When a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955, her defiance of Jim Crow laws set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and thrust a young preacher named the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight. Both Parks and King would be heralded as heroes for their roles in ending segregated bus seating in Montgomery, Ala. Six years later, men and women from throughout the nation arrived in Washington, D.C. to end Jim Crow on interstate travel by embarking on what were called “Freedom Rides.” On such rides, racially mixed activists traveled together throughout the Deep South—ignoring signs marked “for whites” and “for colored” in buses and bus terminals—to rebel against Jim Crow laws. The riders endured beatings and arson attempts from white supremacist mobs, but their struggles paid off when segregationist policies on interstate bus and rail lines were struck down. Despite these achievements, the Freedom Riders aren’t the household names that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are, but they’re civil rights heroes, nonetheless. Learn about the Freedom Riders’ unique contributions to the civil rights movement.
How the Freedom Rides Got Started
In the 1960 case Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional. But the high court’s ruling didn’t stop segregation on interstate bus and rail lines in the South from persisting. Enter the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group. CORE sent seven blacks and six whites on two public buses headed for the South on May 4, 1961. The goal? To test the Supreme Court ruling on segregated interstate travel in the Confederate states. For two weeks, the activists planned to flout Jim Crow laws by sitting on the front of buses and in “whites only” waiting rooms in bus terminals.
“Boarding that Greyhound bus to travel to the Deep South, I felt good. I felt happy,” John Lewis recalled during a May 2011, appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Then a seminary student, Lewis would go on to become a U.S. congressman.
During the first few days of their trip, the mixed-race group of activists traveled largely without incident. They didn’t have security and didn’t need it—yet. After arriving in Atlanta on May 13, 1961, they even attended a reception hosted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but the celebration took on a decidedly ominous tone when King alerted them that the Ku Klux Klan was organizing against them in Alabama. Despite King’s warning, the Freedom Riders did not change their course. As expected, when they reached Alabama, their journey took a turn for the worse.
A Perilous Journey
On the outskirts of Anniston, Ala., members of a white supremacist mob showed just what they thought about the Freedom Rides by bashing in their bus and slashing its tires. To boot, the Alabama Klansmen set the bus on fire and blocked the exits to trap the Freedom Riders inside. It wasn’t until the bus’ fuel tank exploded that the mob dispersed and the Freedom Riders were able to escape. After a similar mob attacked the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and evacuated the activists to New Orleans. The federal government did not want more harm to come to the riders. Did the evacuation mark the end of the Freedom Rides?
The Second Wave
Due to the amount of violence inflicted on Freedom Riders, the leaders of CORE had to choose to abandon the Freedom Rides or continue sending activists into harm’s way. Ultimately, CORE officials decided to send more volunteers on the rides. Explained Diane Nash, an activist who helped to organize Freedom Rides, to Oprah Winfrey:
“It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.”
On the second wave of rides, activists journeyed from Birmingham, Ala., to Montgomery in relative peace. Once the activists touched down in Montgomery, though, a mob of more than 1,000 attacked the riders. Later, in Mississippi, Freedom Riders were arrested for entering a whites-only waiting room in a Jackson bus terminal. For this act of defiance, authorities arrested the Freedom Riders, housing them in one of Mississippi’s most notorious correctional facilities—Parchman State Prison Farm. “The reputation of Parchman is that it’s a place that a lot of people get sent...and don’t come back,” former Freedom Rider Carol Ruth explained to Oprah Winfrey. During the summer of 1961, 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned there.
An Inspiration Then and Now
The struggles of the Freedom Riders garnered nationwide publicity. Rather than intimidate other activists, however, the brutality the riders encountered inspired others to take up the cause. Before long, dozens of Americans were volunteering to travel on Freedom Rides. In the end, an estimated 436 people took such rides. The efforts of the Freedom Riders were finally rewarded when the Interstate Commerce Commission decided on Sept. 22, 1961, to bar segregation in interstate travel. Today, the contributions the Freedom Riders made to civil rights are the subject of a PBS documentary called Freedom Riders. In addition, in 2011, 40 students commemorated the Freedom Rides of 50 years before by boarding buses that retraced the journey of the first set of Freedom Riders.