Ken Olende looks at the Freedom Riders’ heroic struggle to force Southern states to desegregate long distance buses that started in the summer of 1961, as part of our continuing series on the fight against racial segregation in the US
US Civil Rights Movement part 5: The Freedom Rides
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine May-June 2016 / issue 15
Many on the bus “were writing names and addresses of next of kin. The girls were shoving them in their bosoms and the men putting them in pockets or wallets,” Civil Rights leader James Farmer remembered.
The Freedom Riders were on an interstate bus approaching Jackson, Mississippi, and they knew they were taking their lives in their hands by defying the racist Jim Crow laws.
Across the US South the Freedom Rides came out of the sit-in movement.
The US has a federal legal system. Some laws are national, while others apply within the states that passed them. All the segregationist Jim Crow laws were states’ laws. Travel between states showed up contradictions between the two systems.
The Freedom Riders were inspired by an earlier attempt to desegregate interstate transport, when members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had attempted to enforce a court ruling against segregation in 1947. Sixteen members set out on a “Journey of Reconciliation”. They were arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang.
The first Freedom Ride during the CIvil Rights era began in Washington DC on 4th May 1961 with seven black and six white riders. They rode on two buses, one run by Greyhound and the other by Trailways. They were led by CORE’s director James Farmer. Most of the Riders were from CORE, many in their 40s and 50s, but there were two young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists, John Lewis and Hank Thomas. They intended to travel on buses across the South and finish in New Orleans for a Civil Rights rally.
To make sure they were breaking Jim Crow laws, they had at least one black and white volunteer sitting next to each other, and at least one black rider sitting at the front of the bus, an area that was reserved for whites across the South. One rider obeyed all the Jim Crow laws. They believed this would allow them to report what had happened if the others were arrested.
They had little trouble in the first two states they crossed, but then came under attack from white mobs, often organised by the murderous Ku Klux Klan.
The police chief of Birmingham, Alabama, Bull Connor, had told the Klan he would wait 15 minutes before responding to news of the attack. A mob attacked the Greyhound bus outside Anniston. They threw a firebomb on and held the doors shut so as to stop the passengers getting out.
The riders managed to escape, but were then beaten by the mob. The racists looked likely to lynch them until a highway patrolman fired his pistol in the air and forced them to retreat.
Hank Thomas recalled that they went to the local hospital suffering from glass cuts and smoke inhalation. He said, “I was half out of it as a result of the smoke, and gosh, I can still smell that stuff down in me now. You got to the point where you started having the dry heaves. The people at the hospital would not do anything for us. And I was saying, ‘You’re doctors, you’re medical personnel’… And then a crowd started forming outside the hospital and the hospital told us to leave.
“A caravan from Birmingham, about a 15-car caravan led by the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth, came up from Birmingham to get us out… Everyone of those cars had a shotgun in it. And Fred Shuttleworth had got on the radio and said, ‘I’m a nonviolent man, but I’m going to get my people’.”
People on the Trailways bus were also attacked, but the bus made it on into Birmingham, where the Klan savagely beat the Riders.
The attacks had made national news and Martin Luther King and US Attorney General Robert Kennedy called on the Riders to retreat and give up on the ride. King was terrified that someone would get killed.
Diane Nash was head of SNCC at Tennessee University. She said, “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.”
Nash got a group of students, including herself, to drop out of college and take up the ride from Birmingham. Bull Connor arrested them, but they sang defiantly in the prison cells.
Connor took them to the Tennessee state line and dropped them off, but the riders travelled straight back to Birmingham.
The ride was now led by young students who had built the sit-ins campaign—and the two SNCC members John Lewis and Hank Thomas stayed with it. The national government had been forced to put pressure on Connor and Greyhound to let the ride continue and stop embarrassing publicity. Connor provided highway patrol officers to accompany the bus.
But it was abandoned as it came into Montgomery and a white mob beat the protesters. The following night 1,500 people attended a Civil Rights meeting in Ralph Abernathy’s church, while a white mob attacked black people outside.
Eventually the national government came to a deal that meant local forces dispersed the mob. From now on state forces would be allowed to arrest riders, but they would also not allow mobs to attack them. More riders came to join the protest, and to fill the jails of Mississippi as they were arrested for refusing to be segregated.
Held in prison the riders showed their defiance by constant singing of freedom songs. James Farmer recalled that other prisoners joined in the singing, which enraged the warders even more. “They said, ‘If you don’t stop singing we’ll take away your mattress.’ So they yanked the mattresses off those hard metal beds when we wouldn’t stop singing. And we were sleeping on that cold hard surface and they opened the window and turned on the exhaust fan, which brought cold air. I didn’t know Mississippi could get that cold.”
The Kennedy administration called for a cooling off period with no Freedom Rides. Farmer replied, “We have been cooling off for 350 years, and if we cooled off any more, we’d be in a deep freeze.”
The movement launched more than 60 rides during the summer of 1961. Their actions forced the implementation of desegregation on interstate transport in November 1961—though in practice many Southern states dragged their feet for years to come. The bravery and level of commitment of the riders inspired many more to join the fight against racism in the US.