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 "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

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    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.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora