In 1961, the Freedom Riders, a dedicated group of men and women, black and white, young and old (many from university and college campuses) across the country boarded buses, trains and planes bound for the deep South to challenge that region‘s outdated Jim Crow laws and the non-compliance with a US Supreme Court decision already three years old that prohibited segregationin all interstate public transportation facilities.
The first Freedom Riders were members of the Nashville Student Group, a local group of students who had successfully desegregated the lunch counters and movie theaters in that city. Emboldened by their victory, the Freedom Riders decided to introduce their strategiesof non-violence throughout the South in order to directly challenge the region’s Jim Crow laws.
For this they were well prepared as they were trained in the discipline of non-violence by no less a figure than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. King's brilliant leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott had brought an end to that city’s policies of segregation on its local bus line and catapulted the young Reverend to international fame. Also, Reverend James Lawson, whose studies of Mahatma Gandhi in India so impressed Dr. King that he urged the elder Reverend to leave immediately for Nashville to teach the message of non-violence to the Nashville Student Group. (See David Halberstam’s excellent book, “The Children” for an account of the early days of the group and their lives since.)
On May 4th, 1961 the night before they were to leave on the first Freedom Ride, the Freedom Riders and the architects of the Ride met. Present at the dinner were Dianne Nash, the striking young spokeswoman of the group who was considered too valuable a figure to go on the Rides herself and would instead coordinate efforts back in Nashville; and James Lawson, the mentor of the Freedom Riders’ in the art of non-violence.
At a Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC, John Lewis, a young man from rural Georgia and theology student at theAmerican Baptist College in Nashville sat in awe at the scene before him, partly out of fear at what lay ahead for them all and partly for the fact that it was the first time in his life that had everseen Chinese food. While he greatly enjoyed the evening’s meal that night, John Lewis (now a US Congressman from his home state of Georgia) would later liken it to “the last supper.” Other Freedom Riders in attendance that evening included Marion Barry, James Bevel, Hank Thomas, James Peck, Ed Blankenheim, B.Elton Cox, Bernard Lafayette and Jim Zwerg.
The next morning the Freedom Rides boarded the buses and took their places, blacks and whites seated together on thebus, an act already considered a crime in most segregated states. At stops along the way, the Freedom Riders entered “whites” and “colored” areas contrary to where they were supposedto go and ate together at segregated lunch counters. They met little resistance along the way until Rockville, S.C. where an angry mob beat the Freedom Riders as they pulled into the station. This was the first of many such beatings the Freedom Riders were to receive at the hands of angry mobs.
Undaunted by the beatings. the Freedom Riders continued on their journey until Mother’s Day, May, 14th, 1961 when they were met by an angry mob (dressed in their Sunday finest as if they’d just come from church) in Anniston, Alabama. Due to the ferocity of the mob, the bus decided not to stop at the station and it quickly left, already wounded by the mob who had slashed the bus’s tires at the station. A few miles outside of Anniston the tiresbegan to deflate and the bus was forced to pull over. As the bus driver fled in glee, a mob of men who had been following the bus got out of their cars and surrounded the stricken bus. From somewherein the crowd a firebomb was thrown inside the bus and exploded. As the Freedom Riders tried to escape the smoke and flames they found they could not as the exit doors were blocked by the surgingmob. Just then one of the gas tanks exploded on the bus and the mob rushed back allowing the Freedom Riders to push the doors open and escape. As they exited the burning bus, the Freedom Riders rushedoutside still choking from the thick smoke and were beaten by the waiting vigilantes. As lead pipes and baseball bats were swung, only an onboard undercover agent prevented the Freedom Riders frombeing lynched that day as he fired his gun into the air. Later that same day the Freedom Riders were beaten a second time as they arrived in Birmingham, Alabama.
While older, more conservative Civil Rights organizations urged Dianne Nash and the Nashville Students to halt the Freedom Rides, the brave and determined young group leader steadfastly refused and instead put out a call to CORE, (the Committee of Racial Equality; SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee); and the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) headed by Dr. King to bring even more Freedom Riders on board.
Alarmed by the violence, President Kennedy dispatched his brother, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to strike a deal with the state officials from Mississippi to ensure that the Freedom Riders would have safe passage to Jackson. In exchange for their safe passage (the National Guard would escort the Freedom Riders into the state), the Freedom Riders would be arrested on their arrival in Jackson.
Soon, the local jails in Jackson were filled to capacity. Over 350 of the Freedom Riders were placed behind bars and given a six-month sentence for “breach of peace” violations.Rather than posting bail immediately however, the Freedom Riders chose to remain in jail for forty days, the maximum amount of time one could remain in jail before losing their right of appeal. As the local jails filled up, many of the Freedom Riders were transferred to the newly built maximum-security facility at Parchman Farm located 140 miles outside of Jackson.
At Parchman the conditions worsened. Men and women prisoners were segregated from each other by race and sex. The female population was housed in the death row wing of the prison and neverallowed to go outside and mingle with the general population. Women in particular were subject to humiliating body searches and allowed no time for exercise.
The Freedom Riders responded to their harsh treatment by singing freedom songs from their cells. (One Freedom Rider was actually a bass singer with the San Francisco Opera.) When the guardsdemanded they stop their singing, the Freedom Riders refused. As punishment for their insolence, the guards took away their blankets. “Nights were cold,” recalls one Freedom Rider as theywere forced to sleep “on the cold, hard steel floor.” Scattered hunger strikes further weakened many of the Freedom Riders physically but did not dampen their moral resolve.
Upon their release from jail, the Freedom Riders continued their efforts to end segregation in all walks of lifein the South. A second grassroots movement called “Freedom Highways” followed that was a precursor to the “FreedomSummer project” in 1964-1965 when thousands of student volunteers came to the South to work on voter registration, school and housing issues in the black community.
Five months after the first Freedom Rides left on their historic ride the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in conjunction with the US Attorney General Robert Kennedy issued atough new Federal order banning segregation at all interstate public facilities based on “race, color or creed.” The law became effective on November 1st, 1961.
This Veteran’s Day, people from throughout the country will gather in Jackson, Mississippi to pay tribute to these brave American sons and daughters whose selfless act of courage helped pave the way for others to continue on the road to Civil Rights in America. And to pass on that legacy to future generations of Freedom Riders committed to building a better world of tomorrow today.
The following are first hand accounts from Freedom Riders recalling their experience as a Freedom Rider in 1961. Click on a Freedom Rider's name to read their account.
If you are a Freedom Riders who wants to add your oral history to this project, see the Anthology Project page.Scroll