by David Lisker - 2001
In 1961, the Freedom
Riders, a dedicated group of men and women, black and white, young and old (many from university
and college campuses) across the country boarded buses, trains and planes bound for the deep South to challenge
that region‘s outdated Jim Crow laws and the non-compliance with a US Supreme Court decision
already three years old that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities.
The First Freedom Riders
The first Freedom Riders were members of the Nashville
Student Group, a local group of students who had successfully desegregated the lunch counters and movie theaters
in that city. Emboldened by their victory, the Freedom Riders decided to introduce their strategies
of non-violence throughout the South in order to directly challenge the region’s Jim Crow laws.
Trained in Non-Violence
For this they were well prepared as they were trained in
the discipline of non-violence by no less a figure than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. King's brilliant
leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott had brought an end to that city’s policies
of segregation on its local bus line and catapulted the young Reverend to international fame. Also, Reverend
James Lawson, whose studies of Mahatma Gandhi in India so impressed Dr. King that he urged the
elder Reverend to leave immediately for Nashville to teach the message of non-violence to the Nashville Student
Group. (See David Halberstam’s excellent book, “The Children” for an account of the early
days of the group and their lives since.)
“The Last Supper”
4th, 1961 the night before they were to leave on the first Freedom Ride, the Freedom Riders and the architects
of the Ride met. Present at the dinner were Dianne Nash, the striking young spokeswoman of the group who was
considered too valuable a figure to go on the Rides herself and would instead coordinate efforts
back in Nashville; and James Lawson, the mentor of the Freedom Riders’ in the art of non-violence.
At a Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC, John Lewis,
a young man from rural Georgia and theology student at the American Baptist College in Nashville sat in awe
at the scene before him, partly out of fear at what lay ahead for them all and partly for the
fact that it was the first time in his life that had ever seen Chinese food. While he greatly enjoyed the evening’s
meal that night, John Lewis (now a US Congressman from his home state of Georgia) would later
liken it to “the last supper.” Other Freedom Riders in attendance that evening included Marion
Barry, James Bevel, Hank Thomas, James Peck, Ed Blankenheim, B. Elton Cox, Bernard Lafayette and Jim Zwerg.
The Freedom Rides Begin
The next morning the Freedom Rides boarded the buses
and took their places, blacks and whites seated together on the bus, an act already considered a crime in most
segregated states. At stops along the way, the Freedom Riders entered “whites” and
“colored” areas contrary to where they were supposed to go and ate together at segregated lunch
counters. They met little resistance along the way until Rockville, S.C. where an angry mob
beat the Freedom Riders as they pulled into the station. This was the first of many such beatings the Freedom
Riders were to receive at the hands of angry mobs.
Undaunted by the beatings. the Freedom Riders continued on their journey until Mother’s Day,
May, 14th, 1961 when they were met by an angry mob (dressed in their Sunday finest as if they’d
just come from church) in Anniston, Alabama. Due to the ferocity of the mob, the bus decided not to stop at
the station and it quickly left, already wounded by the mob who had slashed the bus’s
tires at the station. A few miles outside of Anniston the tires began to deflate and the bus was forced to
pull over. As the bus driver fled in glee, a mob of men who had been following the bus got out
of their cars and surrounded the stricken bus. From somewhere in the crowd a firebomb was thrown inside the
bus and exploded. As the Freedom Riders tried to escape the smoke and flames they found they
could not as the exit doors were blocked by the surging mob. Just then one of the gas tanks exploded on the
bus and the mob rushed back allowing the Freedom Riders to push the doors open and escape. As
they exited the burning bus, the Freedom Riders rushed outside still choking from the thick smoke and were
beaten by the waiting vigilantes. As lead pipes and baseball bats were swung, only an onboard
undercover agent prevented the Freedom Riders from being lynched that day as he fired his gun into the air.
Later that same day the Freedom Riders were beaten a second time as they arrived in Birmingham,
Calls To Halt The
While older, more conservative
Civil Rights organizations urged Dianne Nash and the Nashville Students to halt the Freedom
Rides, the brave and determined young group leader steadfastly refused and instead put out a call to CORE,
(the Committee of Racial Equality; SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee); and the SCLC
(the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) headed by Dr. King to bring even more Freedom Riders on board.
Alarmed by the violence, President Kennedy dispatched
his brother, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to strike a deal with the state officials from Mississippi
to ensure that the Freedom Riders would have safe passage to Jackson. In exchange for their
safe passage (the National Guard would escort the Freedom Riders into the state), the Freedom Riders would
be arrested on their arrival in Jackson.
Soon, the local jails
in Jackson were filled to capacity. Over 350 of the Freedom Riders were placed behind bars and
given a six-month sentence for “breach of peace” violations. Rather than posting bail immediately
however, the Freedom Riders chose to remain in jail for forty days, the maximum amount of time
one could remain in jail before losing their right of appeal. As the local jails filled up, many of the Freedom
Riders were transferred to the newly built maximum-security facility at Parchman Farm located
140 miles outside of Jackson.
At Parchman the conditions worsened.
Men and women prisoners were segregated from each other by race and sex. The female population
was housed in the death row wing of the prison and never allowed to go outside and mingle with the general
population. Women in particular were subject to humiliating body searches and allowed no time
The Freedom Riders responded
to their harsh treatment by singing freedom songs from their cells. (One Freedom Rider was actually
a bass singer with the San Francisco Opera.) When the guards demanded they stop their singing, the Freedom
Riders refused. As punishment for their insolence, the guards took away their blankets. “Nights
were cold,” recalls one Freedom Rider as they were forced to sleep “on the cold, hard steel floor.”
Scattered hunger strikes further weakened many of the Freedom Riders physically but did not dampen their moral
Carrying On The Struggle
Upon their release from jail, the Freedom Riders continued
their efforts to end segregation in all walks of life in the South. A second grassroots movement called “Freedom
Highways” followed that was a precursor to the “Freedom Summer project” in 1964-1965 when
thousands of student volunteers came to the South to work on voter registration, school and housing
issues in the black community.
Five months after the first
Freedom Rides left on their historic ride the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in conjunction
with the US Attorney General Robert Kennedy issued a tough new Federal order banning segregation at all interstate
public facilities based on “race, color or creed.” The law became effective on November
This Veteran’s Day, people from throughout
the country will gather in Jackson, Mississippi to pay tribute to these brave American sons and daughters
whose selfless act of courage helped pave the way for others to continue on the road to Civil
Rights in America. And to pass on that legacy to future generations of Freedom Riders committed to building
a better world of tomorrow today.