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Evanston resident Candida Pugh was just 18-year-old Candi Lall of Los Angeles, Calif., in the summer of 1961. It was the summer of the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Rides that had started in May. Ms. Pugh’s very evocative and accessible book, “Bridge of the Single Hair,” is about her own experiences, told through the fictional character of 17-year-old Jeri Turner.
In a sense, the deceptively simple novel contains two main characters: Jeri, who is very much Ms. Pugh, and the Civil Rights Movement itself. Both were in their adolescence in 1961 and in the process of coming of age. Both came away from the Freedom Riders experience changed. Ms. Pugh depicts the parallel graphically through Jeri’s fictional personal narrative rather than through an iteration of historical facts. A huge number of people, places and events were part of every episode of the story of the fight for civil rights in America and of the Freedom Rides; Ms. Pugh’s story does not attempt to be all-encompassing; rather, it aims for and attains immediacy.
The book begins when 17-year-old Jeri hears about a civil rights march from a friend. The friend is a no-show, but Jeri goes on her own. After the march a meeting is held at a church. Bored at first, Jeri becomes ashamed of the flippant attitude she has picked up from her friend as she hears accounts by black people of their humiliating experiences in the South, of the Jim Crow laws and the Journey of Reconciliation – the very first freedom ride – held in 1947. She is actively listening by the time the call goes out to go down South to “fill the jails. … to empty out their coffers.” Jeri goes home to tell her grandmother she has signed up to join a Freedom Ride down to Birmingham, Ala.
Jeri learns a lot that July. She and her fellow Freedom Riders are not met with the violence that greeted the passengers on the first Freedom Ride – one bus on that original ride was firebombed, and passengers from both were badly beaten – but they are rounded up, arrested and sent to Parchman Farm – Mississippi State Penitentiary.
“All the people but the main characters are invented,” Ms. Pugh says, and some others are based on aspects of real people. T.J., for example, Jeri’s grandmother in “Bridge,” is based on a friend’s mother. Events, too, are real, she says. Jeri’s talks with death-row inmate Ellis Lee at Parchman really happened: Ms. Pugh did talk with a death-row inmate named Ellic Lee through the vent over the toilet. The reader feels along with Jeri her growing horror as she comes to realize what lies ahead for the fictional Ellis, her stubborn refusal to believe that nothing can be done to help him, and her outrage that a black man who has committed a crime should be treated so differently from a white man.
The “Bridge of the Single Hair” refers to the English fairy tale of clever and determined Molly Whuppie, the protector of her sisters and the maker of their fortunes by stealing from a giant. After her thefts, she plucks a hair from her own head that magically becomes the bridge to safety that only she can cross. Molly Whuppie is, in a way Jeri finds hard to explain to the others at the pre-journey meeting, the reason Jeri has become a Freedom Rider. She says, finally, “She’s the only little girl hero I ever came across.”
Candida Pugh grew up in San Francisco, as did her parents. Her husband, Charles, teaches mathematics at the University of Chicago, having retired after 40 years at University of California, Berkeley. Her daughter from an earlier marriage, who is a lawyer in Los Angeles, works to “keep young black men out of prison for the rest of their lives,” Ms. Pugh says. Ms. Pugh’s two sons live in Berkeley.
Ms. Pugh says “Bridge of a Single Hair” is a fairly close description of what happened when she signed up the summer of 1961 to join the Freedom Riders. Unlike her character Jeri, however, she went to the meeting where she signed up with her mother, a friend of her mother’s and a friend from high school. She was the only one of them who volunteered. She says she thinks now that they “were more cognizant of how dangerous this was.” But she says her thought was “this is the right thing to do in our time.” She adds, “It was a great thing to do.” Especially as it resulted on Nov. 1, 1961, in a federal order banning segregation at all interstate facilities based on race, color, creed, and actually made the order effective.
Ms. Pugh’s group went on July 23. “Mississippi had it down cold what they were going to do,” says Ms. Pugh. “CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] was going to fill the jails in order to break Mississippi’s budget.” After the buses were attacked in Alabama, she says, there was tremendous fear about going to Mississippi where Emmett Till had been killed. She says she remembers the shock she had felt at the age of 12 reading about the murder of the boy only two years older than she.
“In Alabama, though, the police [had] said [to residents], ‘We can give you 20 minutes.’ In Mississippi, the police said, ‘You stay home, we’ll take care of it.’” After the Freedom Riders’ arrest, Ms. Pugh says, “The men had it worse. They put a huge number of men in a small space. I don’t know how long they were in there.” The women were treated somewhat better.
Ms. Pugh says, “Till last year I thought [the Freedom Rides] were irrelevant. I hadn’t even talked about the Freedom Rides for years.” On May 4, 2011, Oprah Winfrey brought all 176 surviving Freedom Riders to her show to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rides. Some others were invited, too, such as Jane Forsyth, who, as a 12-year-old white Southerner in a town shadowed by the Ku Klux Klan, had given water and a helping hand to the riders of the bus that had been set afire in Anniston on May 4, 1961.
The anniversary show brought together people who had not seen each other in years. Ms. Pugh says, “A woman comes up who’s in pretty bad shape and says hello. ‘Candi!’ she says. ‘I was your cellmate at Parchman!’ She was 27. I was 18. She wanted to protect me then. She remembered everything I’d said to her.” Ms. Pugh gives her one-time cellmate’s name as Norma Libson in her statement for crmvet.org, a website that maintains a “roll call” of those who “put [their] body on the line by being active in the South with CORE, NAACP” and “other Southern Freedom Movement organization in the years 1951-1968.”
As for the effect on her as an individual, Ms. Pugh says the Freedom Rides, her time at Parchman and her attempts to help Ellic Lee “shaped her life.” She says it also “turned out to be the most thrilling experience of [her] life.”
“Bridge of a Single Hair,” by Candida Pugh, is published by Langdon Street Press, Minneapolis, Minn.. More information can be found at candidapugh.com, the author’s website.