Freedom riders were northerners who took interstate buses down to the south in order to protest Jim Crow and segregation policies.
Most of the freedom riders were college students; about half of them were black and about half were white. Most of them (an estimated 75 percent) were men. The first freedom ride took place in the summer of 1961 ; other rides followed.
Freedom riders held sit-ins at lunch counters, waiting rooms, and restrooms in interstate bus stations throughout the deep south. Their goal was to put to the test a recent Supreme Court ruling which had declared that segregation on interstate bus and rail stations was unconstitutional.
The freedom rides were organized by the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE. The first bus set off from Washington DC on March 4, 1961, carrying seven black and six white protesters to the deep south. The initiative was modeled after CORE’s “Journey of Reconciliation,” which took place in 1947. The Journey of Reconciliation had groups of black and white volunteers ride buses in the south to test out a Supreme Court decision (Morgan v. Virginia, 1946) which declared that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional.
The Freedom Riders soon encountered violent opposition. The historian Raymond Arsenault recounted some of them in his book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Arsenault described the experience of a group of freedom riders in the little town of Anniston, Alabama:
“As the crowd of about fifty surrounded the bus, an eighteen-year-old Klansman and ex-convict named Roger Couch stretched out on the pavement in front of the bus to block any attempt to leave, while the rest — carrying metal pipes, clubs, and chains — milled around menacingly, some screaming, “Dirty Communists” and “Sieg heil!” There was no sign of any police, even though Herman Glass, the manager of the Anniston Greyhound station, had warned local officials earlier in the day that a potentially violent mob had gathered around the station.”
That angry mob beat the northern protesters viciously; one man threw a firebomb threw a bus window. The mob also slashed the bus tires so that the freedom riders had to abandon their burning bus and carry out the next stage of their trip by plane.
Many northerners were horrified by the response of southern police to the attacks on the freedom fighters. Police largely stood by and did nothing to protect the freedom riders against violent mobs. In Jackson, Mississippi, police arrested hundreds of the freedom riders and charged them with breach of the peace. Convicted, they spent up to six weeks in what the New York Times called “sweltering, filthy and vermin infested cells.”
Accounts of the violence spread around the country and helped to raise awareness of the freedom riders and their goals; this also inspired other people to join the movement, and put pressure of President Kennedy to take action. Eventually, Robert Kennedy ordered federal marshals to protect the freedom riders, and the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation on interstate travel.