Civil Rights History: The 1961 Freedom Rides

Civil Rights History: The 1961 Freedom Rides

In the spirit of the American Civil Rights Movement, a pivotal series of events unfolded that would forever change the landscape of racial equality in the United States. The 1961 Freedom Rides, a courageous endeavor by civil rights activists, sought to challenge and dismantle the deep-seated segregation existing in the Southern United States. This article delves into the essence of the Freedom Rides, exploring the motivations behind them, the challenges faced by the riders, and the lasting impact of their journey on American society.

The Genesis of The 1961 Freedom Rides Movement

The summer of 1961 was going to be hot in more ways than one. After the 1960 Supreme Court’s decision in the Boynton, Virginia case struck down segregation laws governing interstate buses in the South, Students for the Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to test the Kennedy administration’s resolve in enforcing the new desegregation law by organizing Freedom Rides that summer.

The strategy was simple: a biracial group was to board buses from Washington, D.C., and travel south, with white passengers sitting in the back and black passengers in the front. The group included thirteen brave young men, including James L. Farmer, William Mahoney, John Lewis, William Sloan Coffin, Jim Zwerg, James Peck, George Bundy Smith, Frederick Leonard, and others.

Dubbed the Freedom Riders, they boarded the Trailways bus in Washington, determined but sober about the seriousness of their expedition. Trained in the nonviolent tactics for the lunch counter sit-ins the year before, they knew what was expected ahead.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained speed in its goal to demolish segregation laws in the South, winning victories along the way, the resistance from Southern whites had grown more virulent. Mob violence had marked every nonviolent protest organized by SNCC. They didn’t expect anything different that summer.

Facing the Fire

On May 4, the Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., and were expected to arrive at their final destination in New Orleans on the 17th of that month. On May 14, Mother’s Day, the group broke up into two, each traveling a separate bus into Alabama. As expected, violence greeted one of the buses as it reached Anniston.

A mob of 200 assaulted the bus, hurling stones and slashing the bus’s tires. Though the Freedom Riders managed to escape the mob, their bus was firebombed six miles out of town when they stopped to change tires.

A mob attacked a bus with protesters in Alabama in 1961

The second bus likewise met with violence in Birmingham. A mob descended on the bus and began attacking passengers. White Freedom Rider Jim Peck received the worst of the violence, requiring fifty stitches for the injuries he sustained during the attack.

Bull Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner, claimed his police officers were off for the holiday. But Bull Connor, who had set firehoses and snarling dogs on children as they protested in Birmingham the year before, was a well-known Klan sympathizer. Later, it was learned that Connor purposefully kept his men off duty and that the FBI was well aware of the impending violence awaiting the Freedom Riders once they appeared in Alabama.

Resistance from bus drivers, who refused to drive the Freedom Riders any further for fear of repercussion, had ended the initial run of the Freedom Rides. The remaining group took a flight to New Orleans instead. Still, the youthful activists were determined not to let mob rule frighten them away from their goal.

Diane Nash, an SNCC leader, realized that discontinuing the Freedom Rides campaign would send the wrong message: mob violence rules.

Coordinating efforts to continue the Freedom Rides, she sent out a call for more recruits on May 20. Another group of brave and determined young people answered the call. In Birmingham, the students asked the bus company to allow them to use their buses to continue their campaign. They found support from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who also pressed the companies to comply with federal law. Kennedy sent his assistant John Siegenthaler, a Tennessee native, to meet with Governor Patterson of Alabama to smooth the way for greater protection for the Freedom Riders.

Another bus left from Birmingham to Montgomery to pick up where the original thirteen left off. This time, the Freedom Riders were escorted by the Alabama State Highway Patrol. But when the bus entered the Montgomery city limits, the Highway Patrol abandoned them, leaving the Riders vulnerable to another assault by white mobs in the bus terminal.

Jim Zwerg descended from the bus first and took the enormity of the mob’s intensity, allowing the other passengers to slip away. Floyd Mann, head of the state highway patrol, tried to stop the mob but was unable to. Siegenthaler was likewise swept up in the mob violence when he tried to rescue two Freedom Riders who were being assaulted. As he tried to get them into his car, one of the Freedom Riders, a young woman who was being pummeled by two white women, told him to not get involved, that it wasn’t his fight. In the brief delay before he could get them in his car, Siegenthaler was struck from behind with an iron pipe and left bloody in the street for half an hour.

The latest wave of violence, now having visited one of his own officials, angered Kennedy, who sent in federal marshals to Birmingham.

After the violence had been quelled, Kennedy asked for calm, but the Freedom Riders were determined to continue their campaign.

Wave after wave of Freedom Riders rode the interstate buses into the southern states, where they were primarily arrested and sent to local jails. The plan had been for the local jails to be filled to capacity, thus forcing local authorities to comply with federal laws. When the Jackson City and Hinds County jails were overcrowded with young activists, local authorities sent them to Parchman Penitentiary, where they were held on death row and treated cruelly by prison guards.

The Freedom Riders further placed a national spotlight on the violence and injustice of segregation laws in the South, gaining support from all across the nation and emboldening rural southern Blacks who began joining the civil rights struggle for justice and freedom. The Freedom Riders, which had grown from 13 participants to 450, were also instrumental in organizing segregated restaurants, lunch counters, and hotels. Eventually, Kennedy issued an injunction that forced southern states to comply with federal laws and petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to desegregate bus terminals.

In September of 1961, a reluctant ICC complied, and the new laws went into effect two months later.

A Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement

The relentless courage of the Freedom Riders and the national outrage their experiences provoked forced the federal government to act. In September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals. This victory was a testament to the effectiveness of direct action and nonviolent protest, setting a precedent for future civil rights campaigns.

The Freedom Rides also played a crucial role in galvanizing public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Movement. They exposed the ugly reality of racism and segregation to the American public and the world, underscoring the need for change. The riders themselves, diverse in background but united in purpose, embodied the ideals of equality and justice, inspiring countless others to join the fight against racial oppression.

The impact of the 1961 Freedom Rides extends far beyond the desegregation of interstate buses. They marked a significant shift in the strategy of the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the power of collective action and the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. The rides helped to propel civil rights leaders, including John Lewis and Diane Nash, into the national spotlight, where they continued to fight for justice and equality.

Moreover, the Freedom Rides set the stage for subsequent civil rights actions, such as the Birmingham Campaign and the March on Washington, further cementing the movement’s place in American history. They stand as a powerful reminder of what can be achieved when individuals come together to challenge injustice, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The 1961 Freedom Rides: A Journey Remembered

The Freedom Rides were just one step in many steps toward desegregating the South. But as the civil rights movement gained steam, it took off in many directions, tackling issues such as voter rights and registration drives, the war on poverty, and eventually the war in Vietnam, as the organization saw money supposedly earmarked by President Johnson to fight the War on Poverty get bogged down in the war-torn Asian country.

The 1961 Freedom Rides are a testament to the courage, resilience, and unwavering commitment of those who risked everything to fight for equality and justice. Their journey, marked by both suffering and triumph, forever altered the course of American history, paving the way for a more just and equitable society. As we reflect on their legacy, we are reminded of the ongoing struggle for civil rights and the importance of standing up against injustice in all its forms.

The Freedom Riders, through their actions, taught us that change is possible, but it requires sacrifice, unity, and the relentless pursuit of what is right. Their story is not just a chapter in history; it is a beacon of hope and a call to action for future generations to continue the fight for freedom and equality for all.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.