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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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The Freedom Rides

1961

"Segregation must be stopped... we'll take hitting, we'll take beating. We're willing to accept death. But we're going to keep coming..."
—Jim Zwerg, Freedom Rider

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After the 1960 presidential election, civil rights activists pressure the Kennedy administration to support their cause and existing laws. The Supreme Court has banned segregation in interstate travel twice, but Southern states widely ignore the rulings. In May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality sends mixed-race groups of non-violent volunteers, known as Freedom Riders, on bus trips into Dixie. They meet minor resistance in the upper South, but when they get to Alabama trouble erupts. Segregationists firebomb a bus in Anniston, Alabama, and Klan members attack the passengers as they disembark in Birmingham.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy tries to protect the Riders, telling Governor John Patterson he will send Federal troops if the state can't maintain law and order. On the next leg of the trip, from Birmingham to Montgomery, the promised state police escorts evaporate. The Riders are assaulted and bloodied when they arrive in Martin Luther King's home town. As the violence rages, Kennedy calls in U.S. marshals, and ultimately Patterson is forced to dispatch the Alabama National Guard as well.

When the riders continue into Mississippi under protection, they encounter heavy police presence and no violence -- but they are arrested in Jackson and sentenced to the maximum-security Parchman Penitentiary for trespassing. CORE sends more riders to the South to keep the protest going. Over the course of the next few months, 300 riders are arrested and sentenced in Mississippi. The activists find camaraderie in Parchman, singing freedom songs and providing mutual support. Ultimately, the Freedom Riders win their battle when Kennedy gets the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in interstate travel.

Context

Other Events: 1961

In his farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower warns against a growing military-industrial complex.

Ray Kroc founds the McDonald's restaurant chain. The U.S. minimum wage is $1.25.

At his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy declares, "Ask not what you country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Kennedy's popular wife, Jacqueline, projects a new American style, with pillbox hats and a beehive hairdo.

Paul Newman stars in the movie "The Hustler"; ABC's "Wide World of Sports" debuts. Joseph Heller wins acclaim for his anti-war book Catch-22.

An American plot to invade Cuba and overthrow Communist leader Fidel Castro goes wrong at the Bay of Pigs.

Langston Hughes publishes the book-length poem "Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz."

Press

The Washington Post, May 16, 1961

Editorial: Darkest Alabama

Alabama calls itself, presumably with pride, the "heart of Dixie" -- which must mean that it cherishes the traditions of the old South, chivalry, hospitality, kindness. But some of its citizens showed precious little understanding of those traditions on Sunday when they burned and stoned two buses, one in Birmingham and the other just outside of Anniston...

...The "Freedom Riders" engaged in no disorderly conduct and did nothing to provoke violence -- save to exercise a constitutional right. The police dispersed the crowds after one of the buses had been destroyed by fire and after several of the passengers had been injured. But no arrests were made...

...The plain fact is that Americans cannot be assured in Alabama of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment...

The Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1961

Editorial: The Alabama Riots

...Two hundred more deputy marshals have now been sent to Montgomery. We hope that the grievously misguided governor of Alabama will not try to use his militia as a counter to the federal government's men. If that should be attempted, President Kennedy will have to do, as President Eisenhower did in Little Rock: order the militia into federal service to take it away from the governor...

...Altho the freedom riders were likely to give offense to many people in Alabama and knew it when they boarded their buses, the trips were lawful, the riders conducted themselves peaceably, and no statute of the state of Alabama that would have forbidden the trip is valid. The federal law in these matters is supreme, as the governor well knows, and it is his sworn duty to enforce it...

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 31, 1961

Letter to the Editor: Plenty of Nerve

The psychology behind the so-called "freedom riders" completely escapes me. The United States has been "preaching" for 15 years that non-intervention is the thing. The "freedom riders" are intervening in the internal affairs of a state... What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Non-intervention in Cuba, non-intervention in Alabama.

I think we look pretty silly, typpytoeing [sic] around Castro and throwing the federal weight around in Montgomery. My, my, this big country; afraid of its own shadow around the whole world, but with plenty of nerve to come into a state and tell the officials of that state exactly how to conduct their duties... I would leave the South to solve its own racial problems.

P. W. P.

The New York Times, June 4, 1961

Editorial: Injunction in Alabama

...The Freedom Riders ought not to be enjoined by the courts from exercising their Constitutional rights. But, as we have urged before, the Freedom Riders should realize they have made their point and voluntarily cease their activities for a period during which the passions aroused by their recent efforts may subside. A similar position on this issue was taken last week by the Southern Regional Council, which is composed of both white and Negro liberals. The Council is entirely correct in advocating that the advantages gained be not pressed too far.

The issue of desegregation can ultimately be solved only in the South and primarily by Southerners, white and Negro. Neither violence nor the steadily insistent provocation of violence can bring about the solution...

Music

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round
Songwriter: Traditional, adapted by the Albany Movement
Performed by: The Freedom Singers
Listen to the Music

Singing helped the Freedom Riders in the face of great danger. Following one impromptu songwriter on the bus, the Freedom Riders sang as they entered Jackson, Mississippi:

I'm taking a ride on the Greyhound bus line,
I'm a riding the front seat to Jackson this time.
Hallelujah, I'm a-travelin',
Hallelujah, ain't it fine?
Hallelujah, I'm a-travelin'
Down Freedom's main line.

In Jackson, the Freedom Riders were arrested and jailed. Rider James Farmer: "The prison officials wanted us to stop singing, because they were afraid our spirit would become contagious and the other prisoners would become Freedom Riders as a result of our singing." The guards threatened to take away the mattresses -- their only luxury in a steel cell -- if they continued to sing.

As Farmer recalled, one Freedom Rider called for the guards. "He said, 'Come get my mattress. I'll keep my soul.' And everybody started singing, Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round, turn me round...

"They came in and took the mattresses away and people sang as they had never sung before. We thought we were winning the battle; they were on the run."

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

The Freedom Rides
Duration: 0:44 min
Watch the Video

The first clip shows a Freedom Rider describing the attack on his bus by a white mob.

In the second, injured Rider Jim Peck describes the motivation for participating in the rides.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Map

Violence and Arrests on the Freedom Rides, 1961

  1. Rock Hill, South Carolina
    Two riders are beaten, and one arrested for using a white restroom.
  2. Anniston, Alabama
    Attacks by a violent segregationist mob include the firebombing of one of the buses. Twelve riders are hospitalized.
  3. Birmingham, Alabama
    Met with violence at the Birmingham bus terminal, organizers end the ride. But other rides will soon follow.
  4. Montgomery, Alabama
    The rides continue with promises of protection from state law enforcement. But at the Montgomery bus terminal, angry mobs assault and maim riders.
  5. Jackson, Mississippi
    The state of Mississippi promises to prevent violence but enforces segregation laws in bus terminals. Over 300 riders are arrested by the end of the summer, and sent to the maximum security Parchman Penitentiary for trespassing.
  6. Washington, D.C.
    Starting point of the first Freedom Ride.
  7. New Orleans, Louisiana
    Intended end point of the first Freedom Ride.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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