The Freedom Rides: Fifty Years On
Fifty years ago, in the Spring of 1961, a group of courageous Americans seeking racial justice made history with the Freedom Rides, one of the greatest chapters in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Under the Jim Crow laws of segregation, whites and blacks were not allowed to sit together in the South even on interstate transport, such as the buses operated by Greyhound and Trailways bus companies (now merged into one company). South of Washington, D.C., the bus companies would order black passangers to sit at the back of the bus. When they came into the bus terminals, black passengers were kept from the restaraunts and had to use separate restrooms–where available. Federal law forbade segregation in interstate transportation, but this was not enforced–even though the Supreme Court had reinforced this in a 1960 decision, Boynton v. Virginia.
CORE: The Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization founded in the 1940s to create a nonviolent mass movement for racial justice, had challenged this pattern with a “Journey of Reconciliation” in 1947 that rode through the upper South, but it had no lasting effect. Now, in the light of the 1960 ruling of Boynton v. Virginia, CORE decided to try again. It recruited volunteers and trained them in the principles of Gandhian nonviolence. Some were African-American, some were white. Some were young and some were old. Some were male and others female. All were people of incredible courage. Some, like the young John Lewis (now U.S. Congressional Rep. of Georgia’s 5th District–D), were already veterans of nonviolent struggle. (Lewis, then a student at Fisk University and the American Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Nashville, had been a leader in the student-led Nashville Movement which successfully desegregated the town through disciplined sit-ins in 1960. Lewis became a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC–“Snick”] and remained a leader in the nonviolent freedom movement until joining Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the U.S. presidency.) Others were novices.
The idea was simple. CORE chartered two buseses, one Greyhound and one Trailways, and the volunteers would board them in D.C. and sit together in an integrated fashion. When stopping in a terminal, they would test compliance with federal desegregation laws by having integrated groups go into the restrooms and lunch counters together. In the first leg of the trip, the Freedom Riders encountered minor hostilities and isolated incidents. But as news of the trip reached further South, the ire of the KKK and related groups of domestic terrorists was kindled. Outside Anniston, AL, one bus was firebombed and burned up. In Birmgham, the remaining bus of Freedom Riders was attacked and beaten only two blocks from the sheriff’s office–which did nothing to intervene. The Justice Dept. evacuated most of the riders to New Orleans. Lewis called for reinforcements from his Nashville friends in SNCC and they drove down to Birmingham to complete the rides. The remaining bus made it from Birmingham to Montgomery without incident, but upon arrival in Montgomery, the riders were attacked by a mob of over 1000 whites. The riders continued into Mississippi, where the violence became even worse. Not only did the police not intervene, they arrested the beaten riders and imprisoned them for weeks in the notorious Parchmen Prison Farm, until federal intervention finally freed them. Other Rides continued in solidarity, spreading beyond the bus stations to train stations and airports throughout the South. The campaign ended in November 1961 when the Interstate Commerce Commission issued new rules preventing segregation in transportation facilities and enforcing them.
On 16 May, the PBS progam, The American Experience, will run a special tribute at 9 P.M. “Freedom Riders.” A DVD of the program can be ordered from PBS.com for $19.99. I urge readers of this blog to check it out.
Segregation, America’s version of legal apartheid, was a very dark chapter in the history of this nation–and it still leaves ripples to the present. We need to look at our past in order to understand our present. Our young people need especially to learn this and other stories like it. I hope parents will watch this with their children and that screenings will be scheduled for youth groups, too.
Thank-you, Freedom Riders, for your part in transforming our nation to a somewhat freer and more just society.
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