Date of Event: May-November 1961
The Freedom Rides began in Washington DC on May 4, 1961, with thirteen Freedom Riders (7 black, 6 white) from CORE who aimed to travel by bus through the South in order to bring attention to the ongoing segregation of public transportation–despite a Supreme Court ruling saying it was illegal. The final destination was to be New Orleans. On the buses, black Freedom Riders would sit in the front and white Freedom Riders would sit in the back. The ride was mostly quiet through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, but things became violent in Alabama and Mississippi. On the way from Atlanta to Birmingham, one of the buses was firebombed outside of Anniston, Alabama. The other bus pulled into Birmingham where the Freedom Riders were met with a white mob and brutally beaten. When the bus company refused to continue driving the Freedom Riders, the original 13 flew to New Orleans for their own safety. On May 20th, 21 new Freedom Riders from SNCC were allowed to continue the ride, supposedly guaranteed their safety by Governor Patterson of Alabama. When they arrived in Montgomery, however, state officials withdrew, and the Freedom Riders were greeted by a white mob again. The Freedom Riders were horribly beaten again. At this point, the Federal Government became involved.
On May 24, twenty-seven Freedom Riders continued the ride from Montgomery to Mississippi. The National Guard protected the buses until they arrived in Jackson, where the Riders were systematically arrested and hauled off once they disembarked the bus. These first Freedom Riders were tried and convicted the next day, then sent to Parchman, the Mississippi State Penitentiary. After this first group, several other Freedom Rides were organized, all converging in Jackson, MS, where the Freedom Riders were arrested. According to Eyes on the Prize, “[M]ore than 300 Freedom Riders traveled through the Deep South in an effort to integrate according to the Supreme Court ruling” (159). They attempted to overfill the prisons with Freedom Riders, and more and more riders were taken to Parchman where they were held in maximum security and kept under horrible conditions in an attempt to break their spirits. Instead, many Freedom Riders emerged more committed to the cause. As a result of the Freedom Rides, the Interstate Commerce Commission created new policies demanding that all public transportation be desegregated, and this went into effect on November 1, 1961.
To explore the University of Mississippi’s Freedom Riders archive of video interviews conducted at the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in 2001, visit their website at http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/archives/freedom_riders.php.
Videos referring to the Freedom Rides:
The Children Shall Lead documentary focuses on the Freedom Rides and Freedom Riders’ experiences.
The documentary may also be viewed here.
An album of Freedom Rides video clips and oral histories exists here.
Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Oxford, MS: Oxford UP, 2006.
Williams, Juan. “Down Freedom’s Main Line.” Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York: Penguin, 1987.