Robert L. Pierson and the ESCRU Freedom Riders: Heroes of the Christian Church

Mugshot Jackson Ms.
On September 11th 1961, an interracial group of 27 Episcopal priests boarded a chartered Trailways bus in New Orleans, La. Headed for the general convention held in Detroit that year. They were ready to face arrest, physical abuse, and possibly even death because they believed Christians had a duty to enter the world and witness to the universal lordship of Jesus Christ. Given what had happened earlier that year to the CORE freedom riders in Anniston and Birmingham this was a bold move. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asked to take a Freedom Ride but declined calling the rides “suicide”.


The “Prayer Pilgrimage” began without incident until their arrival at Jackson Ms. An integrated group of 15 priests entered the then illegally segregated Trailways bus terminal to enter the lunchroom, they were stopped by the local police and ordered to “move on”. The police waited respectfully while the priests, all in clerical collars, stood their ground and prayed for the people of Mississippi. When the prayer was over they were arrested immediately. One policeman on finding out that Fr. Pierson was Nelson Rockefeller’s son-in-law said: "His father-in-law may be a big shot up there, but I don't guess that makes any difference to us down here” While in custody the police were furiously running background checks on every one of them trying to link the Riders to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. They were fed a diet of fried hog’s fat with molasses “It was nasty,” said Fr. Gil Avery one of the riders who appeared on the eisode of "Oprah" that aired May 4th.  Fr. Pierson celebrated High Mass for the fifteen Episcopal clergy and two others while in jail. A few days after the group was arrested in Jackson, on September 13th, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued new regulations, mandating an end to segregation in all bus and train stations and ordered the removal of "whites only" signs from interstate bus terminals by November 1st.


As spokeperson for the priests, Fr. Pierson reads statement after release from jail

After their release on bail on September 19th 1961, Fr. Pierson became a spokesperson for the group due to his connection to the Rockefeller clan and his access to legal resources. He was lead petitioner in the appeal of their conviction on “Breach of the peace” charges leading to the Supreme Court.


The Rev. Robert Pierson and Ann Clark Rockefeller were married in 1955. They shared an interest in social causes, like racial equality, women's rights and the welfare of migrant workers. They supported a black dance group in Brooklyn, subsidized James Baldwin's ''Blues for Mister Charlie'' at the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) Theater, and flew to Moscow in 1965 in a citizens exchange project to thaw the Cold War.


Fr. Pierson was Priest-in-charge of St. Barnabas Newark for most of the turbulent 1960’s and was priest here when Mrs. Louise Waiters and Mr. Joseph Desant became communicants. In 1967 Fr. Pierson criticized Governor Hughes’ calling of the National Guard into Newark. Hughes charged ``This is a criminal insurrection by people who say they hate the white man but who really hate America,'' Fr. Pierson said of the National Guard call-up: ``I don't think it was helpful. It's just like Vietnam: the more we pour in, the tougher it's going to be.'' He said the rioting might have been avoided if the city's anti-poverty program had been given sufficient funds. His bishop, the Right Rev. Leland Stark, disagreed.


On April 13th, 1997 Rev. Robert Pierson died, leaving the church militant to join the church triumphant.