If you missed the outstanding PBS presentation of “Freedom Riders” which aired last night, Monday, May 16, here is your chance to view it. Click on the link here to view this wonderful program of a much forgotten part of America’s history.
In 1961, over 400 Americans put their lives on the line to bring to an end the segregation of interstate travel for Black passengers on buses. These Freedom Riders were Black, White, young, old, men, women, Jew, Gentile, Northern, and Southern. The humiliation of separate facilities both on buses and at bus stops, made for unendurable travel for Black Americans when they got on a bus, be it the Greyhound bus line, Trailways bus line or any other. The CRM sought to have President John Kennedy give federal protection to Black citizens on buses–buses that were licenced under the federal government’s Interstate Commerce Commission that federally regulated buses that traveled America’s highways. The federal government had struck down segregated travel on buses, but for many decades the South gave the federal government the finger and continued its segregation policies on buses and all other conveyances of public travel.
Under the Congress For Racial Equality (headed by James Farmer), the Freedom Riders were prepared to face the insults and attacks they would surely face because they were challenging a way of life that many racist would fight to the death to maintain.
The Freedom Riders who came together to dismantle this racist practice of segregated travel faced savage beatings, and imprisonment. From May 1 through November of 1961, the Freedom Riders, were attacked by Southern racists, attacked just for simply sitting and traveling together on buses and trains as they went through the Deep South.
Freedom Riders at one of their meetings.
Two landmark cases affected travel on public accomodations when Black citizens faced segregation:
The first was the case of Ms. Irene Morgan.
Photo of Ms. Irene Morgan.
On July, 16, 1944, eleven years before Mrs. Rosa Parks was commanded to give up her seat to a White male on a Montgomery, AL. city bus, the then 27-year-old Baltimore-born Ms. Morgan was arrested and jailed in Virginia for refusing to give up her seat on an interstate Greyhound bus to a White passenger. In a 1946 landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that Virginia’s state law enforcing segregation on interstate buses was illegal.
Photo of newspaper article on Ms. Morgan’s lamdmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The second was on May 24, 1961, when Freedom Riders were arrested for trying to use a whites-only facility at the bus depot in Jackson, Mississippi. The Freedom Riders’ trip put to test the United States Supreme Court decision, Boynton v. Virginia, which in 1960 overturned the conviction of a Black American law student who was cited for tresspassing in a restuarant in a bus terminal deemed “whites only.”
On paper federal government struck down segregation on interstate buses, but no state in the South upheld the federal legislation against segregated travel on public buses.
“Freedom Riders” produced, written, and directed by the award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson features many icons of the CRM, such as Diane Nash; Mae Francis Moultrie; Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.; John Lewis; Jim Zwerg, as well as individual accounts of primary testimony of what it was like to be a Freedom Rider: the riders themselves, government officials and their desire to stop the Freedom Riders, and the ever-present journalists who were on hand to document and bear witness on the historic events.
Diane Nash, Freedom Rider leader and leader of the Nashville Student Movement which took over the freedom ride.
When faced with imprisonment, Ms. Nash stood before the judge who sentenced her to two years in prison for civil disobedience and issued this statement:
“This will be a black baby born in Mississippi, and thus where ever he is born he will be in prison … If I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free.”
Ms. Nash, married to James Bevel (of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference)), was pregnant at the time, and she refused to allow her pregnacy to give her any leniency, any appeal bond, nor for bond to be posted for her.
Freedom Riders on their way into history.
Freedom Ride Map
More than 400 men and women participated in the Freedom Rides. See the complete roster.
Each foray into the South by the Freedom Riders garnered them all kinds of violence: racist slurs, spat upon, beaten, teeth broken out, jaws broken. The threat of possible death hung over them. Each time the racists came up with a different ploy to thwart the FR (such as integrating a bus stop facility when the Riders arrived at a Southern destination, then upon the Riders leaving, the facility was reverted back to its segregated mode), and each time the FR devised another way to continue and carry on the movement.
John L. Lewis (left), and Jim Zwerg (right), splattered with blood after being attacked and beaten in Montgomery, AL.
After the most vicious attack which occurredon Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961, in Anniston, Alabama by Klansmen who set fire to a bus on which the FR rode, student activists from Nashville, TN organized a ride of their own. From there, the numbers of FR swelled. Local police in Birmingham, Alabama, under the direction of Bull Connor, allowed the KKK to “burn, bomb, kill, maim” for fifteen minutes without police intervention or arrests, a bus that carried Freedom Riders that arrived at a Birmingham Trailways bus station. The FBI stood by as well and gave no protection to the Riders. The U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy refused to give federal protection to the Riders, wanting to wash the government’s hands of the issue by leaving it in the hands of the Southern states.
Freedom Riders escaping their burning bus after it was attacked by Klansmen.
FR Joan Trumpauer-Mulholland recalls why the Freedom Riders took on the mantle of social activism to give freedom, mobility, and human dignity to Black riders and end racial segregation on interstate bus travel:
“We were past fear. If we were going to die, we were gonna die, but we can’t stop. If one person fails, others take their place.”
Your parents tell you, “Don’t start something you don’t finish. Finish it!”
Retrace two of the most influential Freedom Rides of 1961: the original CORE Freedom Ride and the Nashville Student Movement Ride.
The Freedom Rides of 1961 weren’t the only civil rights revolution taking place during this time. Find out what was happening in the Deep South and around the country that made the Freedom Rides necessary.
Read an excerpt from Raymond Arsenault’s book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
Three hundred and twenty-eight Freedom Riders were arrested for their civil disobedience and sent to jails in Jackson, Mississippi as well as to the notorious Parchman Prison located in Sunflower County, MS. While there, the Freedom Riders strove to keep in touch with the outside world, writing letters on tissue paper and paper towels.
(Left to right: Stokely Carmichael, Margarent Leonard, Kredelle Petway, Paul Green)
If ever there was a prison that was a gulag for Black Americans, it was Parchman. Parchman Prison soon filled to overflowing, but the FR held their ground and would not back down from their righteous crusade, singing spiritual songs that helped them do battle with their jailers.
With the horrific burning of their bus, the Riders began to receive front page news coverage, and most notably, the rest of the world was watching. After almost five months of bus rides and facing the spineless excuses given by the Kennedy administration, the federal government threw in the towel. On September 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order to desegregate thus ending the segregation on bus and rail systems that had been in effect for generations. The commission announced that on November 1, 1961, all interstate buses would be required to display a certificate that read: “Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.”
Black Americans praised the ruling, but its effect would depend on enforcement – and on that, they were skeptical. CORE, NAACP, FRCC, and others, lined up testing the enforcement of the new rule in November. They sent out dozens of groups throughout the South, the most ambitious test and the most difficult to coordinate.
The testers encountered less resistance than expected. One part of Jane Crow had come to an end.
But, there was still work to be done, as the future would show.
Today, many people give little thought of the ability to pay for a ticket and board a bus, train, airplane, or even a cruise ship. There was a time in America’s history when travel for a Black American was more than fraught with going from one place to another. The simple act of sitting where you wanted to on a bus, to get off the bus at a stop, stretch your legs, get a drink of water, buy a sandwich–without having to face daily slights against one’s humanity.
My sincerest “Thank You” and heartfelt reverence for the many Freedom Riders who put their lives on the line so that I and so many other Americans can take for granted the most simplest and basic of human rights.