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

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    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.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.