Initially organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1961, the Freedom Rides were trips made by interracial groups riding throughout the South on buses. Freedom Rides attempted to galvanize the U.S. Justice Department into enforcing federal desegregation laws in interstate travel, especially in bus and train terminals. White riders sat on the back of the bus, and black riders on the front, challenging long-standing southern racist transportation practices. Once at the terminal, white Freedom Riders proceeded to the "black" waiting room, while blacks attempted to use the facilities in the "white" waiting room.
Freedom Rides were a continuation of the student-led sit-in movement that was sparked in February 1, 1960, by four African-American college freshmen in Greensboro, North Carolina. When these students remained at a Wool-worth's lunch counter after being refused service, they inspired hundreds of similar nonviolent student demonstrations. Essentially, Freedom Rides took the tradition of sitins on the road.
The idea for the 1961 Freedom Rides was conceived by Tom Gaither, a black man, and Gordon Carvey, a white man, who were field secretaries of CORE. In light of the 1960 Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court judgment that banned segregation in bus and train terminals, Gaither and Carvey decided that compliance with the law should be gauged. The two activists were also inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. Motivated by another Supreme Court ruling, the Journey of Reconciliation was made by an interracial group of sixteen activists that traveled through the South to test Morgan v. Virginia, the 1946 federal case that resulted in the legal ban of segregation on interstate buses and trains. In the spirit of the Journey of Reconciliation, CORE began organizing and planning for the first Freedom Rides.
In early 1961, CORE, headed by its director and cofounder, James Farmer (1920–1999), began carefully selecting the thirteen original Freedom Riders. The chosen group comprised seven blacks and six whites, from college students to civil rights veterans, including a Journey of Reconciliation participant, the white activist James Peck. The journey for the riders began on May 4 from Washington D.C. to Atlanta, Georgia, on two buses. The plan was to continue through Alabama, Mississippi, and finally to New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 for a desegregation rally.
The first episode of violence occurred in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where twenty-one-year old John Lewis (b. 1940), the future Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) national chairman and U.S. congressman, and Albert Bigelow, an elderly white pacifist, were knocked unconscious by young white men. On May 14, 1961, the Freedom Riders boarded a Greyhound bus and a Trailways bus in Atlanta and headed for Birmingham, Alabama. The Trailways bus met six Ku Klux Klansmen in Anniston, Alabama, who threw the African Americans into seats in the back of the bus and hit two white riders on the head. In Birmingham, the bus encountered about twenty men with pipes who beat the riders when they disembarked.
In Anniston, the Greyhound bus faced two hundred angry whites. The bus retreated, but its tires were slashed. Once the tires blew out, a firebomb was tossed into the bus. The riders managed to escape before the bus went up in flames. The following day, another mob prevented the Freedom Riders from boarding a bus in Birmingham. With the help of John Seigenthaler, Attorney General Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant, the riders took a plane to New Orleans instead. The bus journey was continued under the leadership of SNCC, with the coordination efforts of SNCC members Diane Nash and John Lewis.
The Birmingham police commissioner, "Bull" Connor, used many tactics, including incarceration, to try to stop the students, but to no avail. Finally, the governor of Alabama, John Patterson, very reluctantly promised Robert Kennedy to protect the riders. As the new Freedom Riders left for Montgomery on May 20, 1961, it appeared that Governor Patterson had kept his word. However, by the time the bus arrived in Montgomery, all forms of police protection had disappeared. A mob of over one thousand whites viciously attacked the riders and Seigenthaler.
On May 24, twenty-seven determined Freedom Riders, with the protection of National Guardsmen, headed for Jackson, Mississippi. In Mississippi, they were arrested and jailed for sixty days. A new group of riders came to Jackson, and they were also arrested. Eventually, 328 Freedom Riders were incarcerated in Jackson. As per their philosophy, the riders chose jail over bail.
The Freedom Rides brought international attention to the southern struggle for desegregation, which put pressure on the authorities. Finally, on November 1, 1961, a huge victory for the Freedom Riders and all integrationists was won when the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) made segregated travel facilities illegal.
Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
Meier August, and Elliot Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Peck, James. Freedom Ride. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962.
Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.
JESSICA L. GRAHAM (2001)