The Freedom Riders: Timeline, Summary & Facts

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  • 0:00 Freedom Rides: Summer of 1961
  • 1:24 First Freedom Ride
  • 2:13 Mobs Attack the Buses
  • 3:42 RFK's Response
  • 4:33 Freedom Rides: Legacy
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Moeller
In this lesson, we will discuss the Freedom Riders, an interracial group of blacks and whites who sought to desegregate America's public bus transportation system in the summer of 1961. After the lesson, test your understanding with a quick quiz.

Freedom Rides: Summer of 1961

Segregation was very real in the South in the summer of 1961. Even though federal law and U.S. Supreme Court decisions mandated an end to segregation, or the separation of blacks and whites, many bus depots in the South as well as the buses themselves, were segregated by race.

James Farmer, co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, was one of the main organizers of the Freedom Rides, interstate bus trips conducted by activists protesting segregation on buses and in bus terminal facilities. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, also organized rides.

In 1947, CORE had organized an earlier attempt to end segregation on public bus transportation called The Journey of Reconciliation, an interracial ride from Washington D.C. to Kentucky. The group only got as far as Chapel Hill, NC, where they were met with violent resistance and arrested. In 1961, resurrecting the 'Journey' seemed appropriate, as the CORE-inspired lunch counter sit-ins of February 1960 had brought the problem of segregation to the national stage. The sit-ins involved primarily college students who sat at white-only lunch counters, which led to violent beatings by the mostly white onlookers.

First Freedom Ride

The first Freedom Ride began on May 4th, 1961. The CORE Director, James Farmer, put together a team of 13 black and white participants. Not all of them were young; some of the riders were in their 40s and 50s. Representative John Lewis, who eventually became a U.S. Congressman from Georgia's 5th District, was among them.

Their goal was to ride through Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, and other southern states and end up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Rallies were planned for when the group arrived at its various destinations. At a few of the stops, the riders met with little resistance, and things went relatively smoothly. However, in the Carolinas and in Jackson, Mississippi, some riders were arrested. In Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, the violence was considerable.

Mobs Attack the Buses

On May 14th, 1961, one of the Greyhound buses rolled into Anniston, Alabama, where a group of whites approached the bus and began attacking it. They firebombed it and then, according to some sources, held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders alive. For reasons that remain unclear, the mob moved away from the bus, and the riders came streaming out of the burning vehicle. Once outside, the white mob set upon the riders and brutally beat them.

Eventually, the riders were taken to a nearby hospital, where they refused treatment in protest. A group of armed blacks from the community came to the hospital and removed them to a safer area. Later in the day, a second bus - a Continental Trailways bus - arrived in Anniston and was boarded by members of the Ku Klux Klan. These riders were also brutally beaten and left in a semi-conscious state.

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