The Freedom Riders was an activist group that was formed in the midst of the civil rights movement to protest the segregation of both southern buses and terminal facilities. Throughout the summer of 1961, the group mobilized white and black activists to test a recent Supreme Court ruling (Boynton v. Virginia) that outlawed discrimination in interstate transit. The Freedom Riders quickly captured national attention in May 1961 when 13 members (seven black and six white) of the group filed onto two south-bound buses in Washington, DC. The riders encountered staunch opposition from local whites in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, leaving the group unable to reach their intended destination: New Orleans, Louisiana. Fellow activists quickly rallied behind the riders, and the Freedom Rides (as they came to be known) continued throughout the summer.
Established in May 1961 by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the most influential activist groups of the civil rights movement, the Freedom Riders’ goal was to draw attention to the South's blatant disregard of basic constitutional rights. CORE National Director James Farmer explained that the group was created to continue the momentum of the sit-ins “by ‘putting the movement on wheels’” (Anderson 51 ). Subsequently, CORE officials devised the Journey of Reconciliation (later renamed the Freedom Rides), a plan to send groups of integrated riders throughout the South on both the Greyhound and Trailways bus lines. Riders were to board the buses at Washington, DC, tour the South, and conclude their expedition in New Orleans, Louisiana. Black riders would sit in the front of the buses, with their white counterparts riding in the back. Likewise, white participants were instructed to use rest-stop facilities (waiting rooms, restrooms, restaurants, etc.) that were designated for blacks while black riders were directed to use white-only amenities. Initial volunteers were fully aware of the dangers that were associated with such an ambitious plan and sought to channel the anticipated racism into an emergency situation that would force the Kennedy administration to intervene on their behalf.
The Freedom Riders’ first major exhibition was scheduled for early May 1961. On Thursday, May 4, 13 integrated riders assembled in Washington, DC, and
boarded two buses (one operated by Greyhound, the other by Trailways) bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. The riders departed the District of Columbia bus terminal amid a flurry of newspapermen and photographers, who had been summoned by Director Farmer to guarantee adequate media exposure for the group. The journey through Virginia and North Carolina was relatively uneventful. The events that occurred in Rock Hill, South Carolina, however, eerily foreshadowed the troubling circumstances that the group would soon face. John Lewis, a black activist involved in the Nashville student movement, and another Freedom Rider were knocked to the ground inside the local Rock Hill bus terminal while attempting to use the white waiting room. The two men escaped unscathed, and the group continued their journey throughout South Carolina and Georgia. The situation became increasingly perilous when the first bus entered Anniston, Alabama. There, the Freedom Riders were met by an angry mob of 200 whites that lacerated the tires of the bus and hurled stones at it. The driver of the bus successfully navigated through the angry mob, but the bus was quickly overtaken just outside of town. The bus was set ablaze, and the Freedom Riders were severely beaten with clubs and blackjacks. When the second bus arrived in Anniston, the riders were similarly victimized but decided to continue on to Birmingham, Alabama.
When the bus pulled into the Birmingham terminal, the riders were again met by an angry mob. Despite the fact that the local police headquarters was only two blocks away from the station, no officers came to aid the Freedom Riders. Local police officials claimed that (because it was Mother's Day) most of the officers had been home with their mothers during the melee. Ten minutes passed before officers arrived on the scene, leaving the mob ample time to escape in waiting automobiles. Despite the incident, the Freedom Riders wanted to continue on towards Montgomery, Jackson, and New Orleans. However, Alabama Governor John Patterson warned the riders to leave the state, and the Justice Department promptly arranged a flight. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)–affiliated students from Nashville vowed to complete the original itinerary, and the Freedom Rides continued throughout the summer. By September 1961, a demoralized Kennedy administration instructed the Interstate Commerce Commission to take legal action against any form of segregation in interstate bus transit. The Freedom Riders played a significant role in the civil rights movement, and their actions underscored a continued devotion to nonviolent protest.
Christopher Lewis Leadingham
See also: Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) ; Interstate Commerce Act (ICA) (1887) ; King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929–1968)
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