Get on the Bus! A Look Back at the Historic Freedom Rides
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EXAMINE

Title: James Peck on hospital gurney
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Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1960s, the Freedom Rides were a form of nonviolent protest conducted on buses by an interracial group of civil rights activists to test the enforcement of laws prohibiting segregation. The first Freedom Ride departed from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, with the goal of arriving in New Orleans on May 17, the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) school desegregation ruling.

As illustrated in the narrative of James Peck, related at right, the Freedom Riders encountered violent resistance from white mobs and little protection from local police once they entered the Deep South. The photo above shows a wounded Peck seated on a hospital gurney; he and others in his group, who had boarded a Trailways bus to Birmingham, were badly beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan when black Freedom Riders refused to move to the back of the bus during a stop in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961. Earlier that day, a Greyhound bus carrying another group of Freedom Riders had also been viciously attacked and firebombed by a white mob. Examine the photo and read Peck's account of the assaults in Anniston, then answer the questions below.

  1. Despite the threat of violence from white segregationists, the Freedom Riders rode buses as a way to challenge lasting forms of segregation in the South. Why did they choose this tactic even though they knew that doing so was dangerous?

  2. Why do you think that people risk their personal safety to challenge discrimination, inequalities, or other kinds of injustices?

  3. Review the reference entry on nonviolence, which formed the core of Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy and shaped many of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. Based on Peck's account of what happened in Anniston, what evidence of the principles of nonviolence can you see in the Freedom Rides?
William Mahoney, a student at Howard University and member of the Nonviolent Action Group, an affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, boarded a bus from Washington, D.C., to Montgomery, Alabama, on May 26, 1961. Read his account in Liberation magazine of his participation in the Freedom Rides, related at right, then answer the questions below.

  1. Why did Mahoney join the Freedom Rides?

  2. Most of the Freedom Riders, like Mahoney, were young, college-aged people who left the security of school and their homes to join a cause in which they believed.
    • What do you consider your generation's greatest social challenge? Do you see any changes that need to be made? In what ways might these issues be addressed? What can be done on an individual level? A group level? What roles might law enforcement, legislators, or the courts play?
    • Can the experiences of the Freedom Riders teach any valuable lessons to young people working against social injustices today? If so, what?

  3. In his narrative, Mahoney writes, "I knew that my parents would oppose my decision [to participate in the Freedom Rides], so I wrote them a letter of explanation (which I mailed while already on the way to Alabama). I consoled myself with the thought that all revolutions have created such conflicts within families."
    • Why might Mahoney's parents oppose his choice to join the Freedom Rides? To what kinds of 'conflicts within families' could he be referring?
    • To what extent do you think generational differences play a part in involvement in social change, or in supporting or opposing such change? Provide specific examples.
    • Imagine yourself in a similar position as Mahoney. What reasons for taking part in the Freedom Rides would you discuss in your letter home?
    • Think about your answers to the first part of Question 2. In what ways are the problems faced by your generation similar to the difficulties faced by the Freedom Riders? How are they different? What reasons would you give for supporting a specific cause that is important to you?

  4. Mahoney and hundreds of other Freedom Riders were imprisoned at the Mississippi state penitentiary in Parchman, where he writes that "days were passed in the hot, overcrowded dining room playing cards, reading . . . and singing." What role did music play in energizing or comforting the Freedom Riders?

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