"Our hearts cannot rest until justice exists for all people"
May 11, 2001 | Page 10
IN MAY 1961, 13 activists took a bus trip. But it wasn't an ordinary bus trip.
The activists--six whites and seven Blacks traveling together--set out to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South. The "Freedom Riders" rode through the South, refusing to segregate themselves on the bus and in bus stations. The white riders walked into "colored only" bathrooms, while the Blacks waited in the "whites only" waiting room.
For no greater "offense" than this, racist mobs beat them--and Southern state governments arrested and imprisoned them. BRIAN JONES tells the story of the Freedom Rides.
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RACISTS ALWAYS claimed that segregation was the "natural" way of things. In reality, Jim Crow was only upheld through brutal violence. From the end of the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction to the arrival of the Freedom Riders in 1961, 539 Blacks had been lynched in Mississippi alone.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were designed to end discrimination against Blacks in voting. Yet less than 2 percent of Black adults were registered to vote in Mississippi in 1961--with the Southern state governments, controlled by racist Democrats or "Dixiecrats," using fraud and terror to prevent Blacks from registering.
The mood for change, however, was growing. Returning from the Second World War--a war supposedly fought for democracy while the U.S. maintained a segregated army--increasing numbers of Blacks felt civil rights were long overdue.
This hunger for change erupted in Montgomery, Ala., during the 1955-57 bus boycott. But after the boycott won its demands--desegregation of the city's buses--the movement seemed to go quiet. And racists, organized through the White Citizens Councils, launched a massive attack against Black demands for civil rights.
Activists described an atmosphere of tension underneath the seeming passivity of millions of Black southerners. As one NAACP activist described it, "The situation here is just like one of those big balloons. One sharp little something could prick it--and 'Bam!'"
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FOUR FRESHMAN at historically Black North Carolina A&T College popped the balloon on February 1, 1960. They sat down at the Woolworth's "whites only" lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., demanding to be served.
Over the next two weeks, news of the "sit-in" spread across the South, with activists imitating the tactic. By the end of the year, some 50,000 people had participated in sit-ins, and 3,600 had been jailed.
In April 1960, 120 student leaders of the sit-in movement from 56 different colleges and high schools in 12 states gathered to found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The new student activists weren't radicals. One leading member even connected the sit-ins to the battle against "communism," commenting that if Blacks were given equal education, "maybe one day a Negro will invent one of our missiles." Taking a page from the ideas of nonviolent civil disobedience put forward by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., SNCC's founding platform spoke of the power of love to "transform" hate.
Whatever its ideas, the sit-in movement's example of "direct action" to challenge segregation inspired others, including the Freedom Riders, to take similar actions.
The Freedom Rides weren't the first attempt to desegregate the buses. As far back as 1947, the pacifist Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) organized a "Journey of Reconciliation," in which interracial teams of activists rode buses to challenge segregation.
In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in interstate travel facilities--bus stations as well as buses. James Farmer of CORE and John Lewis of SNCC decided to lead another bus trip to challenge segregation in the southern bus terminals.
The first Freedom Riders left on two buses, run by Greyhound and Trailways, from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. The trip was relatively uneventful until the Greyhound bus pulled into the station in Anniston, Ala., and a racist mob armed with chains, sticks and iron rods began breaking bus windows.
The mob followed when the bus left and shot out its tires. The racists tossed a firebomb onboard. The riders escaped the burning bus, but the local hospital refused to treat them. When a racist mob gathered outside the hospital, veteran civil rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth rescued the Riders with an armed 15-car caravan.
Meanwhile, racists attacked the Trailways bus twice. One rider suffered permanent brain damage from the beatings.
In Birmingham, Ala., police under the direction of Eugene "Bull" Connor told the Ku Klux Klan that officers would be absent from the local bus station for 15 minutes after the Freedom Riders arrived. Connor watched from his window as the Klansmen gathered at the bus station, swinging metal pipes.
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THE "LIBERAL" Democratic President John F. Kennedy refused to take action. He didn't want to alienate the Dixiecrats.
JFK's image as a great supporter of civil rights is undeserved. He appointed open racists to federal judgeships in the South, gutted the new civil rights bill and actively tried to demobilize the movement.
And JFK's little brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, tried to stall the Freedom Rides, calling for a "cooling-off period." When that failed, he tried to buy off the activists, telling CORE leaders: "Why don't you guys cut all that shit, freedom riding and sitting-in shit, and concentrate on voter registration. If you do that, I'll get you tax-free status."
But the Freedom Rides continued, threatening to become an international embarrassment for the Kennedy administration. The Freedom Riders were able to travel from Birmingham to Montgomery, Ala., protected by 16 highway patrol cars and an airplane.
But when the bus pulled into the Montgomery station, all signs of protection disappeared--and another mob was waiting. "They were closing in on us, and we were standing still trying to decide what should we do in order to protect the whites we had with us," William Harbour recalled. "But then you had a middle-aged white female hollering, 'Git them niggers, git them niggers'...and that urged the crowd on." This time, the riders fled for their lives. Some hid in a nearby post office. The mob caught and beat others.
The next night, another mob collected outside a church where the Freedom Riders and 1,000 Black residents had gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. RFK called in federal marshals, but they were quickly outnumbered. Gov. John Patterson declared martial law, and it took 800 National Guardsmen to clear the streets.
The federal government brought enormous pressure on the Freedom Riders to call off their protest. But activist Diane Nash argued that to stop the Freedom Rides would signal the racists that violence could prevent desegregation. They decided to continue, forcing Kennedy's Justice Department to give them protection.
Hopeful of avoiding the embarrassment of further violence, RFK struck a deal with officials in Jackson, Miss., that the Freedom Riders would be arrested as soon as they arrived. The Riders walked off the buses at the Jackson station and right onto a police wagon headed for Parchman Farm, a maximum-security prison.
Over the next few weeks, volunteers poured into Montgomery to ride to Jackson, in an attempt to fill the jails in protest. Spending time in jail didn't break the activists' spirit. Instead, it cemented their commitment. They tormented their jailers with freedom songs day and night. By the end of the summer, 328 people had been arrested for refusing to abide by segregation in the Jackson bus station.
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ON SEPTEMBER 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission announced new regulations prohibiting segregation on interstate buses and in bus terminals, in compliance with the Supreme Court decision. A month later, three major railroads in the Deep South ended segregation in both trains and stations.
The Freedom Riders had won. They had desegregated the interstate buses. But what about voting rights? What about poverty?
Activists debated the usefulness of nonviolent civil disobedience--was it a principle or a tactic? In fact, the movement had never been purely nonviolent. It talked the language of love, but it also demanded forceful federal intervention against the racists. And almost every veteran activist--whether publicly committed to nonviolence or not--carried weapons for self-protection.
Moreover, the Freedom Riders began to see segregation as a symptom of a bigger problem, of "more serious evils which must be ripped out by any means: exploitation, socially destructive capital, evil political and legal structure, and myopic liberalism," radical Tom Hayden reported at the time. "Revolution permeates discussion like never before."
One symptom of the growing radicalization came at the 1963 March on Washington, when moderate civil rights leaders pressured SNCC's John Lewis to drop his sharp criticisms of Kennedy and denunciations of class inequality from his speech. "We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society," Lewis planned to say, "the masses must bring them about...Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people."