Remembering the Freedom Riders

On May 4, 1961—51 years ago today—the first group of Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., aboard Greyhound buses bound for the segregated South. Their courage and persistence over the next six months would change American history.

Sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Freedom Rides involved more than 400 African American and white individuals who traveled in groups throughout the South, deliberately challenging Jim Crow laws, in particular strict prohibitions against integrated bus travel.

Freedom Riders faced hostility, discrimination, and quite frequently mob violence. (Click here to read about James Zwerg, one young Freedom Rider who fell victim to an angry white mob). But they persevered, maintaining their dedication to nonviolent direct action.

This was not the first such demonstration: 14 years earlier, 16 CORE members had participated in the Journey of Reconciliation, traveling south from D.C. via Greyhound and Trailways buses. Despite this and other early demonstrations—and despite court cases mandating desegregation of interstate travel—African Americans still faced racism while traveling through the South in the early 1960s.

CORE and SNCC brought together individuals of all ages, races, genders, and regional affiliations to challenge the deeply ingrained Jim Crow policies of the South, aiming to move past discrimination and violence into a climate of equality. Heavily reported by national and international media, the Freedom Rides ultimately prevailed. In September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission, at Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s insistence, ordered an end to segregation on interstate transportation and within transportation facilities. By the time the rides ended in November 1961, participants had made a lasting impact on America.

To hear civil rights scholar Paul Ortiz discuss the impact of the Freedom Rides, click here.

Mike Wiley’s moving play, The Parchman Hour, commemorates the Freedom Rides and celebrates the courage exhibited by those who served sentences in one of the most brutal prisons in the South, Parchman Farm. To learn more, check out these two blog posts: click here and here.

As part of a larger site connected with the film Freedom Riders, PBS hosts an interactive map allowing viewers to trace the routes of the freedom rides.

For more about this movement, check out Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press 2007), on which PBS’s documentary is based.

For more information about SNCC, check out Wesley Hogan’s Many Minds, One Heart, UNC Press, 2007, as well as a series of LCRM blog posts and videos related to SNCC’s 50th reunion.

To learn more about protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press 2010).