Revolution #233, May 22, 2011

50th Anniversary

Freedom Riders—A Legacy of Defiance

Imagine yourself taking a little trip back in time. Not too long ago50 or 60 years. And not too farimagine you're still in the U.S., in a southern state like Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia.

A lot of what you see is familiar; yet at the same time shockingly, grotesquely different. Public spaces, like restaurants, bus stations, parks, movie theaters, librarieseven water fountains and restroomsare marked either "White Only" or "Colored Only." The spaces marked "White Only" are always cleaner, more up to date, more spacious. The "Colored Only" areas are back entrances, alleyways, rusted water fountains, maybe "rest rooms" pointing to a cow pasture.

It has been 100 years since the Civil War ended slavery in the United States. But the economic and social relations all around you bear the scars of the shameful history where Black people were owned by white people and produced much of the wealth for the foundation of U.S. capitalism. The end of slavery supposedly "freed" Black people. But instead, Black people continued to be subjugated as a people, in no less exploitative, oppressive forms. Under the sharecropping system, once again, they were chained to the land and worked like slaves, producing profits for the capitalists. And a whole range of laws and "traditions" codifying all this arose—and were violently enforced by the police and the KKK.

It is 1960 and Black people have not been outright owned by white people for nearly 100 years. But walking through the rural South in 1960, you see poor Black farmers still working the land, barely able to feed their families. And Confederate flags still fly "proud." Everywhere you look, you can feel the threads of history in which white supremacy and the systematic oppression of Black people has been, and continues to be, embedded in every aspect of U.S. society.

The U.S. proclaims it is a bastion of freedom and equality. But every thing around you drives home how an entire group of people are denied the most basic rights, the target of official and mob violence, and subjected to countless, daily, humiliationsbecause of the color of their skin.

This was the nightmare of Jim Crow America.

"In the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, the separation of the races was regulated from the cradle to the grave. Blacks were born in segregated hospitals and buried in segregated cemeteries. … Segregation was an idea carried to absurdity. In southern courthouses, whites and Blacks took oaths on separate Bibles, and in most southern states, white ambulances were not even allowed to ferry Blacks to the hospital, however critical their condition. In North Carolina, it was illegal for white school pupils to use textbooks touched by Black hands; in Georgia, it was unlawful for white baseball teams to play within two blocks of a playground where Black teams held games."1

After hearing how white racists murdered a Black 14-year-old for whistling at a white woman, Anne Moody said, "Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me—the fear of being killed just because I was black."2

Freedom Riders

In 1961, 13 courageous people, seven Black and six white, refused to accept all this as "the way things are." They refused to be complacent, to "look the other way," to "be patient." They understood the dangers and threats that lay ahead of them. They really didn't give a damn what "respectable society" thought about them.

Instead, they stepped into a volatile, dangerous situation and began a journey that would change the course of history. On May 4, they boarded two buses in Washington, D.C. They planned a trip that would take them across the South, aiming to end in New Orleans on May 17. Every mile of that journey, they would be in violation of the laws and "customs" of the "southern way of life." They would sit, Black and white, side by side on the bus, with Black people in the front. Black people would enter "whites only" lobbies, restaurants, and rest rooms.

These were the first Freedom Riders.

Despite some legal rulings that nibbled at the edges of segregation, and despite struggles—often heroic struggles, at great personal sacrifice, including death—carried out by Black people and some whites in the decades before, Jim Crow had become, if anything, more entrenched in the South—including in the halls of government power. A Time magazine article in 1959 reported that the Democratic governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, had declared: "The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him. His forehead slants back. His nose is different. His lips are different, and his color is sure different."

At the beginning of 1960, a wave of lunch counter sit-ins aimed at confronting and breaking Jim Crow spread to more than 100 cities and towns of the South. By the end of the year, student leaders at Black universities in the South, and some established civil rights organizations, in particular the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were looking for a way to confront and challenge Jim Crow segregation across the entire South. The idea of the Freedom Rides was born.

The first Freedom Ride became a two-week drama of escalating racist violence, and world changing heroism. These initial Freedom Riders were all deeply committed to non-violence. For some of them, joining the freedom rides meant dropping out of school, even though they were the first in their family to go to college. And all of them knew they would be risking their very lives by going up against and into the jaws of Jim Crow violence.

All along the way, after facing mob violence, time after time, they decided to continue, even more determined to take a stand against injustice, even if it meant risking their lives.

Racist Mobs in Alabama

Early into the trip, several riders were assaulted and beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina when they entered a "white waiting room." Some were arrested and detained briefly in Charlotte, North Carolina and Winnsboro, South Carolina. But the threat of massive violence erupted into ugly reality when the Freedom Rides reached Alabama.

The Freedom Riders were on two buses and when the lead group arrived at the Anniston (Alabama) bus depot, more than 200 angry white people surrounded the bus. The racist crowd banged on the doors and windows with iron pipes and slashed the bus tires. The driver sped away with the mob in pursuit. Once outside the town, the driver stopped to repair the tires. Then someone hurled a firebomb through the bus' rear door. In danger of being burned alive, the Freedom Riders got off the bus, coughing and vomiting from the dense black smoke. The mob then attacked them with clubs and iron bars.

When the second bus of Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston an hour later, it too came under attack. The mob dragged people from their seats, beating them into unconsciousness. Several people who needed emergency medical attention after the brutal assaults were thrown out of the local Anniston hospital when a white mob converged on it.

A gang of armed Klansmen commandeered the second bus, forced the Black riders to the back, and told the driver to continue to Birmingham. When they pulled into the bus terminal, the Freedom Riders had no idea that a trap had been set for them. The Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor had promised the KKK that they could have 15 minutes to commit whatever mayhem they wanted on the passengers. And this is what they did, and did without mercy.

The Birmingham police were working directly with the Klan, and the FBI had several agents and informers embedded within the Klan, often acting as leaders and instigators of the lynch mobs that attacked the Freedom Riders. The FBI had known in advance that the two buses were going to be attacked in Anniston and Birmingham, but did nothing to try to prevent the violence. 3

While the Freedom Riders were in Alabama, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's assistant was told to put a stop to the rides. He pleaded on the phone with Diane Nash, one of CORE's student leaders, to call off the Freedom Ride, saying, "Young woman, do you understand what you're doing? You're going to get somebody—do you understand you're going to get somebody killed?" Nash responded, "You should know, we all signed our last will and testament last night, before they left. We know someone will be killed."

A group of students in Nashville hurried to join their comrades on the front lines in Alabama. In Birmingham, they were arrested and in the dead of night driven across the state line to Tennessee and let go in the middle of the countryside. The Riders were unable to leave Birmingham until May 20, when they finally got a bus and driver to take them on the 100-mile trip to Montgomery. Alabama police escorts accompanied the bus, supposedly for the Riders' "protection."

But when the bus reached the Montgomery city limits, the police escort, including a plane, suddenly disappeared.  At the bus terminal, at first, there were only a few people sitting around, along with several newsmen. There was an eerie silence and then suddenly a mob of hundreds of angry racists, with all kinds of weapons, set upon the Freedom Riders yelling, "Get them niggers, get them niggers." One person was paralyzed for life from the beating he received at the Montgomery bus station. Jim Zwerg, a white member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was beaten to bloody unconsciousness, his teeth knocked out. Zwerg later told of how a Black man intervened: "There was nothing particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died." 4

Zwerg did not receive urgent medical attention he needed because there were no white ambulances available for his transport and under segregation laws, Black cab drivers could not take white passengers.

News of this attack spread around the world, and that night about 1,000 Black people from Montgomery, including many children, met at a local church to hear from and support the Freedom Riders and the struggle they had initiated. The church was soon besieged by a frenzied crowd of over 3,000 whites who burned cars, smashed windows, and tried to break into the church. One of the Freedom Riders, James Farmer, recounted: "The streets were full of roving bands of short-sleeved white men shouting obscenities. ... The crowds grew thicker as we approached the church. ... As we got close, they clogged every roadway, waving Confederate flags and shouting rebel yells. ... As we stopped, the crowds grabbed hold of the car and began rocking it back and forth. We shoved the car into reverse, heavy-footed the accelerator and zoomed backwards. ... The only approach to the church was through a graveyard, but we were too late, the mob was already there, blocking the entrances to the church."5

Pictures and stories of the Freedom Rides appeared in news outlets across the country, and around the entire world. People everywhere were shocked and outraged at the scene of burning buses and maimed Freedom Riders. A bus trip of 13 people had become a major international incident—one that caused deep embarrassment to the U.S. power structure.

Alarm in the White House

Photos of bloodied Freedom Riders and ugly white mobs splashed across the front pages of newspapers in many different languages across the planet. And President John Kennedy's overwhelming concern was that the whole world was seeing the ugly truth of the brutal oppression of Black people in the U.S.—right before a summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The myth promoted that the U.S. was the "greatest country in the world" and a model to be emulated did not mesh with the indelible images of Black and white people being brutalized for trying to put an end to racist segregation. U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy "indicated far greater concern about the repercussions on the President's upcoming trip to Europe. He believed the Freedom Riders' protest had handed the Soviets a crushing propaganda coup." 6

In a public interview on TV, Bobby Kennedy asked for a "cooling off period" and said he "does not feel that the Department of Justice can side with one group or the other in disputes over Constitutional rights."7 President John Kennedy issued a statement implying that the Freedom Riders were as much at fault as the mobs that attacked them. "I would hope that any persons, whether a citizen of Alabama or a visitor there, would refrain from any action which would in any way tend to provoke further outbreaks."

But once again, in the face of rabid violence, the Freedom Riders were determined to continue their mission. And their numbers were growing. On May 24, two buses, with 27 Freedom Riders left Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi.

Mississippi Goddamn

When the buses crossed the state line into Mississippi, they were put under the "protection" of the Mississippi National Guard. James Farmer recalled, "As we rode on the bus, there were Alabama National Guardsmen on the bus with us, about six of them with bayonets fixed on their rifles. There were helicopters chopping around overhead, there were police cars screaming up and down the highway with their sirens blaring, there were Federal, State and County police—so this was a military operation. And that did not, um, ease our fear, if anything it increased it. We didn't know which way the National Guardsmen would point their guns in the event of a showdown, a confrontation."8

There was no seething mob gathered at the Jackson bus station. Freedom Rider Frederick Leonard recalled, "Well, when we got to Jackson, Mississippi we didn't see anybody except the police. Oh, we stuck our chests out then, because we, we didn't see this mob. We walked on off the front of the bus, the police were standing there, said—just keep moving and let us go through the white side. We never got to stop, you know, they just said—keep moving—and they passed us right on through the white terminal into the paddy wagon, and into jail."9

What the Freedom Riders didn't know at the time was that John and Robert Kennedy had worked out a deal for their arrests in Mississippi. One of the most powerful U.S. senators, James O. Eastland (a Democrat from Mississippi and leading white supremacist), said he would guarantee the protection of the Freedom Riders along the 258 mile route between Montgomery and Jackson—but only on the condition that the Justice Department would allow the local police to arrest the protesters when they arrived.10

The Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson were quickly taken off to Mississippi's most infamous prison, Parchman Farm, in the Mississippi Delta, where they were put on Death Row. Frederick Leonard remembers, "the next day after we were arrested, we went to court. The prosecutor got up, accused us of trespassing, took his seat. Our attorney, Jack Young, got up to defend us, as human beings having the right to be treated like human beings. While he was defending us, the judge turned his back, looked at the wall. When he finished, the judge turned around—bam, 60 days in the state penitentiary—and there we were, on the way to Parchman—maximum security."11

Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett instructed prison officials to "break their spirits, not their bones." And in fact Barnett and his minions subjected the Freedom Riders to humiliating, degrading, brutal, and abusive treatment at every turn, and often tried to get other prisoners to attack the Riders. But their spirits and determination were strengthened, not broken, at Parchman Farm. Cordy Vivian, one of the Riders imprisoned in Parchman,  said, "the feeling of people coming out of the jail was one that they had triumphed, that they had achieved, that they were now ready, they could go back home, they could be a witness to a new understanding. … And there was a new cadre of leaders."12

The first courageous group of Freedom Riders sent shock waves around the world and inspired many others to take up their cause. Freedom Riders—mainly young Black students—poured into the South from across the United States. By the end of that summer of 1961, at least 300 people had taken Freedom Rides to Jackson, been arrested, and sent to Parchman.

An Inspiring Legacy, a Great Challenge

The daring, heroism, and profound moral clarity of the 13 people  who boarded those two buses in D.C. in May 1961—and those who later joined the Freedom Rides—remains a cherished, inspiring, and instructive legacy for all those who strive to overcome the hateful oppression that still today penetrates every dimension of this capitalist-imperialist system. The Freedom Riders initiated a standard of struggle and confrontation that inspired millions, that brought the reality of the ugly white supremacist culture and racist violence that is as "American as cherry pie" to the attention of the entire world, and heightened divisive conflicts within the ruling structures and political bodies of U.S. society over how to do damage control in the midst of this upheaval.

The Freedom Riders' refusal to back down or compromise over their most fundamental principles, and the justness of their cause, influenced countless people to themselves take action to bring an end to the hated reign of Jim Crow. Rita Walker, who became a SNCC organizer, recalled: "I always wanted to work for my freedom, but I didn't know how to go about it. I often heard about the freedom riders on TV and read about them in the newspapers. And I would wonder if they would ever come to Holly Springs. I always pictured them coming in a bus with 'FREEDOM' written on it. I would meet with some of my friends, and we would go up to the bus station and wait for them so that we could welcome them in."13

The Civil Rights Movement during the '50s and '60s went directly up against white supremacy which was so deeply embedded in the economic and social relations in the South. Ultimately, many thousands of people, with great heroism and sacrifice, stepped out in the face of extreme repression. And this struggle paved the way for the radical and revolutionary struggles of Black people in the 1960s and early '70s. This was part of a whole social upheaval that shook the system to its foundations. But the mass struggle of the '60s was not able to go all the way to revolution. Today capitalism remains intact. And there is a new Jim Crow that holds Black people down—the massive incarceration and criminalization of generations of Black youth. The courage and defiance of the Freedom Riders gives example and heart to those who would go up against this new and ugly form of the oppression of Black, and other minority peoples.


Volunteers around the country contributed to research, fact-checking and analysis for this article.



1 Nick Bryant, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality (Basic Books, 2006), p. 19. [back]

2 Ann Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (Dell, 1992), p. 197. [back]

3 Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2001), Chapter 8. [back]

4 Skin Deep, PBS documentary, People's Century series (1999). [back]

5 [back]

6 Nick Bryant, The Bystander, p.265. [back]

7 Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 476. [back]

8 Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985, PBS 14-hour television series/documentary (produced by Blackside, 1987). [back]

9 Eyes on the Prize. [back]

10 Nick Bryant, The Bystander, p. 275. [back]

11 Eyes on the Prize Interviews, Washington University Digital Gateway Texts, [back]

12 Eyes on the Prize Interviews, Washington University Digital Gateway Texts, [back]

13 [back]


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