Freedom Rides

Civil rights activists known as “freedom riders” took interstate buses throughout the segregated South on “freedom rides” to put to the test the consequences of the 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia. In that instance, the Court concurred with Boynton and required that all interstate facilities be open to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity.

On May 4, 1961, the inaugural freedom ride left Washington, D.C., and was slated to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. Riders, on the other hand, were arrested for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and breaking state and municipal Jim Crow laws. The Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee supported the majority of the future rides. The freedom rides came on the heels of spectacular “sit-ins” and boycotts against segregated restaurants and the like by students and adolescents across the South.

The notion of freedom rides was inspired by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s 1947 “Journey of Reconciliation” campaign. The Journey of Reconciliation, like the freedom rides, was intended to put to the test an earlier Supreme Court rule that prohibited racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin and a few other passengers were imprisoned for breaching Jim Crow regulations regarding public transportation and condemned to serve on a chain gang in North Carolina.

The riders may not have committed civil disobedience since they had a legal right to ignore segregation rules governing interstate transportation facilities in the states they visited. Even after Boynton v. Virginia, their rights were not enforced, and the rides were regarded as illegal throughout most of the South. In reality, when the riders arrived in Mississippi, they were imprisoned for exercising their lawful rights under the ruling of the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia. Despite this ruling, the prevalent enforcement patterns and local judicial decisions in the South ensured that the riders’ conduct was considered illegal by local and state governments. Above all, riders had to rely on nonviolent resistance in the face of mob violence and widespread arrests by authorities anxious to put an end to their rallies. The Freedom Riders experienced significant opposition to their cause, but they eventually earned widespread support from both Southerners and non-Southerners.

Physical Opposition Aided by Police

The deadliest violence during the Freedom Rides came when the buses arrived in Alabama. A crowd stormed one of the buses in Anniston, Alabama, and cut the tires. When the disabled bus had to halt several miles outside of Anniston, it was firebombed by the crowd that had been following it in vehicles. The crowd kept the doors locked as the bus blazed, bent on burning the passengers to death. Finally, an undercover law enforcement officer pulled his revolver and pushed the doors open. Despite this, the riders were brutally attacked as they attempted to exit the flaming vehicle.

When the Trailways bus arrived in Birmingham, Ala., another group of freedom riders was viciously attacked by Ku Klux Klan members, who were aided and abetted by police officers acting on the instructions of Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. People in the awaiting mob battered these freedom riders with baseball bats, iron pipes, and bicycle chains as they departed the bus. Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informant, was among the Klansmen that attacked the bikers. White freedom riders were specifically targeted for furious beatings. Two riders were taken to the hospital, including freedom rider Jim Peck, who needed 52 stitches to repair cuts in his skull.

The hospitalized freedom riders were released from the hospital early that night, around 2 a.m., since the staff was afraid of the crowd that had gathered outside the hospital. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth gathered numerous automobiles packed with people to break through the throng and securely retrieve the injured freedom riders from the hospital. With the majority of the freedom riders injured and the threat of homicide, it was urged that the freedom rides be canceled. Following the horrific beatings and hospitalizations, the majority of the initial freedom riders traveled to New Orleans for a pre-planned gathering.

Enduring the Atrocities

Diane Nash, an SNCC leader from Nashville, thought that if violence was permitted to interrupt the Freedom Rides, the cause would be put back years. She worked hard to locate substitutes for the journey, and on May 17th, a new group of riders, students from Nashville, boarded a bus in Birmingham and were arrested and detained by Bull Connor. While confined, these kids kept their spirits up by performing “freedom songs.” “I just couldn’t bear their singing,” said Police Chief Connor as he took them back up to the Tennessee line and dropped them off. When news of the bus burnings and beatings reached US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he advised freedom riders to exercise caution. He dispatched an aide, John Seigenthaler, to Montgomery, Alabama, to monitor the arrival of the freedom riders.

On May 21, 1961, a new group of freedom riders merged with part of the first group of freedom riders in response to the SNCC’s request for reinforcements. They were being guarded by the Alabama State Highway Patrol as they drove from Birmingham to Montgomery. However, when they arrived in Montgomery, the Highway Patrol abandoned them. A horde of white people gathered at the bus stop and savagely pounded the freedom riders with baseball bats and iron pipes. The local police let the beatings go unabated. Once again, White freedom riders dubbed “N***r Lovers” were targeted for particularly heinous beatings. Seigenthaler, a government official, was also battered and left unconscious in the street. Ambulances refused to transport the injured to the hospital, so local Blacks rescued them, and a number of the freedom riders were eventually hospitalized as needed.

Unfortunately, Nash recognized that the freedom ride campaign was on danger of collapsing once more, and she issued another plea for additional activists to restart the rides. Both blacks and whites traveled to Montgomery to participate in the freedom rides. They formed a habit of taking buses to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were captured and detained. The strategy evolved into attempting to fill the jails. When the cells in Jackson City and Hinds County were full, the freedom riders were moved to Parchman Penitentiary, sometimes known as “Parchman Farm.” The abuse included placement in maximum security facilities and death row, issuing of no clothing other than underpants, no exercise, no mail, and taking away beds, sheets, and toothbrushes when the riders refused to stop chanting liberation songs. Wardens also removed the screens from their windows, and when the cell block got infested with mosquitoes, they hosed down all the riders in the middle of the night with DDT insecticides.

Mission Accomplished

The original party of 13 freedom riders increased to about 450 on their voyage. The freedom rides helped to build trust between Blacks and Whites across the country, motivating individuals of all races to take direct action for civil rights. Perhaps most importantly, freedom riders inspired Blacks in rural regions throughout the South, who subsequently became the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. Many future civil rights movements, such as voter registration, freedom schools, and the Black Power Movement, were inspired by this reputation.

Freedom riders also protested against various sorts of racial discrimination throughout the summer of 1961. They sat at segregated restaurants, lunch counters, and motels. This was especially successful when it targeted big corporations, which moved to desegregate their operations in response to threats of boycotts from the North. Attorney General John F. Kennedy requested that the Interstate Commerce Commission write rules to prohibit racial segregation in bus terminals. The organization was hesitant, but the ICC issued the appropriate instructions in September 1961, and the new regulations went into effect on November 3, 1961.

Diane Nash, James L. Farmer, William Mahoney, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, James Peck, George Bundy Smith, Frederick Leonard, and William Sloane Coffin were among the 436 freedom riders in 1961. 75 percent were male, and the same proportion were under the age of 30; this was evenly divided between Black and White people.

Sources:; Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford University Press, 2006; David Fankhauser, FREEDOM RIDES: Recollections by David Fankhauser;

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