Freedom Rides - A Lasting Impact (Fall 2012)

"Through non-violence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supercedes systems of gross social immorality.”~ James Lawson, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

On May 4th 1961, two buses left Washington DC heading for the Deep South in effort to test John F Kennedy’s commitment to his campaigned civil rights promises as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton v. Virginia in 1960, declaring that racial segregation in interstate bus and rail stations, restaurants, and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses unconstitutional. Intended to arrive in New Orleans on May 17th, student activists from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) challenged Jim Crow status quo by sitting desegregated and/or whites in the black section and vice versa of facilities and public transportation. This sparked major media and national attention as the activists were met with extreme mob violence in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery Alabama, bringing into action history forces such as politics and government.

Organized and carried out by the Ku Klux Klan, the mobbing of the two freedom buses, the Greyhound and the Trailways, in first Anniston, and later Birmingham left the freedom riders injured and refused care at hospitals. The KKK blocked and slashed the Greyhounds tires leaving the bus immobile as the mob firebombed the bus, holding the doors shut so the riders couldn’t escape. But due to an exploding fire tank, the riders funneled out as the angry mob retreated. An hour after the burning of the Greyhound, the Trailways bus pulled into Anniston. This time, the freedom riders were beat by eight clansmen and left in the back of the bus. As a result, rather than discontinue the ride as previously done in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, a new group of riders from Nashville Tennessee insisted on continuing bound for Birmingham where they were arrested and jailed for violating Jim Crow laws but were released by Bull Connor who is quoted “I just couldn’t stand their singing”.

On the Morning of May 20th that same year, due to public prompting and pressure directed towards president Kennedy, the Freedom Rides resumed, this time destined for Montgomery, Alabama accompanied by the Highway Patrol which, upon pulling into the station in Montgomery, abandoned the bus as a white mob violently beat and attacked the riders. News of the incident caused civil rights activist Martin Luther King to leave Chicago and stage a rally at Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, demanding through his speech that ‘‘the federal government must not stand idly by while blood thirsty mobs beat nonviolent students with impunity’’. During the speech, a white mob gathered outside the church, smashing in windows and furthering the already violent action against the freedom riders non-violent Gandhi-like protest.

Politics and Government is a big history force impacting the rides, through lawful desegregation and the actual regulation and enforcement of the Boynton v. Virginia ruling. It was a major pressure for the government to take action against unlawful but enforced discrimination in the south by non-violently provoking "the racists of the South to create a crisis, so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal law." (Merrill Perlman, New York Times) In result of the Rides, another desegregation order was made by the Kennedy administration ruling as of November 1st of 1961, permitting passengers to “to sit wherever they please on the bus, “white” and “colored” signs come down in the terminals, separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms are consolidated, and the lunch counters begin serving people regardless of color.” (webmaster, Bruce Hartford, CORE and SCLC activist) A major crackdown on the Deep South was put into effect by the new order and, though not completely effective and enforced, a large and positive step for the fight for civil rights in America.

Major public awareness thanks to the media led future action to be taken as a result of the violent reaction to the rides in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery Alabama, forcing political and government involvement. The rides inspired many young activists, both black and white, to take personal action in the fight against desegregation and racism by inspiring many to engage in voter registration, by forwarding the creation of freedom schools, as well as supporting the black power movement. The Rides forced public recognition of Jim Crow and provoked political, government, and societal change in order to create a truly “Free America”, equality for all.


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  2. Cozzens, Lisa. "Freedom Rides." Civil Rights Movement 1955-1965:. N.p., 18 Aug. 1999. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
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  4. "Freedom Rides." Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Global Freedom Struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
  5. Hartford, Bruce. "Freedom Rides of 1961." Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. History & Timeline Articles, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
  6. "Martin Luther King." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.
  7. Perlman, Merril. "1961: The Freedom Riders." The New York Times Upfront. Scholastic, 10 Jan.2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
  8. Retracing the Rides. The Freedom Riders: Threatened. Attacked. Jailed. PBS, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.