Seventeen years after Irene Morgan refused to sit in the back of the bus in Hayes Store, Virginia and six years after Rosa Parks’ refusal set off the Montgomery bus boycott bringing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to national attention, a racially integrated group quietly boarded a Trailways and a Greyhound bus in Washington, DC in 1961.
Morgan’s earlier defiance led the NAACP to successfully challenge the State of Virginia’s ban on integrated interstate transportation before the Supreme Court in 1946 (Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia) - but by 1961, little had changed. Interstate buses remained segregated as southern officials refused to accept the Court’s verdict citing Interstate Commerce Commission guidelines. By 1961, lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina and even the Court’s 1955 ‘with all deliberate speed’ decision on Brown v. Board of Education desegregating the nation’s public schools had met with little long-term success.
By 1961, one hundred years after the Civil War, America was still a country divided by its racial history; a country still at war with its own hopes and ideals and, as it was soon to discover, the American people were ready to move toward a new era of tolerance and reconciliation. But that progress would come through bitter struggle.
Immediately after the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was embedded in Constitutional law in 1865 with adoption of the 13th Amendment banning slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment established the concepts of due process and equal protection; and in 1870, the 15th Amendment guaranteed voting rights regardless of race (but not gender). In 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that guaranteed all citizens fair and equal treatment was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
As black southerners began to assume the mantle of full citizenship after the Civil War, white Democrats, still dominating the south’s political landscape, remained intent on depriving blacks of their constitutional rights. Adopting Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation as ‘separate but equal,’ southern blacks who attempted to vote or participate economically or politically were met with swift and brutal retaliation. Living in daily terror amidst a system that condoned lawlessness and assassination in the belief that blacks were less human than whites, Tuckegee Institute’s last Lynch Report estimated 4,733 lynchings of southern blacks between 1882 and 1959 with an average of 150 lynchings annually across the South between 1882 and 1901.
Even after Morgan and President Harry Truman created the Presidential Commission on Civil Rights and introduced anti-lynching legislation which southern Democrats blocked, American blacks were still second-class citizens trapped in a caste system of racial bigotry.
In 1942, the American affiliate of the London-based Fellowship of Reconciliation branched off to form the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) embracing Gandhian principles of pacifism with its mission to ‘abolish the color line through direct non-violent action.” As repeated attempts at bus integration met with fierce resistance and no institutional vehicle to force compliance with Morgan, CORE’s trio of Bayard Rustin, James Farmer and Jim Peck conceived of a Journey of Reconciliation to challenge the continued segregation of the south’s transit system. While philosophical and strategic differences emerged between CORE, impatient for progress and the national NAACP which preferred a more cautious approach through the Courts, two events in the summer of 1946 sparked CORE’s Journey: a WW II combat veteran of the Pacific was severely beaten riding home to North Carolina and lost sight of both eyes by gouging from a police billy club while another WWII combat veteran’s successful trip from Atlanta to Washington, DC encouraged further acts of defiance.
In April, 1947, sixteen volunteers including three ministers, a biologist and a jazz musician traveled a ‘safe’ route through preselected areas of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. By the end of their two week Journey, the value of direct action in exposing the country’s hypocrisy to democratic ideals had proved successful with only 12 arrests and one violent confrontation but the larger goal of a fully integrated transit system south of Mason-Dixon remained illusive.
By the early 1950’s, as Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s attacks took their toll on liberal causes, CORE’s funds and enthusiasm waned as a unanimous 1956 Supreme Court decision (Gayle v Browder) desegregated local city-wide bus transit ending the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, the Eisenhower Administration’s federalizing the National Guard to protect nine black high school students in Little Rock, Arkansas was its last effort to enforce Brown. As each sit-in or march became an individual victory, no one single achievement broke the back of decades of vigilante terror and discrimination.
By the 1960’s, as the country’s consciousness shifted with the ascendancy of rock ‘n roll, the early desegregation of professional sports and entertainment and continued black migration north, CORE recognized it was time to renew its challenge with a bold initiative to end segregated transportation in the deep South. With the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference as cautious as the NAACP, a new militancy in the civil rights movement was about to burst onto the national scene.
By May, 1961, the Freedom Rides would step in with a courage and commitment to non-violent civil disobedience that would accelerate the campaign for social justice and touch the conscience of the Nation. After advance scouts reconnoitered a proposed route to New Orleans, eighteen specially chosen black and white Americans ranging in age from 18 to 61 years were trained and ready to take the long ride into history.
Separated on two buses, their ride continued for more than a week through Virginia, North and South Carolina and even most of Georgia without major incident. During their stop in Atlanta, Dr. King declined the opportunity to join the Ride and warned ‘you will never make it through Alabama.”
As the Riders traveled through the Deep South, CORE’s earlier communique to government authorities was transmitted to the infamous Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety for the City of Birmingham, Alabama. Unbeknownst to the Riders, a southern-style Ku Klux Klan welcome of vigilante justice was awaiting their arrival. The Greyhound bus left Atlanta an hour earlier and headed west to Anniston, Alabama with two undercover agents from the Alabama Highway Patrol on board. Approaching Anniston, the bus driver received a warning that an angry mob had gathered and as the Greyhound arrived at the bus terminal, a crowd of white men screaming ‘sieg heil’ and armed with assorted chains, crowbars, pipes, bats and brass knuckles surrounded the bus, broke its windows, dented its body and punctured its tires. Local police escorted the bus to the city limits as a long line of vehicles filled with hysterical hoodlums followed until two flat tires ground the bus to a halt. Thereupon, without police protection, all hell broke loose. With its passengers still inside, the crazed mob continued to rock the bus until burning rags thrown in filled the interior with dense black smoke, setting its seats aflame. Three Riders squeezed out through open windows while several passengers escaped out the front door. As one of the Highway Patrolman pried open a door to allow the remaining passengers to escape, shouts of “fry the niggers’ and ‘burn them alive” were drowned out as both gas tanks exploded. Warning shots in the air from the Patrolman ultimately drove the maddened throng away. In the aftermath of the attack, ambulance service was denied until the same Patrolman intervened. Upon arrival at the nearest hospital, the Klan attempted to block access to medical treatment and maintained a vocal presence threatening to set the hospital on fire. Evicted from the hospital before nightfall as the Klan crowd continued to jeer, the Riders were rescued by a caravan of church Deacons flaunting rifles as their wounded passengers sought refuge.
Faring only slightly better than the Greyhound, the Trailways bus with the remaining Riders had taken a different route. Several beefy Klansmen had boarded in Atlanta and began to beat the male Riders as they crossed into Alabama. When the bus arrived at the Birmingham terminal, the Riders exited as a new contingent continued the beatings with several Riders rendered unconscious. Coincidentally, CBS reporter Howard K. Smith was in Birmingham and reported eyewitness attacks to the nation as several photographers were assaulted, their cameras later retrieved to ultimately share images of the Klan in action.
Once the Riders of both buses were reunited, the decision was made to complete the Ride to New Orleans but access out of Birmingham was blocked by bomb threats. Meanwhile a group of seasoned civil rights students from Tennessee State organized a second Freedom Ride which left Nashville less than 48 hours later headed to Birmingham.
Sixty three Freedom Rides continued for the remainder of 1961 with over 400 participants including Riders who went on to national prominence such as two current Members of the House of Representatives John Lewis and Robert Filner, James Forman, Percy Sutton, Mark Lane, Stokely Carmichael, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Tom Hayden, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Bayard Rustin and current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the often violent struggle for full citizenship brought a new generation of young people into the civil rights movement, more willing to take risk and less willing to wait for justice.
Now, fifty years later with the envisioned Promised Land still on the horizon, the time has come to honor the 350 surviving Freedom Riders for their sacrifices and their glorious achievement which changed the country forever and made it a better place for all Americans.