The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 and the following years to protest the failure of upholding the United States Supreme Court decisions Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960). Both decisions ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.
Boynton, a graduate of Howard University School of Law in Washington, prohibited racial segregation in restaurants and waiting rooms at terminals serving interstate buses. Five years before the Boynton decision, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) released a decision in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company (1955) that condemned the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) concept of separate but equal in interstate bus travel. The Interstate Commerce Commission refused to uphold its decision and the Jim Crow travel laws, which enforced racial segregation, remained in effect throughout the South.
The Freedom Riders challenged this status quo by boarding interstate buses in mixed racial communities throughout the South to challenge local rules or customs that upheld seating segregation. The Freedom Rides, as well as the aggressive responses they evoked, increased the reputation of the American Civil Rights Movement.
They drew public attention to the disrespect for federal law and the use of local brutality to impose segregation in the South. Riders were jailed for trespassing, illegal gathering, breaking state and local Jim Crow laws, and other alleged crimes, but often they first let white mobs attack them without resistance.
Most of the Freedom Rides were sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), while others were organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Beginning in 1960, the Freedom Rides were inspired by dramatic sit-ins against segregated lunch counters organized by students and teenagers throughout the South, as well as boycotts of retail stores that retained segregated services.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton upheld interstate travelers’ right to ignore municipal segregation ordinances. However, the Freedom Riders’ activities were deemed illegal by local and state authorities in the South, and they were arrested in several cities.
In certain areas, such as Birmingham, Alabama, police worked with Ku Klux Klan chapters and other white citizens who were opposed to the acts, allowing crowds to target the riders.
The Freedom Riders were inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, which was led by Bayard Rustin and George Houser while being co-sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The Journey to Reconciliation, like the Freedom Rides of 1961, was meant to test an earlier Supreme Court decision that prohibited racial segregation in interstate travel. Rustin, Igal Roodenko, Joe Felmet, and Andrew Johnson were arrested and sentenced in North Carolina to work on a chain gang for breaking local Jim Crow laws surrounding segregated seating on public transit.
On May 4, 1961, the first party of 13 Freedom Riders—seven African Americans and six whites—left Washington, D.C. on a Greyhound bus. They intended to arrive in New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to mark the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which found that segregation in the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.
Many of the Riders were funded by CORE and SNCC, with 75% of the Riders being between the ages of 18 and 30. A large group of volunteers coming from 39 states were from various ethnic groups. Most were college students who had undergone training of nonviolent methods.
The party passed through Virginia and North Carolina with little public attention. On May 12th , a violent incident occurred in Rock Hill, South Carolina. When they tried to reach a whites-only waiting room, John Lewis, an African American member of SNCC, Albert Bigelow, a white Freedom Rider and World War II veteran, and another Black rider were brutally assaulted. Over 300 Riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina; Winnsboro, South Carolina; and Jackson, Mississippi.
The next day, the party arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, where some of the riders dispersed onto a Trailways bus.
“Did you know that?”
In November 1986, John Lewis, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Lewis, a Democrat, served as the representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which included Atlant,a until he died in 2020.
The Freedom Riders Face Bloodshed In Anniston And Birmingham
Bull Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, and Sergeant Tom Cook (an enthusiastic Ku Klux Klan supporter) organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local Klan chapters.
The two decided to finish the Ride in Alabama. They promised Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informant and member of the Eastview Klavern #13 (Alabama’s most violent Klan group), that the mob will have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without being arrested.
The strategy was for an initial attack in Anniston, followed by a final assault in Birmingham.
On Mother’s Day, May 14, in Anniston, Alabama, a group of Klansmen, some still dressed in church clothes, attacked the first of two Greyhound buses. The driver attempted to escape the station but was blocked by KKK members who burned the bus tires. The crowd ordered the disabled bus to stop several miles outside of town before throwing a firebomb at it.
The mob held the bus doors shut as they burned, intending to burn the riders to death. According to sources, either an explosive fuel tank or an undercover state agent brandishing a gun forced the crowd to run, and the riders escaped the bus.
The Freedom Riders escaped the burning bus, only to be violently beaten by members of the surrounding crowd.
The only thing that kept the riders from being lynched were warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen. In 2017, the Freedom Riders National Monument included the Anniston roadside memorial and the downtown Greyhound station.
Some of the riders who were wounded were admitted to Anniston Memorial Hospital. The injured Freedom Riders, the majority of which had been denied treatment, were removed from the facility at 2 a.m. that night because the staff was afraid of the crowd outside.
Amidst protest of white nationalists, local civil rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth gathered many cars of Black people to save the wounded Freedom Riders. The Black people arrived at the hospital openly armed, led by Colonel Stone Johnson, to shield the Freedom Riders from the crowd.
As the Trailways bus arrived in Anniston an hour after the Greyhound bus was destroyed, it was boarded by eight Klansmen. They thrashed the Freedom Riders and left them in the back of the truck, semi-conscious.
When the bus arrived in Birmingham, it was attacked by a group of KKK members, who were helped and abetted by police acting on Commissioner Bull Connor’s instructions. The passengers were beaten with baseball bats, iron pipes, and bicycle chains when they left the bus.
Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informant, was among the Klansmen who attacked. White Freedom Riders were singled out for particularly severe beatings; James Peck’s head wounds took more than 50 stitches. Peck was admitted to Carraway Methodist Medical Center, but they declined to treat him. He was eventually treated at Jefferson Hillman Hospital.
When news of the bus burnings and beatings reached US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (President John F. Kennedy’s brother), he encouraged the Freedom Riders to take precautions and sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Alabama to attempt and settle the situation.
Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor claimed that, despite knowing the Freedom Riders were on their way and that abuse awaited them, he did not post any police cover at the station because it was Mother’s Day.
The next day, photographs of the burning Greyhound bus and its bloodied passengers appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the country and the world, attracting public attention to the Freedom Riders’ cause and the state of race relations in the United States.
Following the widespread brutality, CORE authorities were unable to find a bus driver willing to move the mixed community, so the Freedom Rides were canceled. Later Diane Nash, an SNCC activist, gathered a group of ten students from Nashville, Tennessee, to resume the rides.
US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy started working with Alabama Governor John Patterson and bus firms to secure a driver and state security for the emerging party of Freedom Riders. On May 20, the rides finally resumed on a Greyhound bus departing Birmingham under police escort.
The Federal Marshals Were Summoned
The police could not stop the abuse against the Freedom Riders. Rather, they left the bus as it arrived at Montgomery, where a white mob beat the riders with baseball bats and clubs.
The next night, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. led a service at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church, which was attended by over a thousand Freedom Riders supporters. A riot broke out outside the chapel, prompting King to call Robert F. Kennedy to request security. Kennedy called federal marshals, who dispersed the white crowd with tear gas. Patterson proclaimed martial law in the city and called in the National Guard to restore order.
Kennedy Requests A “Cooling Down” Period
A party of Freedom Riders left Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi on May 24, 1961. Hundreds of fans greeted the riders there. Many that tried to use the whites-only services, on the other hand, were arrested for trespassing and transferred to the maximum-security penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.
On the same day, US Attorney General Kennedy released a statement calling for a “cooling down” time in the face of the escalating violence:
“A very difficult condition exists now in the states of Mississippi and Alabama. Besides the groups of ‘Freedom Riders’ traveling through these states, there are curiosity seekers, publicity seekers, and others who are seeking to serve their causes, as well as many persons who are traveling because they must use the interstate carriers to reach their destination.
In this confusing situation, there is an increasing possibility that innocent persons may be injured. A mob asks no questions.
A cooling-off period is needed. It would be wise for those traveling through these two Sites to delay their trips until the present state of confusion and danger has passed and an atmosphere of reason and normalcy has been restored.”
During the Mississippi hearings, the judge turned and stared at the wall rather than listen to the Freedom Riders’ defense, as had been the case when sit-in protesters were arrested in Tennessee for protesting segregated lunch counters. He sentenced the riders to 30 days in jail.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights group, appealed the charges to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned them.
Legacy And Resolution
By September, it had been more than three months since Robert Kennedy filed the petition. Leaders of CORE and SNCC made preliminary preparations for a mass demonstration known as the “Washington Project.” This would bring hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed protesters to the nation’s capital to put pressure on the ICC and the Kennedy administration.
The plan was halted when the ICC released the requisite orders just before the end of the month. The revised policies went into effect on November 1, 1961, six years after the ruling in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company.
Passengers were allowed to sit anywhere they wanted on interstate buses and trains after the new ICC law came into effect; “white” and “brown” signs were eliminated from terminals; racially segregated drinking fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms servicing interstate customers were consolidated; and lunch counters started serving all customers, regardless of race.
The mass brutality sparked by the Freedom Rides shocked American society. People became concerned that the Rides would cause mass civil unrest and ethnic divisions, an opinion that was promoted and reinforced in many areas by the public.
The press in white communities opposed CORE’s direct-action strategy, while others in the national press described the Riders as inciting unrest.
Around the same time, the Freedom Rides gained widespread acceptance from both Black and white Americans, inspiring many to take direct action for civil rights. Perhaps most importantly, the deeds of the Freedom Riders from the North, who risked their lives on behalf of southern Black citizens, impressed and motivated many Black people living in rural areas around the South.
They became the backbone of the larger Civil Rights Movement, participating in voter registration and other events. Southern Black activists often gathered around their churches, which served as the focal point of their families and a source of moral strength.
The Freedom Riders influenced civil rights movements such as voter registration in the South, freedom schools, and the Black Power movement. Many Black Southerners were reluctant to register to vote at the time due to state constitutions, rules, and policies that had essentially disfranchised most of them since the turn of the twentieth century.
For example, white officials supervised reading comprehension and literacy exams that many highly trained Black people were unable to pass.