Let the Freedom Rides Roll Through Your Class

When many students think of buses and desegregation, their minds instantly go to Rosa Parks and the 1954 Montgomery Bus Boycott. But the larger civil rights fight over transportation took place seven years later with the Freedom Rides.

Editor's note: This blog was originally published on April 18, 2011.

When many students think of buses and desegregation, their minds instantly go to Rosa Parks and the 1954 Montgomery Bus Boycott. But the larger civil rights fight over transportation took place seven years later with the Freedom Rides.

Teaching Tolerance has great classroom resources on the Freedom Riders, including this story for upper elementary students and a lesson for grades 6-12. PBS’s The American Experience documentary Freedom Riders provides excellent coverage of the subject and is complemented by a teaching guide from Facing History and Ourselves. College students have embarked on a recreation of the Freedom Rides, and other resources can be found here and here.

The Freedom Rides came about thanks to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In 1946, the court struck down segregation on interstate buses, following it up with a ruling against “white” and “colored’’ waiting rooms in 1960.

But southern states ignored these decisions. And the federal government—fearful of white backlash—refused to enforce them. So when the Freedom Riders set out on May 4, 1961, to travel across the South, many people saw this action as rabble rousing. In fact, they were just exercising their rights under U.S. law.

The plan, thought up by organizers at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was to send 13 bus riders—seven black, six white—from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. They would sit together, ignoring rules about black people staying in the back of the bus. They would also mingle in both white and black waiting rooms at bus stations. All were trained in nonviolent tactics in case they were attacked.

To no one’s surprise, the nonviolent training proved necessary. The riders made it across Virginia and North Carolina without serious incident. But in Rock Hill, South Carolina, two riders were viciously attacked as they tried to enter a “whites only” waiting room.

Neither one was seriously injured. But this was a taste of things to come.  

After reaching Atlanta, the Freedom Riders split up in to two groups—one on a Trailways bus and they other on Greyhound. On May 14 in Anniston, Alabama, the Greyhound bus was met by an armed mob of 200 white people. The attackers broke out a window and threw a firebomb inside. Blows from bats and chains greeted the gasping Freedom Riders as they escaped from the bus. A state trooper finally fired his pistol in the air, and the attackers scattered.

Meanwhile, the Trailways bus pulled into Birmingham. The city’s police commander, Bull Connor, gave white thugs there several minutes to do whatever they wanted. As soon as the Freedom Riders were off the bus, the mob attacked with chains, bats and other weapons. Here’s how one reporter saw the attack:

They knocked one man, a white man, down at my feet and the beat him and kicked him until his face was a bloody red pulp. The police did not arrive at this scene until 10 minutes late when these men had, as if on signal, dispersed and had gone further down the street, where I saw some of them discussing their achievement of the day right under the windows of the police commissioner’s office.

The Freedom Rides had been stopped. But this apparent victory for racism blew up in Alabama’s face. Photos of the burning bus and bleeding Freedom Riders shocked people worldwide. An embarrassed President John F. Kennedy was forced to step in and help the Freedom Riders fly out of Birmingham to New Orleans.

Kennedy also called for a “cooling off” period. But young civil rights activists would hear none of it. Diane Nash and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a group of 10 Nashville students to continue the rides. Kennedy then pressured Alabama Gov. John Patterson to provide police protection for the Freedom Riders. Patterson very reluctantly agreed.

But the violence continued. On May 20, white people armed with bats and clubs attacked the new group of Freedom Riders as they entered the Montgomery, Alabama, bus station. Then the following night, more than a thousand black supporters of the Freedom Riders gathered in Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church in Montgomery to hear Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A thin line of U.S. marshals prevented yet another mob of armed, angry white people from smashing into the church. Finally, the governor restored order by sending in the National Guard. 

On May 24, the SNCC Freedom Riders boarded a heavily guarded bus and headed to Jackson, Mississippi. More violence seemed likely. But since mob rule had backfired in Alabama, Mississippi decided to rely on its legal system. As soon as Freedom Riders walked into the segregated waiting rooms, they were arrested and shipped off to Parchman Farm Prison, one of the country’s most notorious lock-ups.

The Freedom Rides did not stop though. Over the next few months, more than 430 Riders crisscrossed the South. About 300 of them ended up in Parchman, and more kept coming. Reporters asked them if they thought the risks were worth it. Hank Thomas, one of the original black Riders, summed up the attitude of most: “I was hit over the head with a club. Even now my chest hurts, and I almost conk out every time I climb a few steps. But I’m ready to volunteer for another ride. Sure. Any time.”

This persistence and courage forced President Kennedy to act. In September, the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued new rules on bus travel. The “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs at bus and rail stations were ordered down on Nov. 1, 1961. Segregationists continued to defy these new rules for a while in many southern cities. But Jim Crow had been badly wounded. The Freedom Riders had won.

Price is a content strategist and editor in Texas.