Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 and following years to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. The Southern states had ignored the rulings and the federal government did nothing to enforce them. The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17.
Boynton outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines. Five years prior to the Boynton ruling, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had issued a ruling in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company that had explicitly denounced the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of separate but equal in interstate bus travel. The ICC failed to enforce its ruling, and Jim Crow travel laws remained in force throughout the South.
The Freedom Riders challenged this status quo by riding interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation in seating. The Freedom Rides, and the violent reactions they provoked, bolstered the credibility of the American Civil Rights Movement. They called national attention to the disregard for the federal law and the local violence used to enforce segregation in the southern United States. Police arrested riders for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and violating state and local Jim Crow laws, along with other alleged offenses, but they often first let white mobs attack them without intervention.
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored most of the subsequent Freedom Rides, but some were also organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Freedom Rides followed dramatic sit-ins against segregated lunch counters, conducted by students and youth throughout the South, and boycotts of retail establishments that maintained segregated facilities, beginning in 1960.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton supported the right of interstate travelers to disregard local segregation ordinances. Southern local and state police considered the actions of the Freedom Riders as criminal and arrested them in some locations. In some localities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, the police cooperated with Ku Klux Klan chapters and other whites opposing the actions and allowed mobs to attack the riders.
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 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, including Genevieve Hughes, William E. Harbour, and Ed Blankenheim)  left Washington, DC, on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana, where a civil rights rally was planned. Most of the Riders were from CORE, and two were from SNCC. Many were in their 40s and 50s.
The Freedom Riders’ tactics for their journey were to have at least one interracial pair sitting in adjoining seats, and at least one black rider sitting up front, where seats under segregation had been reserved for white customers by local custom throughout the South. The rest of the team would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would abide by the South’s segregation rules in order to avoid arrest and to contact CORE and arrange bail for those who were arrested.
Only minor trouble was encountered in Virginia and North Carolina, but John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Some of the Riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina; Winnsboro, South Carolina; and Jackson, Mississippi.
Mob violence in Anniston and Birmingham
The Birmingham, Alabama Police Commissioner Bull Connor, together with Police Sergeant Tom Cook (an avid Ku Klux Klan supporter), organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local Ku Klux Klan chapters. The pair made plans to bring the Ride to an end in Alabama. They assured Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informer and member of Eastview Klavern #13 (the most violent Klan group in Alabama), that the mob would have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any arrests being made. The plan was to allow an initial assault in Anniston with a final assault taking place in Birmingham.
On May 14, Mother’s Day, in Anniston, a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, some still in church attire, attacked the first of the two buses (the Greyhound). The driver tried to leave the station, but was blocked until KKK members slashed its tires. The mob forced the crippled bus to stop several miles outside of town and then firebombed it. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders to death. Sources disagree, but either an exploding fuel tank or an undercover state investigator brandishing a revolver caused the mob to retreat, and the riders escaped the bus. The mob beat the riders after they escaped the bus. 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 removed from the hospital at 2 AM, because the staff feared the mob outside the hospital. The local civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars of blacks to rescue the injured Freedom Riders in defiance of the mob.
When the Trailways bus reached Anniston and pulled in at the terminal an hour after the Greyhound bus was burned, it was boarded by eight Klansmen. They beat the Freedom Riders and left them semi-conscious in the back of the bus.
When the bus arrived in Birmingham, it was attacked by a mob of KKK members, aided and abetted by the police under the orders of Commissioner Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. Among the attacking Klansmen was Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informant. White Freedom Riders were singled out for especially frenzied beatings; James Peck required more than 50 stitches to the wounds in his head. Peck was taken to Carraway Methodist Medical Center, which refused to treat him; he was later treated at Jefferson Hillman Hospital.
When reports of the bus burning and beatings reached US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he urged restraint on the part of Freedom Riders. He sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Alabama to try to calm the situation. The Kennedy administration was preoccupied with foreign affairs at the time.
Despite the violence suffered and the threat of more to come, the Freedom Riders wanted to continue their journey. Kennedy had arranged an escort for the Riders in order to get them to Montgomery, Alabama safely. However, radio reports told of the mob awaiting the riders at the bus terminal, as well as on the route to Montgomery. The Greyhound clerks told the Riders that their drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. Recognizing that their efforts had already called national attention to the civil rights cause and wanting to make the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham. When they first boarded the plane, all passengers had to exit because of a bomb threat.
Diane Nash, a Nashville college student and SNCC leader, believed that if Southern violence were allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years. She pushed to find replacements to resume the rides. On May 17, a new set of riders, 10 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, saying, “I just couldn’t stand their singing.” They immediately returned to Birmingham.
Mob violence in Montgomery
Freedom Riders in answer to 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 mob, the riders waited all night for a bus.
Under intense public pressure from the Kennedy administration, Greyhound was forced to provide a driver. After direct intervention by Byron White of the Attorney General’s office, Alabama Governor John Patterson reluctantly promised to protect the bus from KKK mobs and snipers on the road between Birmingham and Montgomery. On the morning of May 20, the Freedom Ride resumed, with the bus carrying the riders traveling toward Montgomery at 90 miles an hour, protected by a contingent of the Alabama State Highway Patrol.
The Highway Patrol abandoned the bus and riders at the Montgomery city limits. At the bus station on South Court Street, a white mob awaited. They beat the Freedom Riders with baseball bats and iron pipes. The local police allowed the beatings to go on uninterrupted. Again, white Freedom Riders were singled out for particularly brutal beatings. Reporters and news photographers were attacked first and their cameras destroyed, but one reporter took a photo later of Jim Zwerg in the hospital, showing how he was beaten and bruised. Seigenthaler, a Justice Department official, 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.
On the following night, Sunday, May 21, more than 1500 people packed Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church to honor the Freedom Riders. Among the speakers were Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was newly based in Montgomery, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Farmer. Outside, a mob of more than 3,000 whites attacked blacks, with a handful of the United States Marshals Service protecting the church from assault and fire bombs. With city and state police making no effort to restore order, the civil rights leaders appealed to the president for protection. President Kennedy threatened the governor to intervene with federal troops if he would not protect the people. Governor Patterson forestalled that by finally ordering the Alabama National Guard to disperse the mob, and the Guard reached the church in the early morning.
In a commemorative Op-Ed piece in 2011, Bernard Lafayette remembered the mob breaking windows of the church with rocks and setting off tear gas canisters. He recounted heroic action by King. After learning that black taxi drivers were arming and forming a group to rescue the people inside, he worried that more violence would result. He selected ten volunteers, who promised non-violence, to escort him through the white mob, which parted to let King and his escorts pass as they marched two by two. King went out to the black drivers and asked them to disperse, to prevent more violence. King and his escorts formally made their way back inside the church, unmolested. Lafayette also was interviewed by BBC in 2011 and told about these events in an episode broadcast on radio 31 August 2011 in commemoration of the Freedom Rides. The Alabama National Guard finally arrived in the early morning to disperse the mob and safely escorted all the people from the church.
To read more on the Freedom Riders, please visit the Wikipedia website at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_riders
- ^ 364 U.S.
- ^ 328 U.S. 373 (1946); also “Morgan v. Virginia”. Law.cornell.edu. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0328_0373_ZS.html. Retrieved 2011-12-12.
- ^ “The Freedom Rides”. Congress of Racial Equality. http://www.core-online.org/History/freedom%20rides.htm. Retrieved 20 March 2011.
- ^ “1961 Freedom Rides Map”, Library of Congress
- ^ “Journey of Reconciliation”. Spartacus Educational. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAjor.htm. Retrieved 2008-04-29.
- ^ FReedom Riders Freedom Rider, PBS.
- ^ “Civil rights rider keeps fight alive”. Star-News: pp. 4A. 30 June 1983. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=_8ksAAAAIBAJ&sjid=fhMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6956,6893063&dq=james-peck+civil+rights&hl=en. Retrieved 10 April 2010.
- ^ a b c d “”Freedom Riders,” WGBH American Experience”. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/watch. Retrieved 2011-12-12.
- ^ a b c d e “Get On the Bus: The Freedom Riders of 1961”. NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5149667. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
- ^ Photo of a Greyhound bus firebombed by a mob in Anniston, Alabama. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
- ^ Taylor Branch, Chapter 11 (“Baptism on Wheels”, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years
- ^ a b c d e f g h i Freedom Rides ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans.
- ^ Photo of James Peck after being attacked in Birmingham, Alabama, University of California. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
- ^ Arsenault, Raymond (2006). Freedom riders: 1961 and the struggle for racial justice. Oxford UP. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-19-513674-6. http://books.google.com/books?id=AeU-m7YHL6oC&pg=PT174.
- ^ Branch, Taylor (1989). Parting the Waters: America in the King years, 1954-63. Simon and Schuster. p. 423. ISBN 978-0-671-68742-7.
- ^ Joan Biskupic (2002-04-15). Ex-Supreme Court Justice Byron White dies. USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002/04/15/white-obit.htm. Retrieved 2008-10-20.
- ^ Photo of Jim Zwerg in the hospital, beaten and bruised. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
- ^ BERNARD LAFAYETTE Jr., “The Siege of the Freedom Riders”, Opinion page, New York Times, 19 May 2011, carried at blog for Baltimore Nonviolence Center, accessed 24 February 2012