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Fifty Years Later, Where Are Today’s Freedom Riders?

Fifty Years Later, Where Are Today’s Freedom Riders?

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?

 

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photo courtesy of aldenjewell via Flickr

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25 comments

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12:25PM PDT on May 13, 2011

We need a new mass-media outlet. The current one is kissing monkey butt and is only slightly better than the fox propaganda network.

10:04PM PDT on May 6, 2011

noted

10:25AM PDT on May 6, 2011

Times are changed. We need new resistance forms.

9:23AM PDT on May 6, 2011

I think if you asked those Freedom Riders, they would say that while things are not 'there' yet, they are very much better than 50 years ago.

5:02PM PDT on May 5, 2011

A good question. Where are the Freedom Riders of today? If you ask many youth of today who the Freedom Riders were, they couldn't tell you. They no nothing of the civil rights movement or much about any history. So they don't really get what they're supposed to be standing up for. And that's what allows this nonsense to continue.

And yes, Yvonne, I do think the birthers are bigots. No previous President was put through this much hassle over a birth certificate. And when President Obama presented the certificate, you still don't believe it? Please. Will everyone just open their eyes?

3:27PM PDT on May 5, 2011

I had the honer of meeting John Lewis a few years ago. He is an inspiration.

3:12PM PDT on May 5, 2011

If you all think someone is a bigot just because they ask for someone to prove their eligible for something, you have never actually met a bigot. I grew up in the deep south, I've met plenty of truly appalling individuals. I still do not believe this man is telling the truth about his origins, don't know why he isn't, but I don't think he is. The longer it goes on the stranger it looks, that is what I believe and I'm am not a bigot, the story would be the same if he was white or green with pink polka dots.

12:36PM PDT on May 5, 2011

We need the freedom riders as much today as ever. with the christain taliban taking over our country, taking away our rights and our chance for a descent life. Where are the peaceful protest?

11:05AM PDT on May 5, 2011

Was thirty years or so ago I was in the deep south and met the discrimination there. No beatings, thank God, but refused work, congregations appeared where my friends and I went, health care was nil if at all. Sometimes I wonder if there has been any improvements.

After Katrina I heard there was not. So, why do we continue to shout how great we are? Because those who do not live on "Main St" are ignored. The closet door is shut because no one whats to do anything in their neighborhoods, put on the mask and pretend. Rather than face it and clean it up.

10:37AM PDT on May 5, 2011

What a pathetic commentary on HORRID discrimination in the U.S. of A. ! The U.S really is NOT SO GREAT, is it !?!?

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