Freedom Rides (1961)
The Freedom Rides of 1961 were interstate bus rides, initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), that attempted to enforce new federal desegregation travel laws mandated by the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia. This ruling declared unconstitutional the segregation of bus and train station facilities (e.g., restrooms, waiting rooms, restaurants), extending a 1946 Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in interstate bus travel (Morgan v. Virginia). The latter decision was tested by an interracial group of 16 activists who traveled through the Upper South on interstate trains and buses in 1947. Using the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation as a model, James Farmer, CORE's national director, stated, “Our intention was to provoke southern authorities into arresting us and thereby prod the Justice Department into enforcing the law of the land … We were counting on the bigots in the South to do our work for us.” Farmer was
confident that legal battles alone would not defeat Jim Crow. Inspired by the nonviolent direct action of the student sit-in movement, he and his fellow Freedom Riders were determined to create a crisis that revealed the extent to which southern states disobeyed desegregation laws, and subsequently force the federal government to act.
On May 4, 1961, an interracial group of 13 Riders boarded a Greyhound and a Trailways bus, and began their journey from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. During the journey, black riders sat in the front of the bus, and white riders sat in the back. At each stop, black riders used whites-only drinking fountains, bathrooms, and restaurant seating in terminals; white riders used blacks-only accommodations. The riders traveled through Virginia and North Carolina without incident. However, at the Greyhound station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had their first encounter with violence. When John Lewis, a future U.S. congressman, and Albert Bigelow, an elderly white pacifist, attempted to access the whites-only waiting room, they were beaten by a group of young white men. Eventually, police officers intervened, without arresting the assailants, and Lewis and Bigelow were allowed to enter the waiting room. The activists then continued through Georgia without incident.
When the Greyhound bus arrived in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, it was surrounded by an angry white mob wielding tire irons, clubs, and chains. As the bus retreated, they smashed windows and slashed tires. Six miles outside of Anniston, the bus's tires blew out. Again the mob, which had followed in cars, surrounded the bus. A firebomb was thrown through a window. Although the riders escaped before the bus burst into flames, they were beaten by the mob as they exited. Injured activists were denied treatment at a local hospital. An hour later, the Trailways bus arrived in Anniston. Several whites boarded the bus and forced the black riders to the back with kicks and punches. Beaten to the floor, Walter Bergman, a 61-year-old retired teacher, was left with permanent brain damage. The riders were determined to continue.
When the Trailways bus arrived in Birmingham, a mob of approximately 40 whites was waiting. Despite warnings that there would be trouble, not a single police official was present. Police Commissioner T. Eugene “Bull” O'Connor had informed the mob that they had 15 minutes to do as they please with the Freedom Riders. A savage beating of the activists ensued. One witness declared, “Doggone, it looks like there has been a hog killing on this bus!” The activists wanted to continue to Montgomery, but no bus line would accept them. Not only were the riders stranded, but the governor of Alabama admonished them to get out of the state “as quickly as possible.” To avoid further violence, the Justice Department arranged for a special flight to take them to New Orleans. On May 17, the CORE-initiated Freedom Ride ended.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders in Atlanta and Nashville were determined to continue the Freedom Ride. For the rest of the summer, activists subjected themselves to arrest and physical violence, creating an international spectacle that illustrated the pervasiveness of Jim Crow in the Deep South. By filling jails and creating a crisis, the Freedom Riders were successful in forcing the government to act. On September 22, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) mandated that interstate carriers and terminals must display signs stating that seating “is without regard to race, color, creed or national origin.” This mandate went into effect on November 1, 1961.
Catsam, Derek. Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.
Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954–1980. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.