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Civil rights movement

The Freedom Riders

Morgan v. Virginia 1946

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional. Southern states ignored this ruling and continued to arrest African Americans who used any facilities set aside for white people.

Boynton v. Virginia 1960

Boynton v. Virginia was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The case overturned a judgment convicting an African American law student for trespassing by being in a restaurant in a bus terminal which was "whites only".

4 May 1961 – The First Ride

The first Freedom Ride began. Thirteen protesters (seven Black and six white) were led onto a bus by CORE director James Farmer. The group was led out of Washington on a Greyhound bus. The plan for the 13 was to ride through Virginia, Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, before arriving in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Trouble struck as the group travelled through Virginia and North Carolina, but when reaching South Carolina, Genevieve Hughes, John Lewis, and Al Bigelow were beaten in Rock Hill. Some of the riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Winnsboro, South Carolina.

15 May 1961 – KKK attack

On May 15, 1961 a mob of more than 100 KKK supporters attacked the Freedom Riders in Anninston Alabama, slashing tires and smashing windows. Even as the bus attempted to drive off, the attackers chased it down and set it on fire. The Klansman attempted to prevent the Freedom Riders from getting off the bus. It was only the presence of an undercover cop on the bus that ensured they could escape shortly before the gas tanks exploded.

A replacement bus was attacked again as it reached Anniston, with the Freedom Riders badly beaten. More trouble awaited the bus en-route to Birmingham, as Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, encouraged yet another group of Klan supporters to attack the riders again.

17 May 1961 – Resuming the Freedom Ride

Undeterred by the violence of the previous days, the Freedom Riders decided to continue. Nashville student leader Diane Nash told Reverend Shuttlesworth:

“The students have decided that we can’t let violence overcome. We are coming to Birmingham to continue the Freedom Ride.”

Ten riders (eight Black and two white) took the bus from Nashville to Birmingham. When the Riders arrived at Birmingham they were arrested by Bull Connor, who took them to Tennessee and unceremoniously dumped them by the side of the road. 

Now 19 protesters (16 Black, three white) returned to the Greyhound terminal. The driver refused to let them on the bus. “I have only one life to give,” the driver said, “and I’m not going to give it to a NAACP or CORE.”

20 May 1961 – The Ride resumes

Afraid of further Klan attacks, the bus headed south at high speed under police escort towards Montgomery, but as it reached the city, the police disappeared and hundreds of Klansman attacked the bus with baseball bats and bottles chanting: “Get the niggers!”

John Lewis was struck by a wooden crate to the head, while reporters were attacked and cameras broken. The Freedom Riders were later blamed for the violence that occurred that day.  

21st May 1961 – A community honours the Riders

Horrified by the previous day’s events, more than 1,200 people gathered in the Reverend Abernathy's 1st Baptist church to honour the Freedom Riders. Outside the church, a mob of 3,000 whites attempted to storm the building, overturning a car and setting it alight. As the people inside sung hymns, the racist mob tried to throw petrol bombs through the windows.

President Kennedy reluctantly moved towards committing federal troops, but Alabama Governor Patterson instead sent in the National Guard to separate the mob. As people tried to leave the church, the Alabama National Guard forced them at bayonet point to remain inside the tear-gas-filled building for the night. 

24 May 1961 – Arrests in Jackson

Refusing to be defeated, a dozen Freedom Riders went on a 250 mile journey to Jackson, Mississippi, three days later.

When the bus arrived, the Riders attempted to use a "white only" restroom and were immediately arrested. The Mississippi Governor, Ross Barnett, said in defence of segregation:

“The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him.”

Behind bars, the Riders shouted “Jail no bail!” and refused to pay fines, ensuring the issue was kept alive in the media. They spent 39 days in total behind bars.

29 May 1961 – Kennedy’s finally acts

Attorney General Robert Kennedy requested a ruling from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to ban all segregation on interstate buses.

1 November 1961 – Victory

The ICC approved Robert Kennedy's request. Passengers could sit wherever they wanted to, white and colored signs were removed, and restaurants could serve whoever they wanted regardless of race.