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

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
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

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Works to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Smithsonian senior research botanist Vicki Funk says ultimate goal is 'trying to get one-half of the diversity of plant life on Earth at the genus level in two years' More

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

Report from member of British think tank says Russian extradition requests keep targets from traveling More

US Lawmakers Weigh Turkish Anti-terror Moves

Turkey’s two-pronged campaign against Islamic State militants, Kurdish PKK forces provokes mixed reactions on Capitol Hill 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.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs