In the year 1960, James Farmer- leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)- led a small group of interracial students and activists in protesting the Jim Crow laws of the South in a series of “freedom rides” throughout the region. The project was based off of the 1946 failed “Journey of Reconciliation” also created by CORE when the Supreme Court’s decision in Morgan v. the Commonwealth of Virginia outlawed segregated interstate travel. The journey was never completed, as segregationists ignored the Court’s ruling. Farmer recreated these first freedom rides with his group of activists.
Organizers from core organized a group of twelve activists, or freedom riders, to travel on the Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. In both buses, no incidents occurred across the states of Virginia and North Carolina, but chaos ensued in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Several white males beat many of the freedom riders for using a “whites only” bathroom. Still, the rides continued. On May 14th, the Greyhound bus of freedom riders was attacked by a mob in Anniston, Alabama. The angry mob slashed the tires of the bus and threw rocks at passengers. The driver was able to move out of town, but they were followed by more angry whites who then set the bus on fire, ending the ride. The Trailways bus continued moving, through they were also attacked by the white mob. When reaching Birmingham, an even larger mob of angry whites attacked the passengers with weapons such as baseball bats and led pipes.
Though they were beaten, activists were not deterred in challenging white racism. Diane Nash of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized another freedom ride beginning in Nashville after hearing about the fate of the first two freedom riders. The riders reached Birmingham and were met by Eugene “Bull” Conner, one of the most vicious Public Safety Commissioners during the Civil Rights movement, and the riders were put into police custody, then transported to the Tennessee state line on the side of the highway. Nash and the other freedom riders did not let this deter them, and went back the 100 miles to Nashville to create a new plan.
On May 20th, SNCC tried again, riding to Birmingham with no incident. When they reached Montgomery, a large mob of men, women, and children, viciously attacked the riders with bricks, baseball bats, and other blunt instruments. Many of the activists sustained terrible injuries, including SNCC members John Lewis and Jim Zwerg. The entire attack was televised. Farmer was able to move the remaining group to Jackson, Mississippi, where they received state protection as they travelled across the state. As they reached the bus terminal in Jackson, the riders were arrested and fined for $200 a passenger. After refusing, the riders were sentenced to 90 days in jail, where they suffered oppressive conditions. They were made to sleep on the floor, experienced beatings and strip searches, and were also given inedible food. By the end of the summer, over 300 men and women were incarcerated in the jail.
Though the Freedom Riders were unable to reach New Orleans, their efforts still led to positive change. Attorney General Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission, which outlawed segregation in interstate travel. Sanctions were imposed for any violations of the ruling, unlike the previous Supreme Court decision. The order went into effect on November 1st, 1961. The courageous acts of civil disobedience by the freedom riders finally had succeeded in enacting change.
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