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Freedom Rides (21739 hits)

Freedom Rides

Background and Summary

Civil rights activists called “freedom riders” rode on interstate buses around the segregated South on “freedom rides” to test results of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia from 1960.  In that case, the Court sided with Boynton and mandated all interstate facilities were allowed to be used by any citizen regardless of their ethnicity.

The first freedom ride left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. But riders were arrested for trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating state and local Jim Crow laws. Most of the subsequent rides were sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The freedom rides followed on the heels of dramatic "sit-ins" and boycotts against segregated restaurants and the like, which were conducted by students and youth throughout the South.

The concept of freedom rides was based on the 1947 “Journey of Reconciliation” campaign, led by civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Like the freedom rides, 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, were arrested for violating Jim Crow laws dealing with public transportation, and were sentenced to serve on a chain gang in North Carolina.

Arguably, the riders did not engage in civil disobedience since they had a legal right to disregard segregation laws concerning interstate transportation facilities in the states they visited. However, even after Boynton v. Virginia, their rights weren’t enforced and the rides were considered criminal acts throughout most of the South. In fact, upon the riders' arrival in Mississippi, their journey ended with imprisonment for exercising their legal rights pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Boynton v. Virginia. Despite this decision, the prevailing enforcement patterns and local judicial decisions in the South meant that local and state governments regarded the riders' actions as unlawful. Most importantly, riders had to rely on non-violent resistance in facing both mob violence and mass arrest by authorities determined to stop their protests. Freedom riders faced much resistance against their cause but ultimately received strong support from both Southerners and citizens not living in the South.

Physical Opposition Aided by Police

The worst violence that occurred during the Freedom Rides arose after the buses entered Alabama. In Anniston, Ala., a mob attacked one of the buses and slashed the tires. Several miles outside of Anniston, when the crippled bus had to stop, it was firebombed by the mob that had been following it in cars. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut as the people were intent on burning the riders to death. An undercover law enforcement officer finally drew his gun and forced the doors to be opened. Still, the riders were viciously beaten while they tried to flee the burning bus.

When the Trailways bus reached Birmingham, Ala., another group of freedom riders were mercilessly beaten by Ku Klux Klan members, aided and abetted by the police, under the orders of Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. When these freedom riders exited the bus, they were beaten baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains by people in the awaiting mob. Among the Klansmen attacking the riders was FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe. White freedom riders were particularly singled out for frenzied beatings. Two riders were hospitalized, including freedom rider Jim Peck, who required 52 stitches to close the wounds in his head.

That night, the hospitalized freedom riders were dismissed early from the hospital, at 2 a.m., because the staff feared the mob that had congregated outside the hospital. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars full of people to penetrate the mob in order to safely rescue the injured freedom riders from the hospital. With most of the freedom riders injured, and the danger of the violence escalating to homicide, it was suggested that the freedom rides be discontinued. Following the serious beatings and hospitalizations, most of the original freedom riders flew to New Orleans to attend a previously scheduled rally.

Enduring the Atrocities

Nashville, Tenn., student Diane Nash, a leader in the SNCC, 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 17th a new set of riders, students from Nashville, took a bus to Birmingham where they were arrested by
Bull Connor and jailed. These students kept their spirits up while incarcerated by singing “freedom songs.” Out of frustration, Police Chief Connor drove them back up to the Tennessee line and dropped them off, stating, "I just couldn't stand their singing." When reports of the bus-burning and beatings reached U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he urged restraint on the part of freedom riders. He sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Montgomery, Ala., to observe the freedom riders' arrival there.

On May 21, 1961, a fresh set of freedom riders who answered SNCC's call for reinforcements joined with some of the original group of freedom riders. They headed from Birmingham, Ala., to Montgomery, protected by a contingent of the Alabama State Highway Patrol. However, the Highway Patrol abandoned them when they reached the Montgomery city limits. A large mob of White people was waiting at the bus station and brutally beat the freedom riders with baseball bats and iron pipes. The local police allowed the beatings to go on uninterrupted. Once again, White freedom riders, branded "N***r Lovers," were singled out for particularly nasty beatings. Government official Seigenthaler was also beaten and left lying unconscious in the street. Ambulances even refused to take the wounded to the hospital, so local Blacks rescued them, and finally, a number of the freedom riders were hospitalized as needed.

 Sadly, Nash saw once more that the freedom ride movement was on the verge of falling through, and she sent out another call for more activists to resume the rides. Both Blacks and Whites went to Montgomery to join the freedom rides. A pattern was established in which they would ride buses to Jackson, Miss., where they would be arrested and jailed. The strategy became one of trying to fill the jails. Once the Jackson City and Hinds County jails were filled to capacity, freedom riders were transferred to Parchman Penitentiary or "Parchman Farm." There, abusive treatment included: placement in the maximum security units and death row, issuance no clothing other than underwear, no exercise, no mail and, when the riders refused to stop singing freedom songs, they took away mattresses, sheets and toothbrushes. Wardens also removed the screens from their windows, and when the cell block became filled with mosquitoes, they hosed all the riders down with DDT pesticides at in the middle of the night.

Mission Accomplished

During their journey, the original group of 13 freedom riders grew to almost 450. The freedom rides established great credibility between Blacks and Whites throughout the country, as people of all colors became motivated to engage in direct action for civil rights. Perhaps most significantly, freedom riders 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 such as voter registration, freedom schools and the Black Power Movement.

During the summer of 1961, freedom riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together in segregated restaurants, at lunch counters and in hotels. This was especially effective when it targeted large companies who, fearing boycotts in the North, began to desegregate their businesses. Attorney General Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The organization was reluctant, but in September of 1961, ICC issued the necessary orders and these new policies went into effect on November 3, 1961.

Notable freedom riders of 1961 included: Diane Nash, James L. Farmer, William Mahoney, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, James Peck, George Bundy Smith, Frederick Leonard and William Sloane Coffin, among others, totaling 436. About 75 percent were male, and that same percentage was under the age of 30; this was evenly divided between Black and White.


Sources:;  Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford University Press, 2006; David Fankhauser, FREEDOM RIDES: Recollections by David Fankhauser;

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Thursday, January 31st 2008 at 12:27PM
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its hard to belive blacks and whites work so well together to fight for a unjust
now days they just view us as monster of the world

Thursday, January 13th 2011 at 5:57PM
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