so badly that he suffered permanent brain damage. Soon after Bergman suffered from a cardiac arrest. When he awoke after several days in a coma, he could not move a muscle. He even had to learn to read and write again.   
For the next forty years, Bergman had to be strapped in a wheelchair. He continued his "fight against racial hatred and government complacency" until he died at age 100 on September 9, 1999. Raised in a strict Free Methodist home, he was only acting on what he learned about the brotherhood of humankind, all descendants of Adam and Eve.  

Bergman's lawyers brought suit against the FBI for its role in the beating. FBI informer Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. testified in court that the police promised the Klan 15 unmolested minutes to beat up the riders and that "a good many police...worked with the Ku Klux Klan." FBI agents witnessed the beatings, even taking photographs, but refused to stop the violence. After photographs of the bloody mess ran in newspapers, the world press editorialized about the major gulf between the American freedom ideal and the ugly reality.  
The government maintained that it had "no legal duty to protect Dr. Bergman" (Judges decision file no. G 77-6 p. 2). They implied that it was proper to do nothing while Klan men kicked Walter so furiously that he suffered permanent brain damage. U.S. District Judge Enslen in his ruling for Dr. Bergman wrote the FBI was wrong to cooperate with Klan thugs.

Bergman won the case, but actually lost: his lawsuit was for two million dollars plus costs, but he received a paltry $35,000 that covered only a fraction of his legal expenses and none of his medical expenses. The court, in effect, as the government had done before in Bergman's life, condoned the violence.