Freedom Riders

From Academic Kids

The Freedom Riders were a group of men and women from many different background and ethnicities who boarded buses, trains and planes headed for the deep South to test the 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial segregation in all interstate public facilities.

The movement began in the 1950s. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was involved in the struggle to end segregation on buses and trains. In 1952, segregation on interstate railways was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. This was followed in 1954 by a similar judgment concerning interstate buses. However, states in the Deep South continued their own policy of transport segregation. This usually involved whites sitting in the front and blacks sitting nearest to the front had to give up their seats to any whites that were standing.

African American people who disobeyed the state's transport segregation policies were regularly arrested and fined. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor's assistant from Montgomery, Alabama, took an action that was a turning point in the American Civil Rights Movement when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Many people have said she was tired after a hard day's work and this may have been true in part, but in her own story, Parks - who had volunteered to help the NAACP - said it was more that she was tired of giving in to the bigotry and mistreatment of African Americans. She was seated in a row of two bus seats which each seated two people. One white man got on the bus and when no seat was available for him in the front section, the bus driver (who had mistreated Parks in the past) told all four of the black passengers in the front row of the rear section to move. The other three did, but Parks stayed where she was and refused to move. The driver called for the police and Parks was arrested and taken to jail.

After her arrest, Martin Luther King, Jr., a pastor at a local Baptist Church, helped organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued.

For 13 months, the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from car owners in the city who volunteered to help. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration.

Even after this decision, transportation segregation continued in some parts of the Deep South, so in 1961, a civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they traveled through the Deep South.

James Farmer, national director of CORE, and 13 volunteers left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961. Along the way, they met up with many other volunteers as they traveled through Virginia, Charlotte, North Carolina, Rock Hill, South Carolina, Georgia and Anniston, Alabama.

In Anniston, the original bus carrying the Freedom Riders was fire bombed. As they struggled to get out of the bus, the group was beaten. They and riders on another bus were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes, and knives. Still, the group continued on.

Meanwhile, a second group of riders left Nashville, Tennessee on May 14, 1961 headed for Birmingham, Alabama, where they joined with the first group of Freedom Riders on May 20, 1961. The U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, sent his assistant, John Seigenthaler Sr., to accompany the Freedom Riders.

There in Birmingham, the passengers were greeted by members of the Ku Klux Klan with further acts of violence and the group was forced to spend the night in the "colored" waiting room at a bus station, but they journeyed on together to Montgomery, Alabama.

In Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, another mob beat the riders with chains and ax handles. Seigenthaler was knocked unconscious when he went to the aid of one of the passengers. The riders were forced to take refuge from mobs in a church.

"The KKK threatened to bomb the church," recalled John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders.

The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months over a thousand people took part in freedom rides throughout the South. With local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job.

During their journey, the original group of 13 grew to as many as 1,000, but the ride ended May 25, 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi, where they were met by an angry mob of white segregationists.

"They beat us, bloodied us, beat me unconscious," Lewis recalled. The riders were then arrested and jailed.

Sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $250 fine, Lewis spent 37 days in city and county jails and a state penitentiary. Mississippians raised the bail money to free Lewis and the others.

During the summer of 1961, Freedom Riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. This was especially effective when it concerned large companies who, fearing boycotts in the North, began to desegregate their businesses.

Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The ICC was reluctant, but in September of 1961 it issued the necessary orders and the new policies went into effect on November 1, 1961.

As with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the conflict at Little Rock, the Freedom Riders gave world publicity to the racial discrimination suffered by African Americans and, in doing so, helped to bring about positive change.

The 1961 Freedom Riders along with their families, friends and supporters, celebrated their 40th anniversary with a reunion held on Veterans Day Weekend, November 8th-November 11th, 2001, in Jackson, Mississippi.


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