Freedom riders were the groups of white and African American Civil rights activists who participated in freedom Rides, bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals. They tried to use “white only ”restrooms and launch counters at bus stations in Alabama, South Carolina and southern states. The groups were confronted by being arrested by police officers and horrific violence from white protesters along their routes.
The original group of 13 freedom riders were seven African Americans and six whites, left Washington DC on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. Their plan was to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.
The group travelled through Virginia drawing little public notice. The first violent incident took place on May 12 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. John Lewis, an African American seminary student and a member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), white Freedom Rider and World War II veteran Albert Bigelow and another African American rider were viciously attacked as they attempted to enter white only waiting only.
On May 14 ,1961, the Greyhound bus arrived first in Anniston, Alabama. There, an angry mob of about 200 white people surrounded the bus, forcing the driver to continue past the bus station.
The mob followed the bus with their vehicles, the bus’s tire blew out, then someone threw a bomb into the bus. The Freedom Riders escaped the bus as it burst into flames, as they came out of raging fire, they were brutally beaten by the members of surrounding mob.
The second bus, a Trailways vehicle, travelled to Birmingham, Alabama, the Freedom Riders were also beaten by an angry white mob many with metal pipes. Birmingham Public Safety commissioner Bull Connor stated that, although he knew the Freedom Riders were coming and violence awaited them, he posted no police protection at the station because it was Mother’s Day.
Photographs of the burning Greyhound bus and bloodied riders appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and around the world the following day, drawing attention to Freedom Riders’ cause and the state of race relations in the United States.
Following widespread violence, CORE officials could not find a driver who would continue with the journey, and so the Freedom Rides was abondoned. However, Diane Nash, an activist from the SNCC, organised a group of 10 students from Nashville, Tennessee, to continue the rides.
U.S. Attorney General Robert F Kennedy brother to to President John F Kennedy, began to negotiate with Alabama’s governor John Patterson and the bus companies to secure a driver and state protection for the new group of Freedom Riders. The rides resumed finally, on a Greyhound bus departing Birmingham under police escort, on May 20.
The police abandoned the Greyhound bus just before it arrived at the Montgomery, Alabama, terminal, where white mob attacked the riders with baseball bats and clubs as they disembarked. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 600 federal marshals to the city to stop the violence.
Martin Luther King Jr, the following night led a service at the First Baptist Church Montgomery, it was attended by more than one thousand supporters of the Freedom Riders. A riot erupted outside the church, King called Robert Kennedy to ask for protection.
Kennedy summoned the federal marshals who used teargas to disperse white mob. Patterson declared martial law in the city and dispatched the National Guard to restore order.
On May 24, 1961, a group of Freedom Riders departed Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi. On the way, several hundred supporters greeted the riders. However, those who attempted to use the whites only facilities were arrested for trespassing and taken to the maximum security penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.
The same day, U.S. Attorney General Kennedy issued a statement urging a “cooling off” period in the face of the growing violence. A cooling off period is needed. It would be wise for those travelling through these sites to delay their trips until the present state of confusion and danger has passed and an atmosphere of reason and normalcy has been restored. ”
During Mississippi hearing, the judge never listened to Rider’s defence as he sentenced the riders to 30 days in prison.
Attorneys from the National Association for the advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), a civil rights organisation, appealed the convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed them.
The violence and arrests continued to garner national and international attention , this drew hundreds of new Freedom Riders to the cause.
The rides continued over the next several months, at the end of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals, due to pressure from the Kennedy administration.