Riding for Freedom

by Tamika Thompson

Fifty years ago in the American South, African Americans were subjected to state and local laws that mandated separate accommodations and facilities for Blacks and whites. While the so-called Jim Crow laws were to provide “separate but equal” accommodations, in reality racial segregation meant inferior treatment, accommodations and facilities, and it systematically oppressed Blacks.

It wasn’t until African Americans challenged these systemic inequities that the tide began to turn. An arguable watershed moment in the civil rights movement occurred in the spring and summer of 1961 when a group of activists, led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), challenged a law in the Deep South.

The activists risked their lives in a nonviolent and brilliant series of actions that were met with violence and brutal attacks. The activists are known as the Freedom Riders, and May 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of their landmark journey.

Video: Freedom Rider Diane Nash

Activists Test Desegregation in the American South

In May 1961, a group of integrated activists—men, women, young, old, Black and white—boarded two buses in Washington, DC with the goal of testing a recent Supreme Court desegregation case.

The 1960 Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia overturned the conviction of an African American student for being in a whites-only bus terminal. The majority opinion by Justice Hugo Black held that racial segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional because it violated the Interstate Commerce Act, which made discrimination in interstate travel illegal.

SNCC leader John Lewis (L) and Jim Zwerg (R) after being beaten during the Freedom Rides.

The first group of activists got on Greyhound and Trailways buses on May 4, 1961 in Washington, DC, with some Blacks sitting in the front, some whites sitting in the back and Blacks and whites sitting next to each other. The 13 activists traveled through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and eventually Mississippi, with a destination point of Louisiana.

While the Freedom Riders faced backlash from the start of their journey, the resistance to their nonviolent demonstrations intensified in Alabama.

A mob firebombed one of the buses near Anniston, AL, blocked the door as the bus filled with smoke and flames, and one person said, “Fry the goddamn niggers.” The fuel tank exploded, and state troopers fired warning shots allowing the activists to escape. The second group of activists made it to Birmingham, AL, only to be savagely attacked by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members.

During the attacks, activists received little to no assistance from law enforcement, paramedics or hospitals.

Nash Revives the Rides

Attorney General Robert Kennedy intervened by sending his aide John Seigenthaler to escort the riders to New Orleans by plane. Organizers called off the Freedom Rides after the beatings. But SNCC leader Diane Nash revived the effort by organizing a group to continue the rides from Nashville, TN. She moved the struggle forward that summer by speaking to the press, bringing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Alabama to support the effort and continuing to recruit riders.

Diane Nash (L) and Kelly Miller (R) coordinate lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, TN in April 1960. Nash would become a leader in the 1961 Freedom Rides.

Mississippi took a different approach to the arrival of the Freedom Riders by arresting and jailing many of them for months. But thanks to the extensive recruiting effort, each group was replaced by a new wave of activists. Although Mississippi ended up jailing 300 riders, from May through December 1961, more than 400 Freedom Riders joined the movement and boarded more than 60 buses.

The Federal Government Responds

In the end, the Kennedy administration forced the Interstate Commerce Commission to uphold desegregation, with a new regulation issued by the commission in September and going into effect in November.

The Freedom Riders—through unshakeable courage and nonviolent resistance—managed to dismantle Jim Crow laws in public transportation, open the hearts and minds of Americans who witnessed their struggle and hand a victory to the civil rights movement that effectively changed the course of American history.

Watch Tavis’ conversation with Diane Nash marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and watch the American Experience documentary “Freedom Riders” online.

Last modified: February 11, 2013 at 2:22 pm