Throughout the duration of the 1960’s there was a large propensity for segregation in the South, and this had an effect on many different elements of social life including public restrooms, restaurants and other public areas. This also included the public transportation system, which could be attributed with starting much of the civil rights activism that surrounded the “separate but equal” distinction that was brought on by Plessy v. Ferguson years prior. Ever since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white male in 1955, the public transportation system had been a key point in the fight against social injustices based on racial segregation. This all played a part in leading up to the freedom rides of 1961.
On May 4, 1961, a group organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group, embarked on journeys throughout the South from Washington D.C. The group originally was made up of 13 African American and white civil rights activists. The mission was to ride to bus terminals throughout the Deep South with the intent to integrate themselves into the segregated terminals in these cities. Like the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation that was also run by CORE, the freedom riders were testing a court decision on segregation in the South. The original event was in response to the 1947 decision of Morgan V. Virginia, which ruled that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional. The protesters at the time rode buses through the south to see what kind of response they would get when they tried to realize the ruling. 14 years later, it was time to use the same technique to test the limits of the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton V. Virginia, which determined that segregation of interstate transportation facilities was also unconstitutional.
The ride started in Washington D.C. with the seven African Americans and six whites leaving for a planned two week journey to New Orleans. After seeing little opposition or public notice throughout their journey from Virginia through North Carolina, the first incident occurred in Rock Hill, South Carolina on May 12. Three members of the group including John Lewis, a black seminary student and eventual U.S. Representative; and white Navy veteran Albert Bigelow were attacked. A few days later, when arriving in Anniston, Alabama, the rider’s bus was surrounded by an angry mob of about 200 people. The tires were shot out, and a bomb was thrown onto the Greyhound. The second bus the riders got on was also destroyed with the riders also being beaten with metal pipes. The rides were forced to be abandoned due to no drivers being willing to drive the riders anymore because of the risks of their safety.
Other rides began to take place all across the South once news got out of the bloodied victims, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy was able to strike a deal with the Alabama governor to provide police protection for the original riders as they decided to resume their journey. Violence did not stop however, as the police abandoned the riders when another mob attacked them with baseball bats and clubs in Montgomery, Alabama. Eventually, Robert Kennedy was able to send Federal Marshalls to support the riders, but their troubles did not stop there. Other than beatings, the riders were being arrested for using white-only lunch counters and bathrooms.
In the end, this event ended up being a nationwide talking point, and freedom riders were becoming prevalent at many stations around the South. After a few hard months of the rides, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations that prohibited segregation in interstate transit terminals. The new rule directly went along with the Supreme Court decision, and the riders had accomplished what they set out to do.