To study the civil rights movement in a higher level, we should always respect the courage and sacrifice of the Freedom Riders. The Freedom Rides lasted from May 4 to December 10, 1961. The ironic is thing that the Freedom Riders wanted to enforce legal statues that many Southern states refused to enforce. The Supreme Court cases of Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960) banned segregated public buses involving interstate travel. The Southern states ignored the rulings and the federal government did nothing to enforce them. The Kennedy administration did a disgraceful job in handling the situation. About 436 individuals participated in the Freedom Rides at least 60 separate Freedom Rides. Black people and white people were involved in the movement. There was the jail no bail tactic used in a mass scale, which was about activists being in jail and refusing bail, so jails would overcrowd and changes would come. CORE, SNCC, and the NAACP were actively involved in the Freedom Riders campaign. The activists wanted to sit in an integrated fashion in interstate buses to stand up for justice. The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961. They wanted to go into New Orleans on May 17. The Freedom Riders also protested Jim Crow apartheid in the South as well. They used sit ins in segregated lunch counters. Much of the Freedom Rides were young people including college kids. As we know, many of the Freedom Riders were assaulted, arrested, and abused by white racist mobs. Many of these mobs were Klan members, white supremacists, and others while the police did nothing to stop the violence by the mobs immediately. The mobs would attack the Freedom Riders and the police would allow the violence to happen without intervention for an extended period of time. The Freedom Riders were inspired by the Journey of Reconciliation. That was led by civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and George Houston. This was to test an earlier Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin and a few other riders, chiefly members of the Congress (CORE), were arrested and sentenced to serve on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating local laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation. Now, it is time to show information about the Freedom Rides in its 55th year anniversary.
The first Freedom Ride started in May 4, 1961. It was led by CORE Director James Farmer. It included 13 riders (seven black people, six white people, including Genevieve Hughes, William E. Harbour, and Ed Blankenheim) left Washington, DC, on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana, where a civil rights rally was planned. Most of the Riders were from CORE, and two were from SNCC. Many were in their 40's and 50's. Some were as young as 18. The Freedom Riders’ plan included many things. They wanted to have least one interracial pair sitting in adjoining seats. They wanted to have at least one black rider to sit up front where seats under segregation had been reserved for white customers by local custom all over the South. The rest of the team would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would abide by the South's segregation rules in order to avoid arrest and to contact CORE and arrange bail for those who were arrested. Only minor trouble was encountered in Virginia and North Carolina, but John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Some of the Riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina; Winnsboro, South Carolina; and Jackson, Mississippi. During this time, Bull Connor (or the then Birmingham, Alabama Police Commissioner) along with Police Sergeant Tom Cook (who was an Ku Klux Klan supporter) organized its forces to execute violence against the Freedom Riders via local Klan Chapters. Both Connor and Cook made plans to bring the Ride to an end in Alabama, but they failed since evil is never infallible. They assured Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informer and member of Eastview Klavern #13 (the most violent Klan group in Alabama), that the mob would have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any arrests being made. The plan was to allow an initial assault in Anniston with a final assault taking place in Birmingham.
Major mob violence happened against the Freedom Riders on May 14, 1961 on Mother’s Day in Anniston, Alabama. A group of Klansmen, some still in church attire, attacked the first of the two buses (the Greyhound). The driver tried to leave the station, but was blocked until Klan members slashed its tired. The mob forced the crippled bus to stop several miles outside of town and then firebombed it. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders to death. Sources disagree, but either an exploding fuel tank or an undercover state investigator brandishing a revolver caused the mob to retreat, and the riders escaped the bus. The mob beat the riders after they escaped the bus. Only warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched. Most of the Riders refused care. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars of black people to rescue the injured Freedom Riders in defiance of white supremacy. The black people were under the leadership of Colonel Stone Johnson (he was a heroic black man who used arms to protect civil rights activists) and were openly armed as they came at the hospital. They protected the Freedom Riders from the mob. When the Trailways bus reached Anniston and pulled in at the terminal an hour after the Greyhound bus was burned, it was boarded by eight Klansmen. They beat the Freedom Riders and left them semi-conscious in the back of the bus. When the bus came into Birmingham, it was attacked by a mob of KKK members. This attack was aided and abetted by the police under orders of Commissioner Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes, and bicycle chains. One of the attacking Klansmen was FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe. White Freedom Riders were beat too. James Peck required more than 50 stitches to the wounds in his head. Peck was taken to Carraway Methodist Medical Center, which refused to treat him. He was later treated at Jefferson Hillman Hospital.
The report of the bus burning and beatings reached US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He said that the Freedom Riders must use restraint, which was disrespectful when the Freedom Riders were peaceful and executed a massive amount of restraint. The mobs shown no restraint when they brutalized the Freedom Riders. RFK sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Alabama to try to calm the situation. The Freedom Riders legitimately continued in their journey. Robert Kennedy arranged an escort for the Riders in order to get them to Montgomery, Alabama safely. Yet, radio reports said that the mob awaited the riders at the bus terminals and these mobs were on route to Montgomery. The Greyhound clerks told the Riders that their drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. Recognizing that their efforts had already called national attention to the civil rights cause and wanting to make the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham. When they first boarded the plane, all passengers had to exit because of a bomb threat. Diane Nash was a Nashville college student and SNCC leader in 1961. She believed that if Southern violence were allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, then the movement would be set back years. So, she wanted to find replacements to resume the rides. On May 17, 1961, a new set of riders, 10 students from Nashville, took a bus to Birmingham, where they were arrested by Bull Connor and jailed. These students kept their spirits up in jail by singing freedom songs. Out of frustration, Connor drove them back up to the Tennessee line and dropped them off, saying, "I just couldn't stand their singing." The Freedom Riders immediately returned to Birmingham.
The Kennedy administration made the Alabama Governor Patterson to protect the Freedom Riders on their journey from Birmingham to Montgomery. Greyhound was forced to provide a driver. On the morning of May 20, 1961, the Freedom Ride continues. Afraid of a Klan ambush, the bus streaks south towards Montgomery at 90 miles an hour. They are escorted by Alabama Highway Patrol cars with their sirens screaming. When the bus reaches the Montgomery city limits, the highway Patrol suddenly disappears. The cops, who were guarding the Greyhound terminal also left. When the Freedom Riders stepped off the bus, hundreds of Klansmen swarm over them, screaming, “Get the n______s!” The racists attacked people with baseball bats, broken bottles, and lead pipes. Reporters were beaten and their cameras were smashed as a way to prevent photographs from being shown of the murderous attack. Jim Zwerg was beaten to a bloody unconsciousness. His teeth were knocked out. John Lewis was felled by a wooden crate to the heat. When Justice Department official John Seigenthaler tried to rescue two of the women Riders, he was also beaten unconscious and left bloody on the pavement. Alabama Public Safety Director Floyd Mann pulled out his revolver and stopped the Klansmen, who were kicking and stomping Zwerg, Lewis, and William Barbee. This probably saved their lives. When Governor George Wallace takes office in 1963, he immediately fired Mann and replaced him with “Colonel” Al Lingo, a rabid segregationist. After the police allowed the Klan to execute its reign of terror, the police finally showed up. The mob has grown to over 1,000 people and expanded outward from the Greyhound terminal at attacking black people in the street. Klan people set on teenage black child on fire and they burned the Riders’ luggage in a bonfire. The cops made no arrested. Instead, the cops served the Freedom Riders with injunctions blaming them for the violence which is a lie. This is why we oppose racist terrorism and police brutality today.
Under the segregation laws, Black cab drivers cannot take white Freedom Riders to the hospital, and white drivers won't. Only the Catholic St. Jude's hospital will treat wounded Riders of any color. From his hospital bed, William Barbee tells reporters: "As soon as we've recovered from this, we'll start again." And from the white side of the segregated hospital, Zwerg agrees, saying: "We are prepared to die." In Washington, D.C., pressure is placed on the Kennedy administration. JFK issued a tepid “statement of concern.” Robert Kennedy ordered federal marshals to Alabama to protect the interstate commerce. Meanwhile, James Farmer of CORE starts to recruit more Freedom Riders to head to the South. The local judge named Walter Jones issued an injunction against interracial groups traveling in the state of Alabama. The riders are cited for violating the injunction. Contempt of Court warrants were issued for their arrest. Many riders take refuge in the First Baptist or Rev. Abernathy’s church. The cops came with photos and arrest warrants, so the riders quickly don choir robes. The riders came into the choir loft and pretended to practice singing. John Lewis was hidden in the rear of the group. His head was bandaged. They sang gospel songs as they were used to singing such songs for a while. The police search the pews and left since the cops assumed that everyone there were regular choir people. In the next night was Sunday, May 21st.
There were 1,500 Black citizens packed in the First Baptist church to honor the Freedom Riders. Dr. King spoke in their support. Outside, there was a mob of more than 3,000 white people. They heckled and harassed black people. There were only a handful of federal marshals protecting the church. There were no city or state cops in the location. Some cops wore civilian clothes and joined the crowd. Shuttlesworth came to the church from Birmingham. He braves the mob and came to the church with James Farmer. The white racist mob overturned a car and set it ablaze. The marshals act desperate to try to protect the church from assault and fire bombs. The people in the Montgomery church sing hymns and freedom songs in defiance. Later, rocks shatter the stained glass windows and tear gas seeps in. The children are sent to the basement for protection. Black men draw hidden pistols from their pockets and prepare to defend their families if the mob manages to break down the doors. Black cab drivers and military veterans in the community started to arm themselves. They assemble at a nearby gas station to fight their way through the mob and defend those trapped in the church. The cab drivers, who rescued many of the Freedom Riders at the Montgomery bus depot, and also played a crucial role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, are a kind of unofficial security and patrol service for the Black community. Dr. King is concerned that the armed black people confronting the white mob and their police accomplished will result in a huge blood bath. So, he called for volunteers to walk with him (being unarmed) through the white crowd to dissuade the cab drivers from using self-defense against a violent mob. Reluctantly and slowly, President Kennedy moved towards committing federal troops. Yet, Governor Patterson forestalls him by declaring martial law and sending in the Alabama National Guard to disperse the mob. The mob was broken up. Black people tried to leave the church, but the Alabama National Guard — the "Dixie" Division with the Confederate flag as its shoulder patch — forces them at bayonet point to remain inside the sweltering, tear gas filled building for the entire night.
In the next day, more Freedom Riders from CORE and SNCC came into Montgomery. Behind everyone’s back and hidden from public view, the Kennedy made a deal with the governors of Alabama and Mississippi. The governors agreed to have their state police and National Guard protect the Riders from mob violence. This would end media coverage of the bloody lawlessness, which was humiliating JFK at home and embarrassing the U.S. around the globe (as the political elites wanted to promote the lie that America was the paragon of virtue and democratic values). In return, the federal government agreed to look the other way and allow the states to illegal and unconstitutionally arrest the Freedom Riders (even when the Freedom Riders were lawfully engaged in interstate commerce as protected by the Supreme Court’s Boynton decision).
Then, Wednesday morning on May 24 came along. On that day, a dozen Freedom Riders boarded a Railways bus for the 250 mile journey to Jackson, MS. They were surrounded by Highway Patrol and National Guard. The bus headed west on Highway 80 in a caravan of more than 40 vehicles. They passed through Selma at top speed without stopping. There would be no bus depot rest stops until Jackson seven hours from Montgomery. Meanwhile, back in Montgomery, 14 more Riders board the mid-day Greyhound for Jackson.
Robert F. Williams
During the era of the Freedom Rides, Robert F. Williams stood up to promote justice. Long before, SNCC was created, he advocated black people to use self-defense against white racist terrorists. To understand his story is to understand a story about a black man who heroically stood up for humanity. He loved his wife so much. Robert F. Williams was born in February 26, 1925. His wife is Mabel Williams. In 1947, Williams married Mabel Robinson, a fellow civil rights activist. They had two children together, including a son named John. During 1959, he was President of the Union County, North Carolina NAACP. He wanted black people to arm themselves against the evil, racist, and terroristic Ku Klux Klan. Back during the 1950’s was the height of the McCarthyism era in America. The NAACP leadership back then booted him out after he made statements to advocate self-defense. The community still re-elected him. Robert F. Williams lived in Monroe, North Carolina for years. He was once in the Marines. He said these words of promoting self defense since in Monroe, Klansmen were conducting drive by shootings throughout the African-American community. There was also the Kissing Case of 1958 where a pre-teen white girl in the excitement of a chance reunion with a Black childhood playmate kissed him on the cheek. When the happy child ran home and told her mother what she had done, her outraged mom falsely accused the black child of "rape." The boy and his buddy, whose ages are nine and seven were arrested, charged and convicted without trial, and placed in detention. The black children were soon acquitted. This injustice is representative of racism in American society. He called the national NAACP leadership, which not only ducked the issue but shortly thereafter expelled Williams from the chapter leadership. So Williams called on the European press. It was only when Robert Williams told people to do something that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt sent a note to then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to do something about it. Later, the children were released. The governor of North Carolina pardoned the boys but the state never apologized for its treatment of them. He or Williams reorganized the defunct local chapter of the NAACP. Robert F. Williams organized an armed self-defense unit to defend against Klan terrorism. There was a shootout with the Klan that reached front pages of North Carolina’s papers. Later during the Freedom Rides era, state troopers and federal agents claimed that Williams kidnapped a white couple. The pair, who had driven through the African-American community during the confrontation, testified that they had gone voluntarily to Williams’ home seeking safety. They said they were not harmed. Shortly afterward, authorities dropped the charges against everyone involved except community activists Mac Malory and Robert Williams. State troopers, federal agents, etc. wanted to capture Robert F. Williams still. So, Williams came into Toronto. He went into Mexico, and then Cuba. During the 1960's, he lived in Cuba to promote his views of black liberation, self-defense, and opposition to Western imperialism. His great book called “Negroes With Guns” outlined his views clearly. Human rights activists and Third World governments loved his book. Williams' book Negroes with Guns (1962) details his experience with violent racism and his disagreement with the pacifist wing of the Civil Rights Movement. The text was widely influential. Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton cited it as a major inspiration.
In his book, Williams was unapologetic. "I am held responsible for this action," he wrote, "that for the first time in history American Negroes have armed themselves as a group, to defend their homes, their wives, their children, in a situation where law and order had broken down, where the authorities could not, or rather would not, enforce their duty to protect Americans from a lawless mob. I accept this responsibility and am proud of it." He had his own radio program in Havana, Cuba where he criticized injustices in America. President John F. Kennedy ordered the Navy to disrupt the broadcast by "jamming" the frequency. Frequently, Williams' program would switch frequency only to be jammed again and so on. The program was composed of jazz and denunciations of American racism, very much in content like some of the Pacifica Network of radio programs on public radio stations in San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Robert Williams’ newsletter was the Crusader. Malcolm X was a great supporter of Robert F. Williams too. Robert F. Williams wanted freedom and justice to spread globally. He opposed colonialism and imperialism. He lived in China by the late 1960’s. He wrote literature and spoke out. He returned to America at the end of the 1960’s. He founded the Revolutionary Act Movement and he chaired the Republic of New Africa. He inspired the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Freedom Riders, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panthers. He passed away in October 15, 1996 in Grand Rapids, Michigan after fighting Hodgkin’s disease. Rosa Parks gave the eulogy at Williams’ funeral in 1996, praising him for "his courage and for his commitment to freedom", and concluding that "The sacrifices he made, and what he did, should go down in history and never be forgotten."
RIP Brother Robert F. Williams.
The Riders came into Jackson. They tried to use the “white-only” restroom and lunch counters. Later, they were immediately arrested for Breach of Peace and refusal to obey an officer. The racist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett in defense of segregation said the following words: "The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him." When Freedom Riders were locked up, they announced the “Jail No Bail” plan. This was about them not paying fines for unconstitutional arrests and illegal convictions. After 39 days, they filed an appeal and posted bond. Back in Montgomery, a Greyhound from the east arrives with yet another team of Riders including Charles Jones of SNCC and Yale University Chaplin William Sloan Coffin. The Alabama Guardsmen are unable (or unwilling) to prevent a mob from attacking the Riders with thrown rocks and bottles. When SCLC leaders Rev. Shuttlesworth, Rev. Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, and Bernard Lee join them at the bus terminal's "white-only" lunch counter, they are all arrested.
The Kennedys disgracefully called for a “cooling off period” and condemned the Riders as “unpatriotic” which is a bold faced lie. The administration viewed them as embarrassing the nation on the world stage. Attorney General Robert Kennedy — the chief law enforcement officer of the land — is quoted as saying that he, "Does not feel that the Department of Justice can side with one group or the other in disputes over Constitutional rights." Civil rights supporters across the nation retort that defending the Constitutional rights of American citizens is part of the department's job, that's why it's called the "Justice" Department. Back then, the majority of Americans opposed the agenda of the Freedom Riders (only 24% of Americans supported the Freedom Riders). 96% of black people approved of the Freedom Riders back then. Many whites opposed racial integration, equality, and direct action. 70% of Americans approved of Kennedy using federal marshals to stop the white violence in Alabama. Many whites supported this action as a way to promote “law and order” not as a means to defend black civil rights. When directly polled on integration, 7% nationwide are adamantly opposed (much higher in the South, of course), only 23% favor pushing for equality in the "near future," and fully 61% support only "gradual" progress someday in the vague future. This was America back then. CORE, SNCC, and the SCLC rightfully rejected any “cooling off period.” They formed the Freedom Riders Coordinating Committee to continue with the rides.
The Freedom Rides continue to go in June, July, and August of 1961. There are more than 60 rides that got in the South during this time period. Most of the rides converge on Jackson where every rider was arrested. By the end of the summer, more than 300 people have been jailed including 41 local Jacksonians busted for joining the Riders at segregated lunch counters.
A new generation of leaders existed from the Freedom Riders movement. Many of Freedom Riders moved into Parchman Penitentiary. That was the Mississippi prison farm notorious for its brutal treatment of inmates. This was a place where murders and rapes were common. Guards used shotguns and leather whips to enforce their rule. The Mississippi jailed failed to crush the spirits of the activists. The Riders would sing freedom songs. Jailers would remove mattresses and forced the Freedom Riders to sleep on hard concrete and steel. Summer in the Delta was harsh. The windows were closed and heat existed in the prisons. Many Riders were beaten in prison, called slurs, and fire hoses were used against them. Many were tortured with electric cattle prods. Kwame Ture was a prisoner since he was a Freedom Rider. Kwame Ture said about the torture in the following terms: “"When [the prod] touched your skin, the pain was sharp and excruciating, at once a jolting shock and a burn. You could actually see (puffs of smoke) and smell (the odor of roasting flesh) your skin burning."
The Freedom Riders wouldn’t be broken. Parchman and Hinds County Jail housed Freedom Riders and they increased their commitment to justice.
The Conclusion of the Freedom Riders
Finally, the Kennedy administration had the Interstate Commerce Commission (or the ICC) to issue another desegregation order. When the new ICC rule takes effect on November 1st, passengers are permitted to sit wherever they please on the bus, "white" and "colored" signs come down in the terminals, separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms are consolidated, and the lunch counters begin serving people regardless of color. In the Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, a crack has been forced open in the solid wall of segregation. This policy must be enforced in the South. The new order was signed on November 1st and on the same day; nine Black students in Albany GA try to use the bus terminal's "white-only" facilities. They were denied. And from that seed of defiance grows the Albany Movement which goes on to challenge segregation throughout Southwest Georgia.
There is a massive historical significance of the Freedom Rides. It represented a transitional phase of the black freedom movement. It was before the Birmingham campaign, but it after the 1960 Greensboro sit ins. The Freedom Ride movement caused many victories in the South (from the mid and Upper South to the Deep South as time came about). The Freedom Riders consisted of many young people who courageously fought against racism and injustice. The Freedom Riders didn’t quit, but escalated the struggle against the evil reactionary forces of the Klan, the Citizens Councils, crooked cops, the prisons, and even the reluctant federal government. Young people from SNCC in Nashville (many came from Nashville after the Rides were temporarily halted in Birmingham) and in other places took the initiative to carry forth with their plans and agendas. These heroes were courageous and exemplified true grit in the midst of oppression. Violence never deterred them and they used nonviolent social activism to fight back. Black people were inspired by the Freedom Riders too. The bourgeois politicians from Governors on up couldn’t stop the Freedom Riders too. Senator Strom Thurmond and Governors Paterson and Barnett fanned the flames of racism, but their agenda would ultimately be defeated. The Kennedy administration wanted to promote a hypocritical nice face in the Cold War during that time. JFK (who became more overtly stronger in supporting civil rights by 1963) feared Southern Democratic control of Congress which is why he was slow to act. He wanted to be reelected in 1964, but freedom takes no back seat. After the Freedom Rides, CORE, the SCLC, and SNCC grew into more power and influence in the civil rights movement for years to come. Each of them wanted to use direct action and community organizing. The NAACP back then was moderate and focused heavily on litigation and legislation. CORE grew in the Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana not just in the North. SNCC became more militant and revolutionary after the Freedom Rides. They wanted to end the power of the racist all white Democratic Party of the southern states, so segregation would end. SNCC also focused on voting rights and other aspects of political power. Heroes like Diane Nash, Kwame Ture, Jim Farmer, Jim Forman, Ruby Doris Smith, Hank Thomas, C.T. Vivian, Travis Britt, etc. would become legends of the movement. We honor the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders 55 years ago.