Lompoc attorney Joe Gerbac fought back a chuckle as he announced that his idea of happiness is “three un-interrupted hours of Rush Limbaugh.” And he means it. But back in the summer of 1961, Gerbac, then a student at UCLA, spent 30 days behind bars at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary for the crime of integrating, however briefly, a “whites only” waiting room at the Jackson Mississippi train depot.
Gerbac, who is Caucasian, was one of thousands of young people throughout the nation — white and black — who descended on the South as part of the Freedom Ride movement of the early 1960s. Their aim was to integrate the South by challenging that region’s Jim Crow laws. Gerbac was part of a crew of about 15 that rode the rails from New Orleans to Jackson as part of an orchestrated campaign targeting the segregated waiting rooms throughout southern transit centers. The idea was to force a reluctant federal government to intervene in the civil rights struggle, then defined largely as a matter of states’ rights. Their strategy was to bait local police departments to arrest mixed-race gatherings on trains and buses, thereby violating federal interstate travel laws. Gerbac found that “Captain Ray” of the Jackson Police Department wasted little time popping his group of the Freedom Riders into the back of a paddy wagon and whisking them away to jail. Gerbac, it turns out, would be one of about 400 Freedom Riders arrested by Jackson’s finest during the Summer of 1961, and their experience is the subject of an impressive new coffee table tome, Breach of Peace, written by Mississippi native Eric Etheridge and accompanied by large, dramatic booking photos of the guilty parties. Etheridge will be on hand next Tuesday night, June 17, at the Lompoc Library for a talk and slide show based on the book. Gerbac is one of two Santa Barbarans featured in Breach of Peace; the other, Lamaze instructor Jorgia Siegel, has not been available for comment.
The Lompoc event was organized by another Mississippi native, Tom Gerald, of Solvang’s Book Loft bookstore, who remembers teaching Etheridge back in 1970 when the promising young writer was just in 8th grade. Gerald recalled Etheridge as an especially “astute” student, and on one occasion turned the class over to the young eighth grader so he could hold forth on King Arthur and the legends surrounding him. For a while Gerald stayed in touch with his former student as Etheridge pursued a successful career in journalism, moving from Rolling Stone to Harper’s to George. But it was more than this past connection that inspired Gerald to plan Tuesday’s event. Part of it lies in his sense of contemporary history. “It seems the American way is to go off to foreign lands, to invade, to fight, and to come back a hero,” he said. “But with the Freedom Rides, we had young people who gave up their summers to fight for freedom right here in their own country.”
At the time they occurred, however, the Freedom Rides were much more unsettling to Gerald. In 1961, he was an eighth grader himself, growing up in Leland Mississippi, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. “Your parents and every adult you knew and respected would tell you these Freedom Riders were nothing but a bunch of communist-inspired trouble makers,” he said. “It was a very confusing time.” While Leland was too small to become the focus of civil rights organizers, Gerald remembers how worried his neighbors were when rumors circulated that black people might try to integrate Leland’s churches. Thirty-seven years later, his memories of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission-an unofficial “state” agency that assigned itself the task of maintaining Mississippi’s strict segregation laws-remains vivid. “That’s a word I heard a lot,” he recalled. “Sovereignty.”
Much of Etheridge’s book, in fact, comes straight from the fiercely protected files of the state Sovereignty Commission. Although the commission shut down in 1973, its files were not made public until 1998, and then only after a bitter and prolonged court battle.
Most of the stories recounted in Etheridge’s book involve people who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement. Gerbac, by contrast, got involved almost by accident. The son of a Croatian immigrant and an ardent communist, Gerbac was generally supportive of left wing and progressive causes, but hardly an activist himself in the summer of 1961. He was with a friend one night, attending a party hosted by a number of Freedom Riders on the eve of their departure for New Orleans. He was unhappy at how his summer job prospects were progressing. The party proved lively and spirited; much alcohol was consumed. It turned out there was still an unclaimed seat on the plane to New Orleans, and it was only then that Gerbac decided to go.
Of his party, Gerbac said most were white middle class students; maybe four, he said were black. The trip from New Orleans to Jackson proceeded without incident, and when they arrived at the white’s only waiting room, they were met by a squad of Jackson police officers. Captain Ray, whom Gerbac remembered as “the stereotypical southern cop,” ordered the group to disburse three times, and three times they held their ground. All this had been orchestrated in advance he said. The group was taken to the city jail for a couple of nights, a quick trial was held, and they were all found guilty of disturbing the peace.
Typically, the protestors would have been sent to the county jail to serve their 30-day sentence, but the county jail was booked up. Part of the Freedom Ride strategy was to overwhelm the carrying capacity of southern jails with prisoners. That’s why they were sent to Parchman. For Gerbac, it was an eye-opener. “You’d look out the window and you’d see 20 to 30 black prisoners wearing the striped prison suits out chopping cotton,” he said. “And the prison trustees loomed over them on horses, carrying rifles.”
Later, Gerbac said, the group was moved to maximum security quarters. They spent 24 hours trapped in their cells, allowed only brief departures for exercise. He played chess with prisoners a few cells down by moving the chessboard through the slots in the door and sliding it down the floor. After a while, he said, they could play without even looking at the boards. Nobody mistreated the prisoners, Gerbac said. There was no verbal abuse or physical threats. “We were all white middle class guys, not criminals,” he said. “We didn’t cause any problems.”
Gerbac said the black Freedom Riders were segregated out, and rumors abounded that their treatment was not so gentle. He never had a chance to speak with his black compatriots afterwards. During their stay at Parchman, Gerbac said the Freedom Riders held informal symposiums on various subjects. One, he said, smuggled a tiny radio into prison by hiding it in his rectum. That would be used later to listen as Roger Marris hit 61 home runs for the Yankees, eclipsing Babe Ruth’s season record of 60.
At times, they’d have visitors. A rabbi associated with the Freedom Ride organizers showed up to talk with the prisoners. He was supposed to keep their spirits up, Gerbac said. “But he was depressed, so he depressed us more.”
After his release, Gerbac graduated from UCLA and then attended UCLA law school along with Santa Barbara Judges George Eskin and Bruce Dodds, as well as attorney Barry Cappello. He did not become further involved in either the Civil Rights or Anti-War movements. “I felt it was a good thing. We helped move the law along in this country,” he said. “I was not normally an activist, so I surprised a lot of people.”
Gerald noted that not all roads to Jackson, Mississippi that summer followed the same route. “How many war stories do you hear where a guy gets drunk and wakes up on his way to Vietnam?” he asked. “That happens. Not everyone plans on being a hero.”
After graduating law school in 1969, Gerbac went to work for the Los Angeles County Public defender’s office for four years. After that he went into private practice, handling criminal law and personal injury cases. In 1985, he moved to Lompoc, where his father and sister lived, and has been pursuing his private practice since.
And in intervening years, Gerbac said, he’s grown progressively more conservative. As a one-time Freedom Rider, he said he took some historic satisfaction that Barack Obama, a black man, had just secured his party’s nomination to run for President. “But I’m still voting for [John] McCain,” he said.
411: Eric Etheridge will hold a book signing and slideshow for Breach of Peace on Tuesday, June 17th at 7pm in the Grossman Gallery of the Lompoc Public Library. For more information, call the Book Loft at 688-6010 or visit ericetheridge.com.