Freedom Riders were a group of civil rights activists who sought equality and
freedom. The riders wanted to form a change by challenging the Jim Crow laws in
the southern states. The Riders goal was to test the law because they did not
agree on the Boyton vs. Virginia decision. The decision outlawed segregation in
public transportation such as buses or trains. The Freedom Riders decided to come
together to travel to segregated areas in the south and bring National
attention to the unlawful ideas that were used in the south.
ideas of the Freedom Riders began with members of the CORE. CORE stands for,
Congress of Racial Equality which was founded by an interracial group from the
University of Chicago. CORE wanted to fight racism and segregation in the south
by having non-violence protests. CORE put together its first Freedom Ride on
April 10, 1947 which was to be a two week trip called The Journey of
Reconciliation. The trip traveled through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and
Kentucky for the attempt to end segregation in travel. Even though the
activists were jailed, the journey gained public attention and became the start
of a journey with comparable campaigns. By the 1960’s an idea to repeat the
journey began and on May 4, 1961 they renamed it to The Freedom Riders.
Riders took substantial preparation in remaining non-violent and training on
how to deal with difficult circumstances the riders would face in attempting to
challenge the South. The riders were not allowed to carry weapons on them, and
were told not to fight. On May 4, 1961 seven blacks and six whites left
Washington D.C. on two public transportation busses. Arsenault explains, each
group of freedom riders would make sure at least one black sat in an all-white
section of the bus. Then an interracial pair of Riders sat on seats next to each
other, and the remaining riders sat throughout the bus. One rider always sat on
the bus as a look out obeying the rules so if something happened the person
could post bail and call CORE (p.50).
the beginning of the journey went pretty quiet, then the outbursts started when
the Riders neared the second half of the trip. Hine, Hine and Harold (2014) states,
“The first ride ran into trouble on May 4, 1961 when John Lewis, one of the
seven black riders, tried to enter the white waiting room of the Greyhound bus
terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina..”(p.487) The authors continue to state,
the bus continued onto Alabama where the Riders endured the most abuse that
they have seen while in, Anniston Alabama.
When the first bus of
Riders arrived in Anniston, the bus was attacked by the mob, the Klu Klux Klan.
The tires were slashed, the windows were broken, and the bus was badly beaten. Thinking
the riders were catching a break, the police cleared a way so the bus could
leave, and told the riders to go. The escort took the bus outside of Anniston,
and then abandoned the bus to be with no supervision. Leaving the bus to the
mob’s mercy, two cars then cut the bus off of Highway 202, so the bus had to
slow down. A black cloud of bad luck came over the Riders when the bus had two flat
tires, forcing it to stop, with the mob surrounding the bus.
driver fled the bus, forcing the Riders defenseless. While watching the movie Freedom Riders, it made the beatings so
surreal. In the movie it explains, the mob members swarmed the bus beating it,
making threats, trying to tip it, and trying to break in. Two police officers
actually came to the scene and ignored it. The Riders stayed put in their seats
fearing for their lives while being told they deserve what is coming to them.
The riders did not lash out or threaten the mob, just sitting in fear. Gross
explains, “… Lewallyn suddenly ran toward the bus and tossed a flaming bundle
of rags through a broken window. Within seconds the bundle exploded, sending dark
gray smoke throughout the bus”. He continues to explain the bus catching on
fire, forcing the Riders to evacuate. Thinking the bus was going to explode,
some of the mob members fled. However some stayed, and the Riders soon realized
that when they saw the mob coming at them with bats and weapons. The riders fearing
for their lives, the mob members attacked the defenseless riders. Two warning
shots were fired by the officers at the scene, saying “the lynching party is
over”. Needing to get to the hospital, the police called an ambulance. After
waiting for a long time for a vehicle, one showed and refused to help the
blacks by only being able to take the whites to the hospital. After the whites
protested by not going unless everyone does, the ambulance agrees and went on
to the hospital.
Of all the people being
taken to the hospital, only three of the riders were actually admitted to the
ER. Despite needing to be seen by a medical professional, they refused to see
the black riders. With the night approaching, the Riders were told to leave the
hospital. With only caring about the hospital safety and not the riders, the superintendent
of the hospital told the riders he didn’t want the interracial group to stay overnight
for fear of problems with the mob.
Freedom Riders were then in danger of finding a safe way of transportation away
from the hospital. The local police and state troopers both refused to help,
making the process difficult to leave in a timely manner. The riders then made
a call to a man named, Fred Shuttlesworth. Shuttlesworth knew the group was in
danger and came to help. He set up an eight car parade coming to get the
riders. Before he left, he even made sure to tell his drivers it is very
dangerous, however no weapons will be used in defense. The parade picked up the
riders from the hospital, escorting them out of the mob waiting for them at the
the second bus reached Anniston, they too were attacked and beaten. When they
arrived in Birmingham, they reached their biggest nightmare. The terminal was
filled with members of the KKK, beating the riders with Bats and metal bars.
Even the white Riders were beaten repeatedly because they were not racist. The
mob attacked news reporters and photographers so news of the violence would spread.
photos captured the violence of the mob and were published on the front page of
the Post-Herald the next morning. The photos showed KKK members and an FBI
detective beating, Freedom Rider George Webb. The picture captured of an FBI
member opened people’s eyes to this violent behavior and the segregation
issues. With so much violence happening and being shown in the media, Robert
Kennedy made it clear he wanted the Freedom Riders out of the South so he sent
his assistant to Alabama hoping to get the situation under control. The riders
wanted to carry on, but with more threats happening, they agreed to fly to New
Orleans. Bringing so much violent attention to the media, the Riders agreed it
was enough and they needed to stop the Freedom Ride.
of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee organized new riders from
black colleges to continue the Freedom Rides. With all the violence going on in
Alabama, a lot of drivers refused to drive the Riders. The governor of Alabama
and the bus company then provided the Riders with a driver and law enforcement protection.
Yet again, the police left the bus in Montgomery and the bus got attacked by
another large mob at a bus station. The EMT’s refused service to the riders, so
the riders had to call the local black community again for help. With the
violence and mobs occurring, it put the pressure on President Kennedy to end
the violence. The next day the Black First Baptist church wanted to hold a
ceremony for the Riders and their courageous. Gross then states, the pastor at
the church was well known for civil rights movements so he talked at the
ceremony along with Marting Luther King, James Farmer, and Fred Shittlesworth.
After the ceremony the mob surrounded the church with over 2,000 people waiting
to attack. The Alabama National Guard was called to help along with the
riders arrived in Mississippi and were jailed. Kennedy wanted to try and put a
stop to the violence occurring. Slowly the violence and racism was being
published more and more in the media. The popularity of the riders was good for
them, however, bad for President Kennedy. The other bus of riders took the same
route, resulting in being jailed also when they got to Mississippi. Almost 300
riders were jailed in the course of the Rides.
freedom riders brought southern attention to African Americans and what they are
faced with every day. African Americans were faced with such bad racism and
segregation, they thought it was time to put a stop to it. The people of the
U.S. were suddenly realizing the extreme racism that people are faced with
every day. All the publicity the Riders were being faced with inspired more
African Americans to ride public transportation. Eventually, the protests
spread all over the south to train stations and airports. By November, the
Interstate Commerce Commission issued laws prohibiting segregated public