"[For the touring Freedom Train] the staff of the National Archives put together a unique collection of 126 documents on the theme of freedom, from a fourteenth-century copy of England's Magna Carta to the Charter of the United Nations that had been signed only the year before. American texts included the original Mayflower Compact, Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence with corrections by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, George Washington's copy of the Federal Constitution, James Madison's draft of the Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln's text of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a manuscript copy of the Gettysburg Address.
"Twelve documents came from movements of American 'revolt and protest' for liberty and freedom, mostly in the distant past. A large part of the collection was about World War II. Physical artifacts included an ensign that had flown on the Perry expedition to Japan, a flag that had been raised at Iwo Jima, and another flag that had flown from the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. . . .
"The work was completed in a few months of frantic work, and on September 17, 1947, the Freedom Train was dedicated in Philadelphia. Its tour began in the northeastern states. Then it traveled south and west and back again to journey's end in the nation's capital in January 1949. Altogether, the Freedom Train visited every state and 326 cities and towns. It was the longest train trip in American history.
"At every stop, the train opened to visitors at ten o'clock in the morning. Long lines of parents and children had begun to form before sunrise. At Grand Central Station in New York, the line stretched four abreast for fifteen city blocks. Everywhere, people waited patiently for their turn to see the documents, sometimes in driving rain and heavy snow. The millionth visitor was a sixteen-year-old girl in Oklahoma who traveled sixty miles through a blizzard.
"Improbable as it may seem today, American teenagers in 1947 celebrated the Freedom Train with an enthusiasm that later generations of adolescents would reserve for sex queens and rock musicians. In Brooklyn, Marine guards were baffled by the sudden disappearance of the white stripe from the side of the Freedom Train. They discovered that a high school girl had kissed the engine of the train and left a smear of bright red lipstick. Four thousand other high school girls followed her example, until the white stripe became a scarlet ribbon of adolescent affection.
"This historian remembers visiting the Freedom Train in Baltimore. We drove to a large railroad yard and waited in long lines with thousands of others. Baltimore in 1947 had the air of a small town, and we had the illusion that we knew everybody in it. But standing in line with us were Baltimoreans we had never seen before. Some were immigrants from eastern Europe. Others were Appalachian mountain folk who had moved north to work in the war plants. Large numbers were Marylanders of African descent. In 1947, Baltimore was a Jim Crow town. There were not many public places in Maryland where blacks and whites stood together on a footing of equality.
"In the Deep South, other communities were even more rigidly segregated. People had wondered what would happen when the Freedom Train arrived. Langston Hughes wrote a poem about it.
"I seen folks talkin' about the
Lord, I been a-waitin for the
Freedom Train! . . .
I hope there ain't no Jim Crow on the Freedom Train
No back door entrance to the Freedom Train,
No signs FOR COLORED on the Freedom Train,
No WHITE FOLKS ONLY on the Freedom Train.
I'm gonna check up on this
"The sponsors considered that question and decided that there would be no Jim Crow on a Freedom Train. In 1947, most Americans agreed. Nearly all southern towns accepted the integration of the Freedom Train, and black and white families visited it together as they did in Baltimore.
"A small number of southern leaders stubbornly refused to agree. In Memphis, city boss Ed Crump insisted that the Freedom Train must be segregated when it stopped in his town. Birmingham's chief of police, Eugene Theophilus 'Bull' Connor, did the same thing in Alabama. The managers of the Freedom Train responded by removing Memphis and Birmingham from the train's itinerary, much to the approval of many people in the South. In the elections of 1948, Boss Crump's Memphis machine was defeated, partly as a result of his attempt to impose Jim Crow on the Freedom Train. Bull Connor survived in Birmingham to play an iconic role of high importance as the arch-demon of racist tyranny in the national drama of the civil rights movement.
"Other critics of the Freedom Train appeared on the far left. The American Communist Paul Robeson denounced it and dropped lower in the national esteem. The effect of the Freedom Train was to marginalize its opponents on the left and right. It made them appear to be enemies of freedom, and it reinforced the broad American center.
"In that respect the Freedom Train itself was only a small part of a larger educational project, which centered on a vision of freedom as civic responsibility. Its sponsors mounted a national advertising campaign, one of the biggest on record. Irving Berlin composed a special song and recorded it with Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. A movie called Our American Heritage was produced by Dore Schary and narrated by Joseph Cotten. Historians compiled two books for the occasion. One of them, Frank Monaghan's Our Heritage of Freedom, reproduced a set of documents that Eric Goldman called 'a semi-official definition of American liberty.' Another book, called The Good Citizen, centered on questions of civic responsibility.
"Local programs were coordinated with the schedule of the Freedom Train. Advance men visited each town before the train arrived. Advertisements and feature stories saturated the local press and radio stations. Each community was urged to observe an entire 'rededication week,' with individual days devoted to particular groups: a Women's Day, a Labor and Industry Day, a Religion Day, and a Veterans Day.
"These programs reached a larger public than the train itself. Altogether, about 3.5 million people went aboard the Freedom Train. More than 10 million saw the train. Approximately 50 million Americans participated in related events. Virtually the entire population of 144 million was reached by the public campaign in one way or another. The Freedom Train and its traveling icons helped to persuade a generation of young Americans that the nation's heritage was something that belonged to all of them. Its purpose was to mobilize the entire country in a common effort of civic engagement. The motto was 'freedom is everybody's job.'
"Inside the Freedom Train, interior passages were dimly lighted, and the documents were bright and legible, glowing in their glass windows. Parents and children gathered in tight circles around the great charters of freedom, and their faces reflected the light. They took their time, often ignoring the efforts of Marine guards to move them along. Many read aloud, quietly and carefully, studying the documents and whispering together in low voices. There was a tone of awe and even reverence, as if in a cathedral or a shrine.
"After the visitors left the train, they were invited to take a Freedom Pledge and to sign a Freedom Scroll. In Burlington, Vermont, half the population signed. A later generation would have laughed cynically, but in 1947 Americans were a nation of believers. They had just been through a war for liberty and freedom. The words of the Freedom Pledge had meaning to them, for their generation had counted the cost.
THE FREEDOM PLEDGE
"I am an American. A free American.
Free to speak — without fear
Free to worship God in my own way
Free to stand for what I think right
Free to oppose what I think wrong
Free to choose those who govern my country
This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold
For myself and all mankind.
"This was not a pledge of allegiance or a loyalty oath. It proclaimed the autonomy of individual citizens to stand for their idea of the right and to fight what they thought wrong. It was not about 'my country, right or wrong,' but the very opposite. The American generation that emerged from the Second World War had a larger idea of their country and themselves. Most of all, they were invited to unite in an idea of freedom as civic responsibility.
"The Freedom Train combined that large vision with other meanings. The train itself and its streamlined cars were emblems of modernity, and its big locomotive (number 1776) was a symbol of American power. By contrast, the documents seemed old and fragile. They were symbols not of power but of right, and their condition made clear their need to be protected in a dangerous world. Altogether the Freedom Train expressed the material strength and moral resolve of a united people. For those of an impressionable age, that vision still lingers in the mind."