How the Freedom Riders Movement Began

This group of civil rights activists made history

The Freedom Riders sit beside their burned bus.
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 who met the black and white group on arrival here, Anniston, Ala., May 14, 1961. Underwood Archives

In 1961, men and women from throughout the nation arrived in Washington, D.C., to end Jim Crow laws on interstate travel by embarking on what were called “Freedom Rides.”

On such rides, racially mixed activists traveled together throughout the Deep South—ignoring signs marked “For Whites” and “For Colored” in buses and bus terminals. The riders endured beatings and arson attempts from white supremacist mobs, but their struggles paid off when segregationist policies on interstate bus and rail lines were struck down.

Despite these achievements, the Freedom Riders aren’t the household names like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but they are civil rights heroes nonetheless. Both Parks and King would be heralded as heroes for their roles in ending segregated bus seating in Montgomery, Ala. 

How They Started

In the 1960 case Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional. Yet segregation on interstate bus and rail lines in the South persisted.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group, sent seven blacks and six whites on two public buses headed for the South on May 4, 1961. The goal: to test the Supreme Court ruling on segregated interstate travel in the former Confederate states.

For two weeks, the activists planned to flout Jim Crow laws by sitting on the front of buses and in “whites only” waiting rooms in bus terminals.

“Boarding that Greyhound bus to travel to the Deep South, I felt good. I felt happy,” Rep. John Lewis recalled during a May 2011 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Then a seminary student, Lewis would go on to become a U.S. congressman from Georgia.

During the first few days of their trip, the mixed-race group of activists traveled largely without incident. They didn’t have security and didn’t need it—yet.

But on May 12, Lewis, another black Freedom Rider and a white Freedom Rider named Albert Bigelow, were beaten when they tried to enter a whites-only waiting area Rock Hill, South Carolina.

After arriving in Atlanta on May 13, they attended a reception hosted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But the celebration took on a decidedly ominous tone when King alerted them that the Ku Klux Klan was organizing against them in Alabama.

Despite King’s warning, the Freedom Riders did not change their course. As expected, when they reached Alabama, their journey took a turn for the worse.

A Perilous Journey

On the outskirts of Anniston, Alabama, members of a white supremacist mob showed just what they thought about the Freedom Riders by bashing in their bus and slashing its tires.

To boot, the Alabama Klansmen set the bus on fire and blocked the exits to trap the Freedom Riders inside. It wasn’t until the bus’ fuel tank exploded that the mob dispersed and the Freedom Riders were able to escape.

After a similar mob attacked the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and evacuated the activists to their destination of New Orleans, averting more potential injury.

The Second Wave

Due to the amount of violence inflicted on Freedom Riders, the leaders of CORE were faced either with abandoning the Freedom Rides or continuing to send activists into harm’s way. Ultimately, CORE officials decided to send more volunteers on the rides.

Diane Nash, an activist who helped to organize Freedom Rides, explained to Oprah Winfrey:

“It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.”

On the second wave of rides, activists journeyed from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama in relative peace. Once the activists reached Montgomery, though, a mob of more than 1,000 attacked them.

Later, in Mississippi, Freedom Riders were arrested for entering a whites-only waiting room in a Jackson bus terminal. For this act of defiance, authorities arrested the Freedom Riders, housing them in one of Mississippi’s most notorious correctional facilities—Parchman State Prison Farm.

“The reputation of Parchman is that it’s a place that a lot of people get sent ... and don’t come back,” former Freedom Rider Carol Ruth told Winfrey. During the summer of 1961, 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned there.

Inspiration Then and Now

The struggles of the Freedom Riders garnered nationwide publicity.

Rather than intimidate other activists, however, the brutality the riders encountered inspired others to take up the cause. Before long, dozens of Americans were volunteering to travel on Freedom Rides. In the end, an estimated 436 people took such rides.

The efforts of the Freedom Riders were finally rewarded when the Interstate Commerce Commission decided on Sept. 22, 1961, to ban segregation in interstate travel. Today, the contributions the Freedom Riders made to civil rights are the subject of a PBS documentary called Freedom Riders.

In 2011, 40 students commemorated the Freedom Rides of 50 years before by boarding buses that retraced the journey of the first set of Freedom Riders.