Freedom Riders (1961) were those Americans who rode buses through the South in 1961 to test Boynton v Virginia, a Supreme Court decision which said that buses and trains that travelled between states could no longer separate people by race at their stations. All those “Whites Only” and “For Colored Only” signs had to come down.
But the signs did not come down. And President Kennedy, despite all his pretty words about freedom and democracy, did nothing. Nothing. He had narrowly won the election and it seems he felt he could not anger the state governors of the Jim Crow South.
James Farmer, the head of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), had other ideas. He asked for people to ride cross-country buses through the South to test the ruling – by doing the opposite of what the signs said. He trained them in non-violence.
The first bus left Washington, DC on May 4th 1961. It was to go through the Deep South, right through the heart of Klan country, to reach New Orleans on May 17th 1961 (the seventh anniversary of Brown v Board).
It never made it. By the time they got to the state of Alabama the Freedom Riders were in two buses. One was set on fire and destroyed by the Klan in Anniston, Alabama on Mother’s Day (May 14th) and the other got only as far as Birmingham before it too was set on by the Klan. A week later another bus left Birmingham but only got as far as Montgomery, where the Klan beat up everyone they could get their hands on, even news reporters.
Pictures of burning buses and beat-up Freedom Riders made the news across the country. This had two effects:
- It forced Kennedy to act;
- Way more people signed up to become Freedom Riders! The movement became unstoppable.
After Montgomery Kennedy wanted a “cooling-off period”, to which James Farmer replied:
We have been cooling off for 350 years. If we cool off any more, we’ll be in a deep freeze.
From Montgomery they rode on to the state of Mississippi. The governor there had made a deal with Kennedy: he would be allowed to break the law and arrest the Freedom Riders so long as he kept the Klan quiet.
The governor sent the Freedom Riders to the worst prison in the state: Parchman. But by refusing bail they filled the prison to overflowing. And by endlessly singing freedom songs they won the test of wills against the guards who tried to break their spirit.
On July 7th most of the Freedom Riders were freed from Parchman.
On November 1st Kennedy ordered the desegregation of all bus and train stations. CORE kept sending its riders to test the law to see that it was put into effect. It was.
Hundreds of Freedom Riders were beaten or arrested. No one was killed, as far as I know, but at least two were paralysed for life.