News / USA

'Freedom Riders' Remembered 50 Years Later

FILE -  A May 1961 file photograph of a Freedom Rider bus that went up in flames when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Alabama
FILE - A May 1961 file photograph of a Freedom Rider bus that went up in flames when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Alabama

Multimedia

TEXT SIZE - +

The American South was a segregated society 50 years ago. In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in restaurants and bus terminals serving interstate travel, but African-Americans who tried to sit in the "whites only" section risked injury or even death at the hands of white mobs. In May of 1961, groups of black and white civil rights activists set out together to change all that.

They called themselves "Freedom Riders." An integrated group of young civil rights activists decided to confront the racist practices in the Deep South, by travelling together by bus from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana. Raymond Arsenault documents their trip in "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." He says many elder civil rights leaders denounced their strategy as a dangerous provocation that would set back the cause.

"But the members of the Congress of Racial Equality that came up with this idea, the young activists, were absolutely determined that they were going to force the issue, that they had to fight for 'freedom now,' not 'freedom later,' [and] that someone had to take the struggle out of the courtroom and into the streets, even if it meant for death for some of them. They were willing to die to make this point," said Arsenault.

Watch related Deborah Block video report

The group boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington on May 4. They planned to stop and organize others along the way until they reached their destination on May 17.  Like Martin Luther King, Jr. and other prominent civil rights activists of the day, the Freedom Riders were trained in the techniques of non-violent direct action developed by the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. Arsenault says that for some of them, non-violence was a deeply held philosophy. For others, it was a tactic to win public support for their struggle.

A new busload of "Freedom Riders," including four white college professors and three Negro students, arrives in Montgomery, Alabama, under the protection of police and National Guard in this May 24, 1961, file photo
A new busload of "Freedom Riders," including four white college professors and three Negro students, arrives in Montgomery, Alabama, under the protection of police and National Guard in this May 24, 1961, file photo

"Part of what they did was they dressed very well, almost like they were going to church and they were absolutely committed to not striking back and being polite, and to contrast their behavior with what they saw as the white thugs who might very well attack them, and of course did," added Arsenault.

The Freedom Riders were taunted - and attacked - throughout the South. John Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman, was badly beaten in South Carolina. Worse trouble awaited the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama, where white supremacists beat the Riders with clubs and chains while police looked on.  In Anniston, Alabama, a mob surrounded the bus, slashed its tires, and firebombed it on a lone stretch of highway outside of town.

In interviews culled from "Freedom Riders", a new PBS documentary tied to Arsenault's book, several of the Riders recall how they narrowly escaped death.  

"I can't tell you if I walked off if I walked off the bus or crawled off, or someone pulled me off," said one woman.

"When I got off the bus, a man came up to me, and I am coughing and strangling and he said 'Boy, are you alright?' And I nodded, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. He had hit me with a baseball bat," said one man.

"People were gagging and they were crawling around the ground and they were trying to get the smoke out of their chests It was just an awful, awful, awful, awful scene," said another Rider.

"It was horrible. It was like a scene from Hell. The worst suffering I had ever heard," one woman said.

The Freedom Riders, many of them injured, chose to fly the rest of their journey to New Orleans. However, activists in Nashville, Tennessee, immediately organized their own Freedom Ride through Alabama and Mississippi. They felt that failing to continue the effort would hand a victory to the segregationists who wanted to intimidate them.

Like many of her fellow Nashville Freedom Riders, Catherine Burk-Brooks, a black college student, decided to leave school to make the trip.

"This was more important at that time to a number of us at that time in Nashville," said Burk-Brooks.  "We knew that if we lived we would go back to school, and if we died, it wouldn't make any difference. We didn't know if we were going to live or die. But we knew that this was something that we had to do."  

The Kennedy administration feared that more violence would embarrass the president at a Cold War summit with Soviet Premier Khrushchev later that month. A deal was struck with the Mississippi authorities. Police officers would protect the Riders from attack, but would be empowered to arrest them for violating state laws.

Joan Mulholland, a white Freedom Rider who was 19 at the time, was thrown into the State Penitentiary, along with other activists.

"So we were charged with breach of peace which was not on the face of it a segregation law, but was used to enforce segregation by saying that our very presence and actions could cause other people to become violent," Mulholland said.  "So we were charged with breaking the peace by upsetting people."

Such treatment galvanized the national civil rights movement. During the spring and summer of 1961, 60 Freedom Rides headed south from around the country, forcing the issue of segregation into national focus.

The momentum of the civil rights movement increased through sit-ins, voter registration drives, legal advocacy and demonstrations. It led to stronger anti-discrimination laws and their enforcement.

Raymond Arsenault says the Riders are an inspiring example to those who want to change the world, today.

"All of us, wherever we live in the world, have moments when we shrug our shoulders and say 'what can I do? What can we do?'  We're overwhelmed by these powerful socio-economic forces that seem to control our lives," added Aresenault.  "I think the Freedom Rides are a classic example that demonstrates the power of individuals to change the course of history. It's not just so-called 'people in power' who are controlling institutions. There is a lot of historical agency that people can grasp. The Freedom Rides reminds us there are people who have stepped up and changed all of our lives and that we can do that too."

Fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the 1961 Freedom Rides will be held throughout the spring and summer, including the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, in which young people, black and white, will board buses in Washington, D.C., to follow the path of that first ride, spreading the message of civil rights.

You May Like

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid