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In a post-World War II America, blacks were experiencing new gains both economically and socially in much of the country. By the mid-50s the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education brought a new promise for equal rights in schools, but the South was doing everything it could to stifle integration in education leading to a number of famous conflicts. In Montgomery a young pastor named Martin Luther King became an international superstar of peace leading their city’s bus boycotts. By 1960 black Southern college students took up the call first in Greensboro and then Nashville, doing lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate the powerful downtown department store restaurants. This all led to a discussion by a bi-racial Northern group called CORE to test the limits of a federal order to desegregate interstate bus travel including Southern bus station waiting rooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms that still had signs declaring “white” and “colored.” The South was not going to let the Federal Government tell them to change their culture and Kennedy’s White House had no interest in getting involved and alienating Southern white Democrats.
CORE’s leader James Farmer put together a motley mixed-race, mixed-sex crew of pacifists, liberals, and college students (including Nashville student sit-in veteran John Lewis, who would become one of the movement’s most visible leaders) to test the laws. Mixed-race groups, known as Freedom Riders, would sit together on the buses (illegal in most of the South) and then test the limits of the restroom racial laws. They put two groups on two buses setting out from Washington, DC heading to New Orleans. They would travel through the milder Eastern South and then hit Alabama and Mississippi, two quasi-police states, where violence against activists was sanctioned by all levels of their state governments. If any violence came to them, they hoped that it would force Washington to enforce federal laws.
As soon as the buses hit Alabama the violence ignited. One bus was burned down as the passengers were attacked out on a country road. The other bus arrived in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders were attacked by a massive mob out for blood. Even a Kennedy Administration official, John Seigenthaler, (who was keeping tabs on the riders) was attacked and ended up in a hospital after getting hit by a pipe. The beaten, bruised, and defeated Freedom Riders eventually were taken by plane out of Alabama as no bus driver would drive them, fearing more violence (their airplane was threatened by bomb threats delaying their journey even longer).
As it began to look as though extreme violence was the only way to stop the movement, Lewis and his Nashville colleagues, lead by the courageous Diane Nash, came down to Birmingham and took over the Freedom Rides, bringing an even bigger spotlight to the action and an even bigger threat of violence to the new recruits. They wanted the country to know that no matter how much pain was inflicted, the movement couldn’t be stopped. Martin Luther King, The Kennedys, Alabama Governor John Patterson, and the state military all became players in an ever growing story. They saw the jails fill up as more and more people came south to join the Freedom Ride and eventually brought an end to Jim Crow for interstate bus travelers.
The Freedom Riders may be the single top accomplishment for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. It’s about the last time that a quick direct action would pull the nation together and force the government to act. The next few years would see the movement change its focus to voter rights in the South. It would be a long-suffering struggle that depended on a slow bureaucratic process to create and enact new laws culminating in a more symbolic than actual accomplishment. The Freedom Rides also created a new generation of full-time activists who were no longer afraid of going to jail in the name of human rights. The young people spread out with the creation of their own organization, SNCC, which continued to train students in activism. This is where many of the anti-Vietnam War leaders first got a taste of rebellion and America would never be the same.
The PBS American Experience series of documentaries, most available on DVD, has become the best archive of 20th century American life and Freedom Riders is no exception. All the available witnesses and performers in this real-life drama are present on camera to reflect and tell their side of history. These include Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Seigenthaler, and even Patterson who, in an effort to cover his own diabolical politics, now seems to claim that segregation was not about race or racism, but was instead a state’s rights issue. It should be stressed that watching Freedom Riders is not a dull homework assignment but an enjoyable fast ride—a ride I would recommend and urge everyone to take.