The Freedom Rides turn 50

A Greyhound bus that had carried Freedom Riders burns beside the highway on May 14, 1961 — Mother’s Day — in Anniston, Ala.

On this day, May 4, in 1961, 13 riders (seven blacks and six whites) set out from Washington D.C. on Greyhound and Trailways buses to the Deep South.

Their journey would become known as the Freedom Rides, and they — and many more after them — would become the Freedom Riders.

The goal was to ride through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to a May 17 rally in New Orleans. On the course of their journey, they would ride various forms of public transportation and challenge local laws and ordinances that enforced segregation.

Two key rulings had previously outlawed segregation on public transportation that crossed state lines, but the laws were not enforced in the South. The purpose of the rides was to expose the violence often used in the South to enforce Jim Crow laws and bolster the Civil Rights Movement.

After minor incidents in Virginia and North Carolina, the riders experienced violence in South Carolina, including the beating of 21-year-old John Lewis in Rock Hill. Lewis would go on to become a pivotal civil rights figure, a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington (the only one still living) and a Congressman from Georgia’s 5th Congressional district (1987-present).

Alabama is where all hell broke loose for the riders, caught between angry white segregationists,  complicit state and local authorities and an inactive Federal government.

On May 14 — Mother’s Day — a Ku Klux Klan-organized mob attacked one bus carrying riders in Anniston, Ala., trapped the riders inside the bus and tried to burn them alive.

The riders of the second bus were beaten mercilessly when they reached Birmingham. There was much of the same when the riders reached Montgomery, where Alabama Governor James Patterson had promised protection.

The riders — by this time the group had expanded from the original 13 to include volunteers to replace beaten, injured and jailed riders, white and black — didn’t reach their May 17 rally in New Orleans. The riders were arrested and jailed whe they finally reached Jackson, Miss.

After the federal government, including the Robert Kennedy-led Justice Department, did little to help the riders, three civil rights groups — CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) sponsored rides all across the South.

Eventually, the result was Kennedy and the Justice Department forced the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce its own 1955 ruling prohibiting segregation of interstate travel and subsequently bus stations, and terminals, the restrooms, water fountains and restaurants.

And even more importantly, the rides proved as inspiration for Southern blacks and like-minded whites to stand up for equality, while uniting many in the North against the Jim Crow rule of the South.

I’m afraid we live in a time where most people have forgotten, or choose to forget, this chapter in our past and the violence many people endured so that future generations wouldn’t know such ugliness. And you know what they say about people who forget the past.

Oprah Winfrey, who says she owes a “deep debt of gratitude” to the Freedom Riders, will have 178 former riders on today’s episode of he show, according to The Associated Press.

Here are some other newspaper features on the anniversary:

John Lewis recalls Freedom Rides — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Freedom Riders stood up for us, for justice — Charlotte Observer editorial

First Freedom Riders were beaten bloody — New Orleans Times-Picayune

On May 16, PBS will begin airing a documentary called Freedom Riders. Along with the film, WGBH has produced a comprehensive website all about the Freedom Rides, the riders themselves, the impact they had, a timeline of the rides, that includes key locations and events and more. It can be found here.

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