Freedom Rideexternal image busdesegregation_freedomrides.jpg

By Kaitlyn Jensen

The Freedom Riders were a group of Civil Rights activists, both white and African American, who rode from Washington D.C. in to the southern United States on interstate buses to challenge the local laws and customs that enforced racial segregation in the south. They did this in order to test the Supreme Court Boynton v. Virginia, this outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines. The Freedom Ride left D.C. on May 4, 1961 on various forms of public transportation and was due to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, 1961.

The first group of Freedom Riders consisted of 13 people (seven black and six white) and was led by CORE Director James Farmer. They left Washington D.C. on Trailways and Greyhound buses. They planned to travel through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally end in New Orleans, Louisiana with a rally. The Freedom Riders planned to have at least one interracial pair sitting together, at least one black Rider sitting in seats usually reserved for white patrons in the front, the remainder sat scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would follow the South's segregation regulations in order to avoid arrest, this rider was very important because they contacted CORE and arranged bail for any members who had been arrested.

There was only minor trouble in Virginia and North Carolina but John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill and some Riders were arrestedriders.jpg in North and South Carolina. The riders were pleasantly surprised at how easily Georgia was desegregated. However, when the Riders arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, a city known to have ties between law enforcement and the Klu Klux Klan, a mob waited. The police sergeant, Tom Cook, and Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor made arrangements that allowed Gary Thomas Rowe, a member of the most violent Klan in Alabama, and a mob 15 minutes to attack the Riders without any arrests. It was laid out so the initial attack occurred in Anniston, Alabama and the final assault in Birmingham.

In Annistonexternal image freedomridersbus1.jpg the Greyhound bus was attacked and the tires were slashed. The bus was then firebombed by the mob chasing it in cars when it was forced to stop because of the slashed tires. The doors were held shut by the mob who intended to have the Riders burned to death. A fuel tank exploded and caused the mob to retreat, allowing the Riders off the bus. However as they fled the bus the Riders were beaten and only spared lynching by warning shots fired by highway patrolmen into the air. Cars full of defiant black people arrived to remove the injured riders from the scene. Most of the Freedom Riders were refused care, but those in the hospital were kicked out at 2 A.M. because the hospital staff feared the mob waiting outside.
When the Trailways bus arrived in Birmingham it was attacked by a Klan mob. When the Riders exited the bus they were beaten with baseball bats, iron pipes, and bicycle chains. In this mob attack, white Riders were singled out. One white Rider, Jim Peck, was hospitalized and required 53 stitches for head wounds.

Even in the extremely dangerous conditions the Freedom Riders were determined to continue. Kennedy arranged the Riders with an escort to Montgomery, Alabama but the Rider and everyone else was aware of the mobs that awaited them at the bus station. The Greyhound drivers refused to drive the riders anywhere and the Riders realized that if they encountered anymore delays they would miss the rally in New Orleans. The Riders decided that they had called an enormous amount of attention to Civil Rights issues and they decided to abandon the ride and fly directly from Birmingham to New Orleans.

This page details only the original Freedom Ride with 13 brave Civil Rights activists who faced vicious, racist mobs and racist, unhelpful police. The Riders were able to draw an enormous amount of attention to the violent racism in the Deep South and were even able to integrate travel centers in Georgia. The attention that was drawn to the Freedom Riders made this a success. The mobs did not succeed in keeping Freedom Riders home as there were many freedom rides following the original ride.