The Freedom Rides were part of a series of protests against the outlawed practice of bus segregation conducted primarily by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The first ride began on May 4, 1961, with a group of “Freedom Riders” leaving Washington, D.C. The Freedom Riders, a collective of Black and White civil rights activists combating Jim Crow laws, were met with persistent violence along their journery.
Even after the historic Morgan v. Virginia (1946) U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made segregating interstate travel illegal, The Deep South held fast to segregation. In 1960, the high court ruled in the Boynton v. Virginia case that segregation at bus stations was also illegal.
College students John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, both defied the law ahead of the 1960 ruling. Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, later joined CORE’s “Freedom Ride” campaign. The Freedom Riders left D.C. en route to New Orleans for a massive rally. As expected, the riders faced problems in Virginia and some were arrested for entering the segregated facilities.
However, it was in Rock Hill, S.C. that things took an extremely dark turn. Lewis along with another CORE member was beaten, and another Rider was arrested for using a “Whites-Only: restroom. News of the violence reached mainstream media, galvanizing the efforts of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The riders pushed on to Alabama, and it is reported that King foretold that the group would meet its biggest challenge there. Arriving in Anniston on May 14, Ku Klux Klan members attacked. One of the buses had its tires slashed and was firebombed, while a White mob attacked the group.
Klansmen entered one of the buses and assaulted riders. That night, local activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth rescued the injured riders from a local hospital. In Birmingham, Connor ordered police to not intervene as KKK members beat the riders with chains and pipes. Media outlets captured photos and accounts on the ground of the event, which eventually caught the attention of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Despite Kennedy promising safe passage for the riders, CORE leader James Farmer ended the rides and the group flew to New Orleans to make the rally. With their cause gaining national attention, the Freedom Riders saw the effort as a mild success.
Diane Nash, a Fisk student and SNCC member, was the pivotal figure in continuing the Freedom Rides, defying a request from the Kennedy administration to end them. The riders flowed in from other organizations over the next few months, filling Southern prisons to capacity. With astounding resilience, the riders were finally able to get President John F. Kennedy’s administration to order the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ban on bus segregation in all facilities under its rule in November 1961.