Constable: When tense nation found hope in the Freedom Train
Americans were a bit anxious about jobs, a looming presidential election, a crush of immigrants fleeing bad situations, racial injustices, violence, talk of creeping socialism, labor unrest, a fear of foreign ideologies and a world of problems beyond our borders. That sounds depressingly familiar, Arlington Heights authors Gerry and Janet Souter admit. But their book, "Selling Americans on America: Journey into a Troubled Nation," tells how the government in 1947 united the nation with a railroad promotion called the Freedom Train.
"It was considered the rock star of the time," Gerry Souter says. "It was splashed all over the papers -- 'The Freedom Train is coming.'"
In 16 months, the Freedom Train traveled 37,000 miles, was visited by 40 million people at stops in more than 300 towns in all 48 states, made the cover of a Captain Marvel comic book, spawned a radio show and was the inspiration for an Irving Berlin song, "Here Comes the Freedom Train," which Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters made into a hit, Janet Souter says.
"Not the Atchison, Topeka, not the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, nor the one that leaves at midnight for the state of Alabam'. This song is a train song where the engineer is Uncle Sam," Crosby crooned.
Hatched by bureaucrat William Coblenz, an assistant director with the public information division of the Department of Justice, the seven-car Freedom Train carried more than 130 original documents and iconic objects in a move designed to inspire the nation. Drawing as many as 10,000 visitors a day, the rolling museum, guarded by 27 Marines, featured bulletproof glass displays of relics such as Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington's handwritten notes on the Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation.
"The towns bought into it," Janet Souter says.
So did the National Archives, the former War Advertising Council that just went by the Advertising Council, U.S. Steel, DuPont, General Electric, Standard Oil and Hollywood studios and stars, Gerry Souter says. They all came together under a new nonpartisan organization called the American Heritage Foundation, which has no connection with today's conservative Heritage Foundation.
Noting the irony of a Freedom Train rolling through a nation where some people didn't enjoy those freedoms because of the color of their skin, Langston Hughes wrote a poem with a stanza noting, "I hope there ain't no Jim Crow on the Freedom Train. No back door entrance to the Freedom Train, No sign FOR COLORED on the Freedom Train. No WHITE FOLKS ONLY on the Freedom Train."
"The trustees said there would be no segregation on the Freedom Train," Janet Souter says.
"They might have segregation in the town, but they didn't have segregation in the Freedom Train line," her husband says.
Memphis, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, refused to agree to a single line for whites and blacks, so the Freedom Train didn't stop in those cities. The train also made communities agree to a "rededication" to American values and American citizenship.
Illinois had more than a dozen stops, including Chicago, Joliet and Rockford in June and July 1948.
"It was a traveling civics lesson," Gerry Souter says. Towns put on displays about the value of free speech, religious freedom, the power of being informed voters, and the concepts of common good, volunteering and being good citizens by serving on juries and supporting public education.
"It was pretty corny, but it worked," he says.
Gerry Souter, 78, made his living as a photographer. Janet Souter, 78, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before becoming a writer, including a stint as a Daily Herald columnist and community news coordinator. Married for 56 years, the couple have two daughters and one son. They have written 58 books, ranging from historical treatises and biographies to three books about Arlington Heights. Their Freedom Train book uses history to touch on today's issues. The Freedom Train had some success uniting the country, they say.
"It did, for a brief time," Janet Souter says.
That unification effort might be tougher in today's America. But Berlin's "Here Comes the Freedom Train" song still offers some timely advice.
"You can write the president a letter. You can even tell him to his face. If you think that you can do it better, get the votes and you can take his place," the Freedom Train song said. "You can hate the laws that you're obeying. You can shout your anger to the crowd. We may disagree with what you're saying, but we'll fight to let you say it loud. That's how it's always been, and how it will remain, so long as all of us keep riding on the Freedom Train."