Freedom Riders

A Journey Into the Deep South to End Segregation on Interstate Buses

Freedom Riders on a Greyhound bus sponsored by the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), sit on the ground outside the bus after it was set afire by a group of whites.
Freedom Riders on a Greyhound bus sponsored by the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), sit on the ground outside the bus after it was set afire by a group of whites. (May 14, 1961). (Photo by Underwood Archives / Contributor)

Who Were the Freedom Riders?

On May 4, 1961, a group of seven blacks and six whites (both men and women), sponsored by CORE, set out from Washington D.C. into the Deep South on a quest to challenge the entrenched segregation of interstate travel and facilities in racist Southern states.

The deeper into the South the Freedom Riders went, the more violence they experienced. After one bus was firebombed and another attacked by a KKK mob in Alabama, the original Freedom Riders were forced to end their travels.

This, however, did not end the Freedom Rides. Members of the Nashville Student Movement (NSM), with the help of the SNCC, continued the Freedom Rides. After more, brutal violence, a call for help was sent out and supporters from around the country traveled to the South to ride on buses, trains, and airplanes to end segregation on interstate travel. Hundreds were arrested.

With overfilled jails and additional Freedom Riders continuing to travel in the South, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) finally outlawed segregation on interstate transit on September 22, 1961.

Dates:  May 4, 1961 -- September 22, 1961

Segregation on Transit in the South

In 1960's America, blacks and whites lived separately in the South due to Jim Crow laws. Public transit was a chief component of this systemic racism.

Transit policies established that blacks were second-class citizens, an experience abetted by all-white drivers who verbally and physically abused them.

Nothing raised the ire of blacks more than humiliating, racially-segregated transit.

In 1944, a young black woman named Irene Morgan refused to move to the back of the bus after boarding a bus that was to travel across state lines, from Virginia to Maryland. She was arrested and her case (Morgan v. Virginia) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who decided on June 3, 1946 that segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional.

However, most Southern states did not change their policies.

In 1955, Rosa Parks challenged segregation on buses that remained in a single state. Parks’ actions and subsequent arrest started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Boycott, led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lasted 381 days, ending on November 13, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court supported a lower court’s decision on Bowder v. Gayle that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, buses in the Deep South remained segregated.

On December 5, 1960, another U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Boynton v. Virginia, declared segregation in interstate transit facilities to be unconstitutional. Again, states in the South did not honor the ruling.

CORE decided to challenge the illegal, de facto policy of segregation on buses and transit facilities in the South.

James Farmer and CORE

In 1942, professor James Farmer co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) with an interracial group of college students at the University of Chicago. Farmer, a child prodigy who entered Wiley University at age 14, groomed students to challenge America's racism through Gandhi's peaceful methods of protest.

In April 1947, Farmer participated with pacifist Quakers in the Fellowship of Reconciliation -- busing across the South to test the efficacy of the Court's ruling in Morgan v. Virginia to end segregation.

The ride met with violence, arrests, and the grim reality that the law's enforcement was solely dependent upon racist white authorities. In other words, it wasn't going to happen.

In 1961, Farmer decided it was again time to draw the Justice Department’s attention to the South’s noncompliance with the Supreme Court’s rulings on segregation.

The Freedom Rides Begin

In May 1961, CORE began recruitment of volunteers to ride two buses, Greyhound and Trailways, across the Deep South. Labeled the “Freedom Riders,” seven blacks and six whites were to travel through the Deep South to defy Jim Crow laws in Dixieland.

Farmer warned the Freedom Riders of the danger in challenging the South's “white” and “colored” world. The Riders, however, were to remain nonviolent even in the face of hostility.

On May 4, 1961, 13 CORE volunteers and three journalists departed Washington, DC on interstate transit enroute to Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee -- their final destination being New Orleans.

The First Violence

Traveling four days without incident, the Riders encountered trouble in Charlotte, North Carolina. Seeking to have his shoes shined in the bus terminal's whites-only section, Joseph Perkins was attacked, beaten, and jailed for two days.

On May 10, 1961, the group encountered violence in the whites-only waiting room of a Greyhound bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Riders John Lewis, Genevieve Hughes, and Al Bigelow were attacked and injured by several white men.

King and Shuttlesworth Urge Caution

Arriving in Atlanta, Georgia on May 13, the Riders met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a reception honoring them. The Riders were excited to meet the great leader of the Civil Rights Movement and expected King to join them.

However, the Freedom Riders were unsettled when a worried Dr. King stated the Riders would never make it through Alabama and urged them to turn back. Alabama was a hotbed of KKK violence.

Birmingham Pastor Fred Shuttlesworth, an outspoken civil rights supporter, also urged caution. He had heard a rumor of a planned mob attack on the Riders in Birmingham. Shuttlesworth offered his church as a safe-haven.

Despite the warnings, the Riders boarded an Atlanta-to-Birmingham bus the morning of May 14.

Only five other regular passengers boarded aside from the Riders and journalists. This was highly unusual for the Greyhound bus heading to a rest stop in Anniston, Alabama. The Trailways bus lagged behind.

Unknown to the Riders, two of the regular passengers were actually undercover Alabama Highway Patrol agents.

Corporals Harry Simms and Ell Cowlings sat in the back of the Greyhound, with Cowlings wearing a microphone to eavesdrop on the Riders.

The Greyhound Bus Gets Firebombed in Anniston, Alabama

Although blacks made up 30% of Anniston's population in 1961, the city was also home to the most ardent and violent Klansmen. Almost immediately upon arrival in Anniston on Mother's Day, May 14, the Greyhound was attacked by a group of at least 50 screaming, brick-throwing, axe and pipe-wielding, blood-thirsty white people and Klansmen.

A man lay in front of the bus to prevent it from leaving. The bus driving got off the bus, leaving the passengers to the mob.

The unarmed Highway Patrol agents rushed to the front of the bus to lock the doors. The angry mob yelled insults at the Riders, threatening their lives. Then the mob slashed the bus's tires and hurled large rocks at the Riders, badly denting the bus and smashing its windows.

When police arrived 20 minutes later, the bus was heavily damaged. The officers sauntered through the crowd, stopping to chat with some members of the mob. After a cursory assessment of the damage and getting another driver, the officers led the hobbled Greyhound from the terminal to the outskirts of Anniston. There, police abandoned the Riders

Thirty to forty cars and trucks filled with attackers had stalked the crippled bus, planning to continue its assault. Also, local journalists had followed to record the impending massacre.

Slashed tires unraveling, the bus could go no further.

The Freedom Riders sat like prey, anticipating the encroaching violence. Gas-soaked rags were tossed through broken windows by the mob, starting fires within the bus.

The attackers blocked the bus to prevent the passengers from escaping. Fire and smoke filled the bus as the trapped Freedom Riders screamed that the gas tank would explode. To save themselves, the attackers ran for cover.

Although the Riders managed to escape the inferno through smashed windows, they were beaten with chains, iron pipes, and bats as they fled. Then the bus became a fiery furnace when the fuel tank exploded.

Assuming everyone on board were Freedom Riders, the mob attacked them all. Deaths were prevented only by the arrival of the highway patrol, who fired warning shots into the air, causing the blood-thirsty mob to retreat.

The Wounded Are Refused Medical Care

All on board required hospital care for smoke inhalation and other injuries. But when an ambulance arrived, called by a state trooper, they refused to transport the severely injured black Freedom Riders. Unwilling to leave their black brothers-in-arms behind, the white Riders exited the ambulance.

With a few choice words from the state trooper, the ambulance driver reluctantly transported the entire injured group to Anniston Memorial Hospital. However, once again, black Riders were denied treatment.

The mob had trailed the wounded warriors yet again, intent on having a lynching. Hospital workers became frightened as night fell, and the mob threatened to burn down the building. After administering the most basic medical treatment, the hospital's superintendent demanded the Freedom Riders leave.

When local police and the highway patrol refused to escort the Riders out of Anniston, one Freedom Rider remembered Pastor Shuttlesworth and contacted him from the hospital. The prominent Alabamian dispatched eight vehicles, driven by eight arms-bearing deacons.

While police held the heckling crowd at bay, the deacons, with their weapons visible, shuffled the weary Riders into the cars. Grateful to be out of harm's way momentarily, the Riders asked about the welfare of their friends on the Trailways bus. The news wasn't good.

The KKK Attacks the Trailways Bus in Birmingham, Alabama

Seven Freedom Riders, two journalists, and a few regular passengers aboard the Trailways bus arrived in Anniston an hour behind the Greyhound. As they watched in shocked horror the assault on the Greyhound bus, eight white KKK assailants boarded -- thanks to a complicit driver.

Regular passengers hurriedly disembarked as the group began to violently beat and drag black Riders sitting in the front of the bus to the rear.

Furious at the white Riders, the mob pummeled 46-year-old Jim Peck and 61-year-old Walter Bergman with Coke bottles, fists, and clubs. Although the men were severely injured, bleeding and unconscious in the aisle, one Klansman continued to stomp them. As the Trailways sped from the terminal onward to Birmingham, the racist attackers stayed on board.

The whole trip, the Klansmen taunted the Riders about what awaited them. Birmingham's notorious Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor had collaborated with the KKK to ambush the Riders upon arrival. He'd granted the Klan 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted to the Riders, including murder, without interference from police.

The Trailways terminal was eerily quiet when the Riders pulled in. However, as soon as the bus's doors opened, the eight KKK members on board brought fellow KKKers and other white supremacists aboard to attack everyone on the bus, even the journalists.

Just regaining consciousness, Peck and Bergman were dragged from the bus and savagely beaten with fists and clubs.

To justify his impotent response 15-20 minutes later, Bull Connor claimed that most of his police force was off-duty celebrating Mother's Day.

Many Southerners Support the Violence

Pictures of the vicious attacks on the nonviolent Freedom Riders and the burning bus circulated, making world news. Many people were outraged, but white Southerners, seeking to preserve their segregated way of life, asserted the Riders were dangerous invaders and got what they deserved.

News of the violence reached the Kennedy Administration, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy made phone calls to the governors of states where the Riders were traveling through, requesting safe passage for them.

However, Alabama's Governor John Patterson refused to take Kennedy’s phone calls. At the mercy of complicit Southern drivers, corrupt police officials, and racist politicians, the Freedom Rides appeared doomed.

The First Group of Freedom Riders End Their Travels

Trailways Freedom Rider Peck had sustained severe injuries in Birmingham; however, all-white Carraway Methodist refused to treat him. Again, Shuttlesworth stepped in and took Peck to Jefferson Hillman Hospital, where Peck’s head and face injuries required 53 stitches.

Afterwards, the unflappable Peck was ready to continue the Rides -- boasting that he'd be on the bus to Montgomery the next day, May 15th. While the Freedom Riders were ready to continue, no driver was willing to transport the Riders from Birmingham, fearing more mob violence.

Word then came that Kennedy's Administration had made arrangements for the hapless Riders to be transported to Birmingham's airport and flown to New Orleans, their original destination. It appeared the mission was over without producing the desired results.

The Rides Continue With New Freedom Riders

The Freedom Rides were not over. Diane Nash, leader of the Nashville Student Movement (NSM), insisted the Riders had made too much headway to quit and concede victory to racist whites. Nash was worried word would spread that all it took was to beat, threaten, jail, and intimidate blacks and they'd give up.

On May 17, 1961, ten students of NSM, supported by the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), took a bus from Nashville to Birmingham to continue the movement.

Trapped on a Hot Bus in Birmingham

When the NSM students' bus arrived in Birmingham, Bull Connor was waiting. He allowed regular passengers off but instructed his police to hold the students on the hot bus. Officers covered the bus's windows with cardboard to conceal the Freedom Riders, telling reporters it was for their safety.

Sitting in sweltering heat, the students had no idea what would happen. After two hours, they were allowed off the bus. The students went straightway to the whites-only section to use the facilities, and were immediately arrested.

The imprisoned students, now separated by race and gender, went on a hunger strike and sang freedom songs. It irritated the guards who shouted racial insults and beat the only white male Rider, Jim Zwerg.

Twenty-four hours later, under cloak of darkness, Connor had the students taken from their cells and driven to Tennessee's state line. While the students were sure they were about to be lynched, Connor instead issued warning to the Riders never to return to Birmingham.

The students, however, defied Connor and returned to Birmingham on May 19, where eleven other recruits waited at the Greyhound station. However, no bus driver would take the Freedom Riders into Montgomery, and they spent a scary night at the station in a standoff with the KKK.

The Kennedy Administration, state officials, and local authorities argued over what to do.

Attacked in Montgomery

After an 18-hour delay, the students finally boarded a Greyhound from Birmingham to Montgomery on May 20, escorted by 32 patrol cars (16 in front and 16 behind), a motorcycle patrol, and surveillance copter.

The Kennedy Administration had arranged with Alabama's governor and safety director Floyd Mann for the Rider's safe transport, but only from Birmingham to the outer edge of Montgomery.

Past violence and the ever-present threat of more violence made the Freedom Rides headline news. Carloads of reporters trailed the caravan -- and they didn't have to wait long for some action.

Arriving at Montgomery's city limit, the police escort left and no new one was waiting. The Greyhound then traveled into downtown Montgomery alone and entered into an eerily quiet terminal. Regular passengers climbed off, but before the Riders could disembark, they were surrounded by an enraged mob of over 1,000 people.

The mob wielded bats, metal pipes, chains, hammers, and rubber hoses. They attacked reporters first, breaking their cameras, then set upon the stunned Freedom Riders.

The Riders would have surely been killed if Mann hadn't driven up and fired a shot in the air. Help arrived when a squad of 100 state troopers responded to Mann's distress call.

Twenty-two people required medical treatment for severe injuries.

A Call to Action

Nationally televised, the Freedom Riders' declaration that they were willing to die to end segregation served as a clarion call. Students, businessmen, Quakers, Northerners, and Southerners alike boarded buses, trains, and airplanes to the segregated South to volunteer.

On May 21, 1961, King held a rally to support the Freedom Riders at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. The crowd of 1,500 was soon dwarfed by a hostile mob of 3,000 hurling bricks through stained-glass windows.

Trapped, Dr. King called Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who dispatched 300 federal marshals armed with tear-gas. Local police arrived belatedly, using batons to disperse the crowd.

King had the Freedom Riders taken to a safe-house, where they were stayed for three days. But on May 24, 1961, the Riders resolutely walked into the white-only waiting room in Montgomery and purchased tickets to Jackson, Mississippi.

To Jail, No Bail!

Upon arrival in Jackson, Mississippi, the Freedom Riders were jailed for attempting to integrate the waiting room.

Unknown to the Riders, federal officials, in exchange for their protection from mob violence, had agreed to allow state authorities to jail the Riders to end the rides for good. Locals praised the governor and law enforcement for being able to handle the Riders.

The prisoners were shuffled between Jackson City Jail, Hinds County Jail and, ultimately, the dreaded maximum-security Parchman Penitentiary. The Riders were stripped, tortured, starved, and beaten. Though frightened, the captives sang "To jail, no bail!" Each Rider remained in jail 39 days.

Large Numbers Arrested

With hundreds of volunteers arriving from around the country, challenging segregation on the different modes of interstate transit, more arrests followed. About 300 Freedom Riders were jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, creating a financial burden for the city and inspiring even more volunteers to fight segregation.

With national attention, pressure from the Kennedy Administration, and jails filling up all too quickly, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) made a decision to end segregation on interstate transit on September 22, 1961. Those who disobeyed were subjected to heavy penalties.

This time, when CORE tested the efficacy of the new ruling in the Deep South, blacks were sitting up front and using the same facilities as whites.

Legacy of the Freedom Riders

A total of 436 Freedom Riders rode interstate buses across the South. Each individual played a significant role in helping to bridge the Great Divide between the races. Most of the Riders continued a life of community service, often as teachers and professors.

Some had sacrificed everything to right the wrongs committed against black humanity. Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg's family disowned him for “shaming”' them and defying his upbringing.

Walt Bergman, who'd been on the Trailways bus and nearly killed along with Jim Peck during the Mother's Day massacre, suffered a massive stroke 10 days later. He was in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

The efforts of the Freedom Riders were key to the Civil Rights Movement. A brave few volunteered to take a dangerous bus ride and secured a victory that changed and raised the lives of countless black Americans.