“You don’t have to ride Jim Crow!”- Bayard Rustin and George Houser

Freedom Riders gather outside of their burning bus in Anniston, Alabama. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Freedom Rides, a series of acts that openly defied segregation in the South.

As David Aretha, author of Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides, published by Morgan Reynolds, puts it, “The story of the Freedom Rides began when an African American woman refused to give up her seat to a white person on a crowded bus. And her name was not Rosa Parks.”

Aretha continues, “Irene Morgan was a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two who worked in a factory that made bombers for the military. That July, after traveling to Virginia, she returned to her home in Baltimore aboard a Greyhound bus. When the bus became crowded, the driver told her to stand so that a white person could take her seat. After Morgan refused the command, the driver summoned the police.”

Irene Morgan was arrested but her case, Morgan v. Virginia, went all the way to the Supreme Court—which ruled that segregated seating in interstate travel was unconstitutional.

According to Aretha, “This case caught the attention of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). . . . Believers in the teachings of Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, they were committed to fighting racial injustice through nonviolent protest.”

In 1947, CORE staged the Journey of Reconciliation, what is often called the original Freedom Ride, to test the Supreme Court’s decision outside the courtroom and in the real world. CORE members “knew that Southerners had ignored the Morgan ruling, and they wanted to force the issue. If they were arrested, then attorneys and media could bring attention to the injustice.” Fourteen years later, that desire to attract the media would prove vital to turning the tides in Americans’ eyes regarding segregation and civil rights.

The Journey of Reconciliation was not entirely successful, in fact it led to the travelers’ arrests rather than justice, but it also paved the way for the Freedom Rides of 1961. “CORE wanted to put ‘the movement on wheels . . . to cut across state lines and establish the position that we were entitled to act any place in the country,” Aretha writes, “no matter where we hung our hat and called home, because it was our country.’”

And so they did. On May 4, 1961, thirteen Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., headed for Alabama–the Deep South. When the buses stopped in Alabama, they were attacked by angry white mobs that included several members of the Ku Klux Klan. Several of the Riders were hospitalized and many were beaten to near death, but their suffering caught the attention of the nation at large.

“The Freedom Riders had paid a heavy price, but they finally received the national attention they had been seeking. . . images of the burning bus and bloodied riders appeared in newspapers and on television. . . . .To African Americans, the publicity that the Freedom Rides were creating was doing a world of good. This was revolutionary. After three hundred years of oppression, black Americans were shaping their destiny,” writes Aretha.

The more Freedom Rides took place, however, the less news coverage there was. Eventually, the media moved on.

But what the Freedom Riders did that summer changed the country permanently. Aretha writes, “Though these Freedom Riders no longer commanded the national spotlight, their persistence and large numbers had a cumulative effect… their ‘capacity to suffer’ wore down the opposition. Some whites in the South were tired of fighting these battles. And as the Freedom Rides continued, Americans of all races and creeds railed against southern segregation.”

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides (ISBN 978-1-59935-098-1) is part of the award -winning series, The Civil Rights Movement (ISBN 978-1-59935-073-8) , published by Morgan Reynolds Publishing. The series also includes:

Marching in Birmingham                                                                                                       ISBN 978-1-59935-055-4

Selma and the Voting Rights Act                                                                                        ISBN 978-1-59935-056-1

The Murder of Emmett Till                                                                                                     ISBN 978-1-59935-057-8

The Trial of the Scottsboro Boys                                                                                         ISBN 978-1-59935-058-5

Freedom Summer                                                                                                                      ISBN 978-1-59935-059-2

Montgomery Bus Boycott                                                                                                      ISBN 978-1-59935-020-2

Black Power                                                                                                                                 ISBN 978-1-59935-164-3

Published in: on May 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm  Comments (1)  
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