Freedom Rides

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"At our first stop in Virginia . . . I [was] confronted with what the Southern white has called `separate but equal.' A modern rest station with gleaming counters and picture windows was labelled `White,' and a small wooden shack beside it was tagged `Colored.'"
-- Freedom Rider William Mahoney [26]

In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) planned a "Journey of Reconciliation," designed to test the Supreme Court's 1946 decision in the Irene Morgan case, which declared segregated seating of interstate passengers unconstitutional. An interracial group of passengers met with heavy resistance in the upper South. Some members of the group served on a chain gang after their arrest in North Carolina. [27] The Journey of Reconciliation quickly broke down. Clearly the South, even the more moderate upper South, was not ready for integration.

Nearly a decade and a half later, John F. Kennedy was elected president, in large part due to widespread support among blacks who believed that Kennedy was more sympathetic to the civil rights movement than his opponent, Richard Nixon. Once in office, however, Kennedy proved less committed to the movement than he had appeared during the campaign. To test the president's commitment to civil rights, CORE proposed a new Journey of Reconciliation, dubbed the "Freedom Ride." The strategy was the same: an interracial group would board buses destined for the South. The whites would sit in the back and the blacks in the front. At rest stops, the whites would go into blacks-only areas and vice versa. "This was not civil disobedience, really," explained CORE director James Farmer, "because we [were] merely doing what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do." But the Freedom Riders expected to meet resistance. "We felt we could count on the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce the law," said Farmer. "When we began the ride I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us. We were prepared for the possibility of death." [28]

The Freedom Ride left Washington DC on May 4, 1961. It was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the seventh anniversary of the Brown decision. Unlike the original Journey of Reconciliation, the Freedom Ride met little resistance in the upper South.

On Mother's Day, May 14, the Freedom Riders split up into two groups to travel through Alabama. The first group was met by a mob of about 200 angry people in Anniston. The mob stoned the bus and slashed the tires. The bus managed to get away, but when it stopped about six miles out of town to change the tires, it was firebombed. The other group did not fare any better. It was greeted by a mob in Birmingham, and the Riders were severely beaten. Birmingham's Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Conner, claimed he posted no officers at the bus depot because of the holiday; however, it was later discovered that the FBI knew of the planned attack and that the city police stayed away on purpose. Alabama governor John Patterson offered no apologies, explaining, "When you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it . . . . You just can't guarantee the safety of a fool and that's what these folks are, just fools." [29]

Despite the violence, the Freedom Riders were determined to continue. Jim Peck, a white who had fifty stitches from the beatings he received, insisted, "I think it is particularly important at this time when it has become national news that we continue and show that nonviolence can prevail over violence." [30] The bus company, however, did not want to risk losing another bus to a bombing, and its drivers, who were all white, did not want to risk their lives. After two days of unsuccessful negotiations, the Freedom Riders, fearing for their safety, flew to New Orleans. It appeared that the Freedom Ride was over.

At that point, however, a group of Nashville sit-in students decided to go to Birmingham and continue the Freedom Ride. Diane Nash, who helped organize the group, later explained, "If the Freedom Riders had been stopped as a result of violence, I strongly felt that the future of the movement was going to be cut short. The impression would have been that whenever a movement starts, all [you have to do] is attack it with massive violence and the blacks [will] stop." [31] The Nashville students traveled to Birmingham and asked the bus company to let them use their buses. Attorney general Kennedy also leaned on the bus company and the Birmingham police. He was determined to enforce the Supreme Court's decision that called for integration of interstate travel, and he worried that if the Nashville students remained in Birmingham much longer, violence might erupt. On May 17, the Birmingham police arrested the Nashville Freedom Riders and placed them in protective custody. At 2 AM on Friday, the police drove the Riders back to Tennessee, dumping them by the side of the highway at the state line. After they got a ride back to Nashville, 100 miles away, they went right back to Birmingham.

Meanwhile, Governor Patterson agreed to meet with John Seigenthaler, a Justice Department aide and a native of Tennessee. In the meeting, Floyd Mann, head of the state highway patrol, agreed to protect the Freedom Riders in between Birmingham. Attorney General Robert Kennedy then pressured the Greyhound bus company, which finally agreed to carry the Riders. The Freedom Riders left Birmingham on Saturday, May 20. State police promised "that a private plane would fly over the bus, and there would be a state patrol car every fifteen or twenty miles along the highway between Birmingham and Montgomery -- about ninety miles," recalled Freedom Rider John Lewis. Police protection, however, disappeared as the Freedom Riders entered the Montgomery city limits. The bus terminal was quiet. "And then, all of a sudden, just like magic, white people everywhere," said Freedom Rider Frederick Leonard. [32] The Riders considered leaving by the back of the bus in hopes that the mob would not be quite as vicious. But Jim Zwerg, a white rider, bravely marched off the bus first. The other riders slipped off while the mob focused on pummeling Zwerg. Floyd Mann tried to stop the mob, but it continued to beat the Riders and those who came to their aid, such as Justice Department official John Seigenthaler, who was beaten unconscious and left in the street for nearly a half an hour after he stopped to help two Freedom Riders. Mann finally ordered in state troopers, but the damage was already done. When news of the Montgomery attack reached Washington, Robert Kennedy was not happy. He decided to send federal marshals to the city.

Martin Luther King, Jr., flew to Montgomery and held a mass meeting, surrounded by federal marshals, in support of the Freedom Riders. As night fell, a mob of several thousand whites surrounded the church. The blacks could not leave safely. At 3 AM, King called Robert Kennedy and Kennedy called Governor Patterson. Patterson declared martial law and sent in state police and the National Guard. The mob dispersed and the blacks left safely.

After the violence at the church, Robert Kennedy asked for a cooling-off period. The Freedom Riders, however, were intent on continuing. James Farmer explained, "[W]e'd been cooling off for 350 years, and . . . if we cooled off any more, we'd be in a deep freeze." The Riders decided to continue on to Mississippi. They were given good protection as they entered the state, and no mob greeted them at the Jackson bus terminal. "As we walked through, the police just said, `Keep moving' and let us go through the white side," recalled Frederick Leonard. "We never got stopped. They just said `Keep moving,' and they passed us right on through the white terminal into the paddy wagon and into jail." [33] Robert Kennedy and Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland had reached a compromise. Kennedy promised not to use federal troops if there was no mob violence. Both men kept up their end of the bargain. Unfortunately, the Freedom Riders were now at the mercy of the local courts. On May 25, they were tried. As their attorney defended them, the judge turned his back. Once the attorney finished, he turned around and sentenced them to 60 days in the state penitentiary.

More Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson to continue the Freedom Ride, and they were arrested too. Freedom Riders continued to arrive in the South, and by the end of the summer, more than 300 had been arrested.

The Freedom Riders never made it to New Orleans. Many spent their summer in jail. Some were scarred for life from the beatings they received. But their efforts were not in vain. They forced the Kennedy administration to take a stand on civil rights, which was the intent of the Freedom Ride in the first place. In addition, the Interstate Commerce Commission, at the request of Robert Kennedy, outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel in a ruling, more specific than the original Supreme Court mandate, that took effect in September, 1961. The Freedom Riders may not have finished their trip, but they made an important and lasting contribution to the civil rights movement.

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