Civil Rights activists called Freedom Riders rode in interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, (1960). The first Freedom Ride left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. The significance of Boynton v. Virginia was the outlawing of racial segregation on interstate public transportation. The Freedom Rides consisted of African Americans and whites together riding various forms of public transportation in the South to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation. The Freedom Rides, and the violent reactions they provoked, bolstered the credibility of the American Civil Rights Movement and called national attention to the violent disregard for law that was used to enforce segregation in the southern United States. Riders were arrested for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and violating state and local Jim Crow laws, along with other alleged offenses.
Most of the subsequent rides were sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) while others belonged to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced Snick). The Freedom Rides followed on the heels of dramatic “sit-ins” against segregated lunch counters conducted by students and youth throughout the South, and boycotts beginning in 1960.
The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia granted travelers the legal right to disregard local segregation ordinances regarding interstate transportation facilities. But the Freedom Riders’ rights were not enforced and were considered criminal acts throughout most of the South. For example, upon the Riders’ arrival in Mississippi, their journey ended with imprisonment for exercising their legal rights in interstate travel, and similar arrests took place in other southern cities. Freedom Riders knew that they faced arrest by authorities determined to stop their protests and possible mob violence and before starting they committed themselves to a strategy of non-violent resistance.
The Freedom Riders faced much resistance against their cause, but ultimately received strong support from people both inside and outside the South for their efforts.
The Freedom Riders were inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, led by civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and George Houser. Like the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Journey of Reconciliation was intended to test an earlier Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin and a few of the other riders, chiefly members of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were arrested and sentenced to serve on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating local Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation.
The first Freedom Ride began on May 4, 1961. Led by CORE Director James Farmer, 13 riders (seven black, six white) left Washington DC on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending with a rally in New Orleans, Louisiana. Most of the Riders were from CORE, and two were from SNCC. Many were in their 40s and 50s.
Only minor trouble was encountered in Virginia and North Carolina, but John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, and some of the Riders were arrested in Charlotte NC and Winnsboro SC.
In Anniston, Alabama, a mob attacked the Greyhound bus and slashed its tires. When the crippled bus had to stop several miles outside of town, it was firebombed by the mob chasing it in cars. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death. An exploding fuel tank caused the mob to retreat, allowing the riders to escape the bus. The riders were viciously beaten as they fled the burning bus, and only warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched.
That night, the hospitalized Freedom Riders, most of whom had been refused care, were kicked out of the hospital at 2 AM because the staff feared the mob outside the hospital. Local civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars of blacks who defied the mob to rescue the injured Freedom Riders.
When the Trailways bus reached Birmingham, it too was attacked by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members aided and abetted by the police under the orders of Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were mercilessly beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. Among the Klansmen attacking the riders was FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe. White Freedom Riders were particularly singled out for frenzied beatings. Two riders were hospitalized, including white Freedom Rider Jim Peck, who required 52 stitches to close the wounds in his head.
When reports of the bus burning and beatings reached US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he urged restraint on the part of Freedom Riders and sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Alabama to try to calm the situation.
With all of the original Freedom Riders injured, and the Trailways and Greyhound drivers afraid to drive any bus containing Freedom Riders, it was suggested that the Freedom Rides be discontinued. Most of the original Freedom Riders flew to New Orleans to attend a previously scheduled rally.
Nashville student and SNCC leader Diane Nash felt that if violence were allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years. She pushed to find replacements to resume the ride, and on May 17th a new set of riders, students from Nashville, took a bus to Birmingham where they were arrested by Bull Connor and jailed. These students kept their spirits up in jail by singing Freedom Songs. Out of frustration, Connor drove them back up to the Tennessee line and dropped them off, stating “I just couldn’t stand their singing.” They immediately returned to Birmingham.
The Freedom Riders who had answered SNCC’s call from across the Eastern US joined John Lewis and Hank Thomas, the two young SNCC members of the original Ride who had remained in Birmingham. On May 19, they attempted to resume the ride, but terrified by the howling mob surrounding the bus depot, the drivers refused. Harassed and besieged by the KKK mob, the riders waited all night for a bus.
Under intense public pressure from the Kennedy administration, Greyhound was forced to provide a driver and Alabama Governor John Patterson reluctantly promised to protect the bus from KKK mobs and snipers on the road between Birmingham and Montgomery, after direct intervention from Attorney General’s office employee Byron White. On the morning of May 20, the Freedom Ride resumed, with the bus carrying the riders travelling toward Montgomery at 90 miles an hour protected by a contingent of the Alabama State Highway Patrol.
However, when they reached the Montgomery city limits, the Highway Patrol abandoned them. At the bus station, a huge white mob was waiting and viciously beat the Freedom Riders with baseball bats and iron pipes. The local police allowed the beatings to go on uninterrupted. Again, white Freedom Riders, branded “nigger-Lovers,” were singled out for particularly brutal beatings. Reporters and news photographers were also attacked and their cameras destroyed, but there is a famous picture taken later of Jim Zwerg in the hospital, beaten and bruised. Justice Department official Seigenthaler was beaten and left unconscious lying in the street. Ambulances refused to take the wounded to the hospital. Local blacks rescued them, and a number of the Freedom Riders were hospitalized.
The following night, Sunday May 21st, more than 1200 people packed Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s 1st Baptist church to honor the Freedom Riders. Among the speakers were Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Farmer. Outside, an enormous mob of more than 3,000 whites attacked blacks and the handful of federal marshals protecting the church from assault and fire bombs. With city and state police making no effort to restore order, President Kennedy threatened to commit federal troops, but Governor Patterson forestalled that by ordering the Alabama National Guard to disperse the mob.
The next day, Monday May 22, more Freedom Riders from CORE and SNCC arrived in Montgomery to continue the rides and replace the wounded riders still in hospital. Behind the scenes, the Kennedy administration arranged a deal with the governors of Alabama and Mississippi. The governors agreed that state police and National Guard would protect the Riders from mob violence (thereby ending embarrassing media coverage of bloody lawlessness), and in return the federal government would not intervene to stop local police from arresting Freedom Riders for violating segregation ordinances when the buses arrived at the depots (even though such arrests violated the Supreme Court’s Boynton decision).
On Wednesday morning, May 24, Freedom Riders boarded buses for the journey to Jackson, Mississippi. Surrounded by Highway Patrol and National Guard, the buses arrived in Jackson without incident, and the riders were immediately arrested when they tried to use the “white-only” facilities at the depot. In Montgomery, Freedom Riders including Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, and others were similarly arrested for violating local segregation ordinances.
This established a pattern followed by subsequent Freedom Rides in which they traveled to Jackson, where they were arrested and jailed. The strategy became one of trying to fill the jails. Once the Jackson and Hinds County jails were filled to overflowing, Freedom Riders were transferred to the infamous Parchman Penitentiary (“Parchman Farm”). Their abusive treatment included placement in the Maximum Security Unit (Death Row), issuance of only underwear, no exercise, no mail, and, when Freedom Riders refused to stop singing Freedom Songs, they took away mattresses, sheets and toothbrushes and removed the screens from the windows. When the cell block became filled with mosquitoes, they hosed everyone down with DDT at 2 AM.
Several members from CORE and SNCC joined the Freedom Rides; among them was Stokely Carmichael, who later became the chairman of the SNCC. He was jailed several times while in Mississippi for participating in the freedom rides, with one sentence of 49 days in the Mississippi Parchman Penitentiary. Later he became the leader of the Black Panther Party, which was a sharp contrast from the non-violent campaign held by SNCC and CORE. Stokley Carmichael was diagnosed with colon cancer later on and eventually died. He claimed that the government was behind his death.
Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, a civil rights leader born in Atlanta, was another member from the SNCC who joined the Freedom Rides. She was arrested in Mississippi and after her release remained in the area to work on the voter registration project. In 1967 she died from cancer. Like Stokley Carmichael’s death there was talk amongst members of the SNCC that the government was somehow responsible.
James Peck, the editor of CORE’s magazine, was the only person to participate in both the Freedom Rides and the Journey of Reconciliation. He rode through Alabama and was subject to a vicious beating from the mobs. He filed for suit against the FBI because they were aware of the violence, and he won. He was a well-respected civil-rights activist and later died of a stroke.
James Farmer, who was CORE’s director, launched the Freedom Rides in the south to end segregation on interstate buses. He was subsequently jailed along with the other freedom riders. By the age of 21, Farmer was able to accomplish all that he had hoped regarding desegregation on interstate transportation.
The Kennedys called for a “cooling off period” and condemned the Rides as unpatriotic because they embarrassed the nation on the world stage. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ”” the chief law enforcement officer of the land ”” was quoted as saying that he “Does not feel that the Department of Justice can side with one group or the other in disputes over Constitutional rights.”
Defying the Kennedys, CORE, SNCC, and SCLC rejected any “cooling off period.” They formed a Freedom Riders Coordinating Committee to keep the Rides rolling through June, July, August, and September. During those months, more than 60 different Freedom Rides criss-crossed the South, most of them converging on Jackson where every Rider was arrested, more than 300 in total, plus an unknown number of riders arrested in other southern towns. It is estimated that almost 450 riders participated in one or more Freedom Rides. About 75% were male, and the same percentage were under the age of 30, mostly evenly divided between black and white.
During the summer of 1961, Freedom Riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. This was especially effective when it targeted large companies which, fearing boycotts in the North, began to desegregate their businesses.
In mid-June, a group of Freedom Riders were scheduled to end their ride in Tallahassee, Florida, with plans to fly home from the Tallahassee airport. They were provided a police escort to the airport from the city’s bus facilities. At the airport, they decided to eat at a restaurant that was signed “For Whites Only”. The owners decided to close, rather than serve the Freedom Riders. Although the restaurant was privately owned, it was leased from the county government. Canceling their plane reservations, the Riders decided to wait until the restaurant re-opened so they could be served. They waited until 11:00 pm that night, and returned the following day. During this time, hostile crowds gathered, threatening violence. On June 16th, 1961, the Freedom Riders were arrested in Tallahassee for unlawful assembly. That arrest became known as Dresner v. City of Tallahassee, which made its way to the US Supreme Court in 1963, in which a hearing was refused, based on technical reasons.
Eventually, bowing to public opinion, the Kennedy administration got the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue yet another desegregation order. The ICC was reluctant, but in September 1961 it issued the necessary orders, and the new policies went into effect on November 1, 1961. After the new ICC rule took effect, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains, “white” and “colored” signs came down in the terminals, separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated, and the lunch counters began serving people regardless of race.
The Freedom Rides established great credibility with blacks and whites throughout the United States who became motivated to engage in direct action for civil rights. Perhaps most significantly, Freedom Riders, facing such danger on their behalf, impressed blacks living in rural areas throughout the South who later formed the backbone of the civil rights movement. This credibility inspired many subsequent civil rights campaigns, including voter registration, freedom schools, and the black power movement.
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