Forty Years Since Freedom Rides Took on the Segregationist South


In 1961, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a Northern-based civil rights group, relaunched the Freedom Rides.

The first Freedom Rides, sponsored by CORE and the Fellowship for Reconciliation, a religious group, had taken place in 1947. Black members and white members had gone on a “Journey of Reconciliation,” trying to force the federal government to uphold the 1946 Supreme Court ruling that segregated seating of interstate passengers was unconstitutional. The original riders were arrested in North Carolina and forced to serve on a chain gang for six months.

The new round of Freedom Rides came on the heels of the Southern student sit-in movement that had begun a year earlier when four freshmen at A and T College in Greensboro, N.C., sat down at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth. They were refused service but would not leave. The lunch counter was closed down and no one was served.

Day after day they came back, bringing others with them, sitting in silence. Over the next two weeks the sit-ins spread to 15 cities in five Southern states. Over the next year, more than 50,000 students participated in actions in 100 cities around the country, and 3600 were put in jail.

By the end of the year, Greensboro and many other lunch counters had opened to Black people. In describing this movement, Ella Baker, the backbone and organizer of much of the Southern civil rights movement and a facilitator and advisor to the youth of the movement, said: “I think it spread to a large extent because of the youths’ enthusiasm and need for action. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction among the young with the older leadership. Part of the reason it spread was a sister would call her brother at another college and ask ‘why aren’t you doing it?'”

John F. Kennedy had recently been elected U.S. president and during his campaign he had sent a message to the students in Atlanta who were sitting in, saying, “They have shown that the way for Americans to stand up for their rights is to sit down.” Kennedy’s words encouraged many in the civil rights movement to see if his new administration would be willing to take action.

But Robert Kennedy, through Martin Luther King Jr., asked James Farmer, the executive director of CORE to call off the rides-for a “cooling off” period. Farmer replied, “We’ve been cooling off for 350 years, and if we cooled off any more, we’d be in a deep freeze.”

The Freedom Riders included James Farmer, John Lewis of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and James Peck, who had been on the original ride in 1947. They traveled on buses that left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, to New Orleans, planning to arrive on May 17, the anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954 that separate but equal facilities in the schools were unconstitutional-a decision that had helped ignite the civil rights Movement.

The strategy of the Freedom Rides was for whites to sit in the back of the bus and Blacks to sit in the front, both refusing to move. At the stops, Black people would go to the whites-only facilities and try to use them. Thirteen people went on the ride.

There was fighting in Virginia and the Carolinas when riders tried to use the restrooms and lunch rooms. In South Carolina the students were beaten with fists and iron bars. Neither the local police force nor state or federal law enforcement officers interfered with the beatings. The FBI, which had been informed of the rides in advance, simply watched and took notes.

On May 14, the rides split into two groups to go from Atlanta to Birmingham. The only scheduled stop was in Anniston, Ala. The first group was stoned in Anniston and the tires of their bus were slashed by an angry mob of 200. The bus high-tailed it six miles away to get the tires repaired. Again they were attacked by a mob, which surrounded the bus and tossed a firebomb in through the rear. The bus went up in flames but the riders escaped. This photo of the burning bus hit the news around the world.

When the next bus arrived in Birmingham, a mob was waiting. Bull Connor, the police chief, said that he had given all his cops the day off in honor of Mother’s Day! The FBI had been informed in advance of threats against the freedom riders but again had done absolutely nothing.

The mob attacked. One of the riders, William Barbee, was paralyzed for life from this attack. At a press conference after the attack, Alabama Gov. John Patterson said he had no sympathy for the Freedom Riders because “when you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it.”

This was how the governments of the Southern states upheld the Constitution in 1961! At this point the white bus drivers told the company they would not drive for the Freedom Rides because it was too dangerous. After two days of negotiations the Freedom Riders gave up and went to the Birmingham airport and flew to New Orleans.

In response to the brutality against the CORE, and their decision to give up, SNCC members, veterans of the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, decided to take up the cause, riding from Nashville to Birmingham. Before they left they called the Justice Department asking for protection. The protection was refused.

The Justice Department officials said they would investigate-if something happened. And something, of course, did happen. The riders were arrested in Birmingham and spent the night in jail. Then the police took them to the Tennessee border and put them out on the highway. But SNCC brought cars and the students quickly returned to Birmingham.

They tried to get on a bus to Montgomery, Ala., but the bus driver refused to drive. Kennedy aides met with Gov. Patterson, who threatened “warfare” if federal marshals were sent in. The governor said he was ready on his own to protect “visitors to Alabama.”

On May 20, a new group of 21 freedom riders got on the bus with two Greyhound bus company officials and a private state plane overhead and state police beside. But the moment the bus arrived in Montgomery, the state protection vanished-just as an angry mob appeared.

As the riders got off the bus the mob attacked, sending white rider James Zwerg to the hospital. From his hospital bed Zwerg said, “We will take hitting, we’ll take beatings. We’re willing to accept death. But we are going to keep coming until we can ride from anywhere in the South to any place else in the South, as Americans, without anyone making any comment.”

When John Seigenthaler, Kennedy’s aide, tried to drive into the mob to save a young woman who was being attacked, he too was knocked unconscious and ended up in the hospital. This was too much for the Kennedy administration, which finally sent in 600 federal marshals.

Martin Luther King Jr. went to Montgomery to hold a rally to support the Freedom Riders. The church where the meeting was held was guarded by federal marshals. Still a mob surrounded the church. The marshals fought with the mob and when tear gas was fired it went into the church, choking the civil rights supporters inside.

Finally, Gov. Patterson declared martial law and used the Alabama National Guard to disperse the mob. Robert Kennedy once again called for a “cooling off period.” The riders now proposed to continue on despite the violence to Jackson, Miss.

By this time the worldwide publicity was really embarrassing the U.S. government. How did it look to people in Africa and Asia to see African American students beaten by mobs for demanding their rights? How did it look that President Kennedy, who had gotten over 68 percent of the Black vote, was refusing to do anything about the beatings and the clear violation of federal law and the Constitution?

Even with all this pressure, the Kennedy boys did not offer any real protection to the riders. They brokered a deal instead with the Mississippi police to “protect the Freedom Riders from mob violence.”

On May 24, two days after the church incident, 27 freedom riders left Montgomery on two buses to go to Mississippi. They were met at the border with the drawn guns of the Mississippi National Guard.

They entered Jackson without an encounter with a mob, went into the whites-only waiting rooms, and were promptly arrested and sent to jail. These Freedom Riders were tried in the Mississippi courts and given 60 days in the maximum security state penitentiary. But as fast as the riders were sent to jail more arrived to carry on the struggle.

During that summer there were more than 300 freedom riders participating in the deep South. Over the next two years, as their struggles spread out through out in a city by city assault, that challenged all the aspects of segregation.

The Freedom Rides mark one of the most despicable chapters in our history on the part of the Democratic administration at every level of government. They mark one of the most courageous and uplifting periods of time, as evidenced by the courage and determination of those who put their bodies and their lives on the line to end racial segregation and win social justice in this country.

The Freedom Rides and sit-ins showed the potential that human beings have. It was a time when ordinary people did extraordinary things, and the number of heroes was too great to be counted!

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