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 5, 1961. Led by CORE Director James Farmer, 13 riders (seven black, six white) left Washington, D.C., 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.
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 (seats usually reserved for white customers only), while the rest would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would abide by the South's segregation ideals 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, and some of the Riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Winnsboro, South Carolina.
Violence in Alabama was organized by Birmingham Police Sergeant Tom Cook (an avid Ku Klux Klan supporter) and police commissioner Bull Connor. 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 final plan laid out an initial assault in Anniston with a final assault taking place in Birmingham.
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. Sources disagree, but either an exploding fuel tank or a rider brandishing a revolver 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 removed from 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 Anniston and pulled in at the terminal an hour after the Greyhound bus was burned, it was boarded by eight Klansmen, who proceeded to beat the Freedom Riders and afterwards left them semi-conscious in the back of the bus. When the bus arrived in Birmingham, it too was attacked by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members, aided and abetted by the police under the orders of Commissioner 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; 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 and sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Alabama to try to calm the situation.
Despite the violence suffered already and the threat of more to come, the Freedom Riders desired to continue their journey. Kennedy had arranged an escort for the Riders in order to get them to Montgomery 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 also informed them that their drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. The Riders agreed that their efforts had already called great attention to the civil rights cause and that if they encountered any more delays, then they would miss the rally in New Orleans. Taking all this into consideration, the Riders decided that their best option was to abandon the rest of the Ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham.
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 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, 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 traveling 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 on South Court Street, a white mob awaited and 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 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.
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 Martin Luther King, Jr., 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, President Kennedy threatened to commit federal troops, but Governor Patterson forestalled that by ordering the Alabama National Guard to disperse the mob.
On 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 the hospital. Behind the scenes, the Kennedy administration arranged a deal with the governors of Alabama and Mississippi. The governors agreed that state police and the 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 the 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, Gaylord Brewster Noyce, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, and others were similarly arrested for violating local segregation ordinances.
This established a pattern followed by subsequent Freedom Rides, most of which 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.
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 had 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 16, 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.
On May 29, 1961, bowing to the demands of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, as well as international outrage, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, in an unorthodox legal maneuver, sent a petition to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to comply with a bus-desegregation ruling it had issued in November, 1955, Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. That ruling had explicitly repudiated separate but equal in the realm of interstate bus travel, but, under the chairmanship of South Carolina Democrat J. Monroe Johnson, the ICC had failed to enforce its own ruling.
In September 1961, bowing to pressure from the Attorney General and the civil rights movement, the ICC issued the necessary orders, and the new policies went into effect on November 1, 1961, a full six years after the ruling in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. 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.
Yet, the Freedom Rides sent shock waves through American society. People worried that the Rides were evoking widespread social disorder and racial divergence. This attitude was supported and strengthened in many communities by the press. The press in white communities condemned the direct action approach CORE was taking, while the national press negatively portrayed the Riders.
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