Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Ride, where seven blacks and six whites left Washington, D.C., on two public buses bound for the Deep South. Their goal was simple. They planned to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boyton v. Virginia (1960) that declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.
The rides were organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their concept originated in the 1940′s with a group out of Chicago organized to end racial discrimination. In 1947 after the Supreme Court outlawed discrimination in interstate travel the group sponsored a trip that they called a “Journey of Reconciliation.” The group rode buses throughout much of the upper south, sitting together, to prove that an integrated bus was nothing to fear.
So when the Supreme Court ruled that not only did interstate buses need to be desegregated, so too did their facilities, a resurrection of the rides was a logical choice.
At first the rides went off with little incident. But by the second week things changed and changed drastically. Riders were severely beaten at many stops. At the Greyhound station in Rock Hill, South Carolina John Lewis, now a Democratic Representative from the state of Georgia, and his fellow riders were attacked by a mob for trying to access the white waiting room. By the time the bus reached Alabama things had turned very ugly. The driver refused to enter the state until the group sat segregated.
Outside Anniston, Alabama, pro-segregationists burned their bus. Once a replacement bus arrived a mob boarded and beat the African-Americans sitting in front until the black riders were forced to the back of the bus. In Birmingham several dozen whites attacked the riders a mere two blocks from the sheriff’s office, greeting them with iron pipes and beating riders unconscious.
The violence against the Freedom Riders was so bad the Department of Justice was forced to intervene and evacuate the group out of Alabama.
But the SNCC was determined to let the rides continue. The SNCC, along with the Nashville Student Movement, organized a group that met in Nashville and organized another ride that would take them to New Orleans. Now Rep. Lewis was a part of that group.
As the rides continued the violence against the riders escalated. President John F. Kennedy called the governor of Alabama and insisted it was his responsibility to ensure safe passage of interstate travelers. The next bus through was met with police and helicopter escort to take the group to Montgomery. Once in Montgomery the protection disappeared. A crowd of approximately 300 gathered, and armed with sticks and clubs, began beating the newsmen and cameramen and riders alike.
The rides continued on through the summer and were largely successful in desegregating facilities in the upper south. But in the Deep South those efforts were no match for the organized hatred and violence behind the segregationist movement.
Fifty years may seem like a lifetime ago, but in a political climate that demands our first African-American president “prove” his citizenship to sufficient satisfaction of a white electorate, where minority voter disenfranchisement remains entrenched, and where a criminal justice system is systematically used to disproportionately impact communities of color, perhaps the question to ask is who and where are the Freedom Riders of today?
photo courtesy of aldenjewell via Flickr