Fifty years ago, Jorgia Bordofsky was arrested and sent to prison. Rather than regretting the circumstances of her incarceration, she was inspired by them.
Today, she’s well-known in Santa Barbara as a registered nurse and Lamaze-certified childbirth educator. Perhaps less well known is the role she played in America’s civil rights movement.
In the summer of 1961, Bordofsky — then a 19-year-old UC Berkeley student named Jorgia Siegel — was one of 450 Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Miss. Charged with the crime of “breach of the peace” (i.e. traveling on a train alongside black people), she spent 40 days locked up in the maximum-security wing of the Mississippi State Penitentiary known as Parchman Farm.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, a historical movement of civil disobedience in which activists set out to challenge segregation laws and the status quo by riding various forms of public transportation in the South.
“Really, the Freedom Rides in most people’s minds are the whole civil rights movement; that’s the way that most people think of it,” Bordofsky said. “They think of the voter registration, all of the various activities … that ultimately ended with desegregation of interstate commerce and a little bit of progress.”
Because of the milestone anniversary, there have been a number of special events, news stories and gatherings commemorating the era. These include a book, Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders by Eric Etheridge; a PBS American Experience documentary, Freedom Riders (which viewers can view online for free); and, most recently, a gathering of the surviving Freedom Riders on the Oprah Winfrey Show followed by a four-day conference and get together for storytelling and an oral history of the events.
Unlike many people (including yours truly) who dream of getting a call from Oprah’s people to go on the show, Bordofsky’s initial impulse was to decline the initiation.
“I didn’t think I needed to go for my 15 minutes of fame,” she said. “I don’t even watch her show.”
But then she decided to take along two of her grandchildren — 13-year-old Aniela and 12-year-old Sophia Bordofsky — who accompanied her on the train to Chicago.
“It was a really good way to include them and also have them learn something about this,” she said. “We could discuss this whole thing and how people, when they join together in a huge movement, they can make some changes. Right?”
Smiling shyly, Sophia agrees.
While it was all exciting, Sophia said the most interesting part of the Oprah experience was talking to the Freedom Riders and hearing all of their stories firsthand. She later showed the documentary to her sixth-grade classmates at Monte Vista School, and then shared what she had learned and the stories she had heard.
“Before this experience I knew about the civil rights movement and about the Freedom Riders from my grandma, but I didn’t know all of the details,” she said. “I don’t think I knew there were as many people involved.”
“You felt like you were hearing real history, like life and death, right?” Bordofsky asked.
“Right,” agreed Sophia.
Both were particularly struck by the story of a man from Indonesia.
“He was a student abroad at a black college,” Sophia explained. “He went with his friend to go get something to eat and they wouldn’t feed his friend.”
“So this guy went on the Freedom Rides all by himself,” Bordofsky said. “He was motivated to do that, and then of course they didn’t know what to do with him.”
“When he was in the white section, they would arrest him for being in the white section, and when he was in the black section, they would tell him to go to the white section,” Sophia said.
“They told him to leave; they didn’t know what to do with him,” she said.
Bordofsky grew up in Los Angeles as the daughter of Jewish liberal progressives and she recalls conflicts when her high school was de-segregated. She also vividly remembers her parents taking her to El Segundo to see a sign that said “No Jews or Coloreds After Dark.”
“I swear to you, I saw it with my own eyes,” she said. “My parents wanted me to see this.”
When she heard about the Freedom Rides from a speaker at UC Berkeley, she was eager to volunteer.
“Of course, my parents were scared, but I think they thought that if they were in the same situation that I was they would want to help and therefore they wouldn’t hold their child back,” she said. “Also, being Jewish … we didn’t want to be like the Germans before World War II.”
Bordofsky says she was so naïve that she wasn’t scared to go on the ride.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she marveled.
When asked if she could imagine herself doing something like volunteer for the Freedom Rides, Sophia wasn’t sure.
“Maybe,” she said.
“I would hope that she wouldn’t have to do anything like this,” Bordofsky said of her granddaughter. “That’s what is so horrifying is that you make a little bit of progress, but there are so many other issues.”
Bordofsky met her late husband, Allen Bordofsky, Sophia’s grandfather, while giving a talk about the Freedom Rides in New York.
“When I met him I certainly wasn’t planning on getting married at the age of 20; that was the last thing on my mind,” she said, smiling at the memory.
The couple moved to Santa Barbara in 1971 and raised four children here: Michael, Jeremy, Thad and Josanna.
Bordofsky’s civil rights activism was also critical to her career choice.
“I became a nurse because of the Freedom Rides,” she said. “It seemed to me that was one of the only practical things that could have helped us all. It didn’t make any difference if you were a lawyer or a college professor, it didn’t seem like people had very much practical information to be of use to one another.
“The experience really did inspire me to go into nursing.”
While not exactly star-struck, Bordofsky does admit that being on the Oprah Winfrey Show was exciting.
“She was a black woman doing a show that, basically, 50 years ago you wouldn’t have ever seen,” she said. “And she had President (Barack) Obama on the show the day before, and he would have never been president …
“We realized that this was very historical. You could see that in people’s faces.”
“It was really exciting,” Sophia said.
“And definitely,” Bordofsky added, “doing this kind of thing, you learn a lot more than you ever would sitting in school.”