The purpose was to test new Interstate Commerce Commission regulations and court orders banning segregation in interstate transportation and establish whether facilities at bus terminals on the journey were integrated or segregated. Most of the Freedom Riders who set off in the spring of 1961 were volunteers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and ranged to retired citizens to young students. The Freedom Riders were attacked and greeted with terrifying violence in Alabama and forced to abandon the original Freedom Ride in Montgomery, Alabama. Massive press coverage encouraged hundreds more Freedom Riders to follow their example.
Facts about Freedom Riders
In the Southern states the discriminatory Black Codes and segregation policies of the Jim Crow Laws restricted the rights of African Americans, denying the right to vote and travel freely. These laws segregated whites and blacks in transport, rest rooms, restaurants, education and housing
The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the mid 1950's and early 1960's and people were ready to protest and protect the rights of African American citizens.
The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) as the first true federal regulatory agency for transport. On November 7, 1955 the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) banned bus segregation in interstate travel in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company legal case.
On December 5, 1960, in the legal case of Boynton v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that racial segregation in bus terminals was illegal because this type of segregation violated the Interstate Commerce Act.
The combination of the decisions in the Keys v. Carolina Coach and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), effectively outlawed segregation on interstate buses and at the terminals that serviced the buses.
Racial integration of transport became a serious subject for debate in the Civil Rights activists and the decision was made to test and challenge local laws that continued to enforce segregation in seating or the facilities at bus terminals.
During the spring of 1961, Civil Rights activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched the Freedom Rides calling for volunteers to challenge segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals. The decision was made for Freedom Riders to ride on Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Freedom Riders wanted to test whether they could sit wherever they wanted, eat in integrated dining rooms and were able to use integrated facilities such as rest rooms.
Six white and twelve black Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961. Two of the riders were women. The oldest was 61 years old and the youngest was eighteen years old.
The plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to their final destination of New Orleans, Louisiana. The Freedom Riders knew that it was a dangerous mission.
A revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had emerged in the 1960's opposition to the Civil Rights movement. The KKK advocated a strong racist and anti-communist policy and had gained many new members in the South who were opposed to racial integration. Members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) often forged alliances with Southern police departments and the officers of governor and were again allowed to operate with impunity.
The Freedom Riders passed through Virginia without incident but when they reached the Carolinas John Lewis, Genevieve Hughes and Al Bigelow were attacked in Rock Hill, SC, and some were arrested in both Winnsboro SC and Charlotte in NC. (John Lewis later led the first Selma March, on March 7, 1965 and became one of the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement).
The Freedom Riders passed through Georgia and the towns of Augusta, Athens and Atlanta without incident and the journey progressed to Alabama.
On May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day, the Greyhound Bus carrying Freedom Riders was attacked and fire-bombed by by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) near Anniston, Alabama. SNCC student Hank Thomas was beaten over the head with a baseball bat and others were assaulted.
The Trailways bus arrived in Anniston, and the Freedom Riders were attacked by another mob who board the bus. The Trailways bus manages to escape Anniston and continues its journey to Birmingham, Alabama.
Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor intended to bring the ride to an end in Alabama and encouraged a KKK mob to attack the Freedom Riders. The mob attacked them with iron pipes, baseball bats and bicycle chains, Jim Peck of CORE needed 53 stitches to his wounds.
Eugene “Bull” Connor believed he had achieved his goal. The next destination of the journey was to be Montgomery, Alabama, but Greyhound and Trailways drivers refused to drive any bus carrying Freedom Riders. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called for a “cooling off period” and the original Freedom Ride had to be abandoned on May 17, 1961.
Unable to proceed to Montgomery, the CORE members decided to fly to New Orleans to attend a rally and after many delays finally arrived at New Orleans.
Photographs and media reports of the journey of the Freedom Riders, the burning bus in Anniston and the mob violence in Birmingham shocked the nation and the rest of the world.
Undeterred by the violent events, more Freedom Riders from CORE and SNCC arrived in Montgomery. On May 24, 1961 twelve more Freedom Riders board a Trailways bus bound for Jackson, Mississippi.
When the Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson and attempted to use "white-only" lunch counters and restrooms they were immediately arrested for Breach of Peace and Refusal to Obey an Officer
The subject of racial integration of transport and the Freedom Riders was a matter of serious public and political debate and on September 23, 1961 Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy instructed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue new rules ending discrimination in interstate travel.
From November 1, 1961, all interstate buses were required to display a certificate that reading: "Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission".
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