Journey of Reconciliation
Following an earlier ruling, Morgan v. Virginia (1946), that made segregation in interstate transportation illegal, in 1960 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation in the facilities provided for interstate travelers, such as bus terminals, restaurants, and restrooms, was also unconstitutional. Prior to the 1960 decision, two students, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, integrated their bus ride home from college in Nashville, Tennessee, by sitting at the front of a bus and refusing to move. After this first ride, they oversaw CORE's announcement recruiting volunteers to participate in a Freedom Ride, a longer bus trip through the South to test the enforcement of Boynton. Lafayette's parents would not permit him to participate, but Lewis joined 12 other activists to form an interracial group that underwent extensive training in nonviolent direct action before launching the ride.
The ride continued to Anniston, Alabama, where, on May 14, riders were met by a violent mob of over 100 people. Before the buses' arrival, Anniston local authorities had given permission to the Ku Klux Klan to strike against the Freedom Riders without fear of arrest. As the first bus pulled up, the driver yelled outside, "Well, boys, here they are. I brought you some niggers and nigger-lovers." One of the buses was firebombed, and its fleeing passengers were attacked by the angry white mob. The violence continued at the Birmingham terminal where Eugene "Bull" Connor's police force offered no protection. Although the violence garnered national media attention, the series of attacks prompted CORE's James Farmer to end the campaign. The riders flew to New Orleans, bringing to an end the first Freedom Ride of the 1960s.
The decision to end the ride frustrated such student activists as Diane Nash, who argued in a phone conversation with Farmer: "We can't let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead." Under the auspices and organizational support of SNCC, the Freedom Rides continued. SNCC mentors were wary of this decision, including King, who had declined to join the rides when asked by Nash and Rodney Powell. Farmer continued to express his reservations, questioning whether continuing the trip was "suicide." With fractured support, the organizers had a difficult time securing financial resources.
On May 17, 1961, seven men and three women rode from Nashville to Birmingham to resume the Freedom Rides. Just before reaching Birmingham, the bus was pulled over and directed to the Birmingham station, where all of the riders were arrested for defying segregation laws. The arrests, coupled with the difficulty of finding a bus driver and other logistical challenges, left the riders stranded in the city for several days.
At the Montgomery city line, as agreed, the state troopers left the buses, but the local police that had been ordered to meet the Freedom Riders in Montgomery never appeared. Unprotected when they entered the terminal, riders were beaten so severely by a white mob that some sustained permanent injuries. When the police finally arrived, they served the riders with an injunction barring them from continuing the Freedom Ride in Alabama.
Impact of the Freedom Rides
On May 29, 1961, the John F. Kennedy administration announced that it had directed the ICC to ban segregation in all facilities under its jurisdiction, but the rides continued. Students from all over the country purchased bus tickets to the South and crowded into jails in Jackson, Mississippi. With the participation of northern students came even more press coverage. On November 1, 1961, the ICC ruling that segregation on interstate buses and facilities was illegal took effect.
Those involved in the campaign, saw how provoking white mob violence in the Jim Crow South through nonviolent confrontations could attract national media attention and force federal action. As a result, this strategy of nonviolence was co-opted by activists for future civil rights movement demonstrations as a means of attaining social change.
Clayborne Carson, et al.
Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006; Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995; Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986; Lewis, John, with Michael D'Orso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998; Peck, James. Freedom Ride. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962; Ross, Rosetta. Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.