The Freedom Riders

By 1961, Supreme Court cases had ruled that segregated public buses, terminals, and restrooms were unconstitutional. However, southern states ignored the rulings and the federal government did nothing to enforce them and Jim Crow travel laws remained in force throughout the South.

The Freedom Riders were a group of civil rights activists who planned to challenge local laws on segregation by riding interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored most of the subsequent Freedom Rides, but some were also organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. The group was confronted by violence in South Carolina, and, on May 14, when one bus stopped to change a slashed tire, the vehicle was firebombed, and the Freedom Riders were beaten.

Unable to travel farther, the original riders were replaced by a second group. As these riders were either arrested or beaten, more groups of Freedom Riders took their place. Eventually, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce bans on segregation more strictly, an edict that took effect in September.

Police arrested riders for trespassing, unlawful assembly, violating state and local Jim Crow laws, and other alleged offenses, but often they first let white mobs attack them without intervention. The Freedom Rides, and these violent reactions they provoked, bolstered the credibility of the Civil Rights Movement. They called national attention to the disregard for the federal law and the local violence used to enforce segregation in the South.