In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE, created a “Journey of Reconciliation” to draw attention to racial segregation in public transportation in Southern cities and states across the United States. That movement was only moderately successful, but it led to the Freedom Rides of 1961, which forever changed how Americans traveled between states.
The Freedom Rides, which began in May 1961 and ended late that year, were organized by CORE’s national director, James Farmer. The mission of the rides was to test compliance with two Supreme Court rulings: Boynton v. Virginia, which declared that segregated bathrooms, waiting rooms, and lunch counters were unconstitutional, and Morgan vs. Virginia, in which the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to implement and enforce segregation on interstate buses and trains. The Freedom Rides took place as the Civil Rights movement was gathering momentum during a period in which African-Americans were routinely harassed and subjected to segregation in the Jim Crow South.
The original group of 13 Freedom Riders—seven African Americans and six whites—left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. They planned to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.
The group traveled through Virginia and North Carolina, drawing little public notice. The first violent incident occurred on May 12 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. John Lewis, an African American seminary student and member of the SNCC, was viciously attacked as he attempted to enter a whites-only waiting area. Following the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis would become a State Senator and a beacon for the civil rights movement.
The next day, the group reached Atlanta, Georgia, where some riders split off onto a Trailways bus. On May 14, 1961, the Greyhound bus was the first to arrive in Anniston, Alabama. There, an angry mob of about 200 white people surrounded the bus, causing the driver to continue past the bus station.
The mob followed the bus in automobiles, and when the tires on the bus blew out, someone threw a bomb into the bus. The Freedom Riders escaped the bus as it burst into flames, only to be brutally beaten by members of the surrounding mob. The second bus, a Trailways vehicle, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and those riders were also beaten by an angry white mob, many of whom brandished metal pipes. Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor stated that, although he knew the Freedom Riders were arriving and violence awaited them, he posted no police protection at the station because it was Mother’s Day.
Photographs of the burning Greyhound bus and the bloodied riders appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and around the world the next day, drawing international attention to the Freedom Riders’ cause and the state of race relations in the United States.
Following the widespread violence, CORE officials could not find a bus driver who would agree to transport the integrated group, and they decided to abandon the Freedom Rides. However, Diane Nash, an activist from the SNCC, organized a group of 10 students from Nashville, Tennessee, to continue the rides. U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, aided by securing a driver and state protection for the new group of Freedom Riders. The additional protection did not quell the violence. Instead, the police abandoned the Greyhound bus just before it arrived at the Montgomery, Alabama, terminal, where a white mob attacked the riders with baseball bats and clubs as they disembarked. Attorney General Kennedy sent 600 federal marshals to the city to stop the violence.
The violence and arrests continued to garner national and international attention and drew hundreds of new Freedom Riders to the cause. The rides continued over the next several months, as did the violence perpetrated against those who participated. Finally, in the fall of 1961, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals. After the new ICC rule took effect, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains; "white" and "colored" signs were removed from the terminals; racially-segregated drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms serving interstate customers were consolidated; and the lunch counters began serving all customers, regardless of race.
The Freedom Riders helped inspire participation in subsequent civil rights campaigns, including voter registration throughout the South, freedom schools, and the Black Power movement.