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50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Part I

May 5, 2011

Map of the First Freedom Ride - May, 1961

Fifty years ago this month, on May 14, 1961, the first Freedom Ride entered Alabama.  It was not well received.  The ride had started 10 days earlier in Washington, D.C.  Led by Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) director, James Farmer, thirteen riders (seven black and six white) left the nation’s capital on two buses, one a Greyhound bus, the other a Trailways bus.  Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending with a rally celebrating the seventh anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education (1954), in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The riders also planned to test the latest U.S. Supreme Court decision, Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which held that racial segregation in public transportation was illegal because such segregation violated the Interstate Commerce Act, an act which broadly forbade discrimination in interstate passenger transportation.  In a majority opinion written by Justice Hugo Black of Alabama, the court held that this ban on segregation also applied to bus and train station waiting rooms, restaurants and restrooms.

The Freedom Riders’ tactics for their journey were to have at least one interracial pair sitting in adjoining seats and at least one black Rider sitting up front (seats usually reserved for white customers only), while the rest would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus.  When entering a bus station, pairs of riders would enter segregated areas in terminal waiting rooms and restaurants.  One rider on each bus would abide by the segregationist “Jim Crow” rules in order to avoid arrest and to contact CORE so that bail could be arraigned for those who were arrested.

Greyhound bus firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama

Although there was minor trouble in Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia, violence erupted almost as soon as the Freedom Ride reached Alabama.  In Anniston, the Greyhound Bus was attacked by a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, many of them in their Mother’s Day Sunday church attire.  The bus was stopped outside of town and set on fire.  Only an explosion of the fuel tank, causing the mob to retreat, allowed the riders to escape a fiery death.  Several of the riders were beaten and taken to a hospital in Anniston, only to be told to leave later that evening.

The Trailways bus continued on its journey to Birmingham.  There, members of the Eastview KKK Klavern #13, were assured by police commissioner Bull Connor that they would be allowed 15 minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without interference from the police.  When they exited the bus at 4:15 PM, the riders were beaten by a mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains.  Finally, the Birmingham Police arrived and the violence ended.

Mob attacks Freedom Riders at the Birmingham Trailways bus station (photograph by Thomas Langston, Birmingham Post Herald)

One rider, James Peck, was taken to the hospital to get 53 stitches to repair deep gashes in his head.  When asked by reporters at his bedside in the early hours of May 15th what his plans were, he courageously replied, “The going is getting rougher but I’ll be on that bus tomorrow heading for Montgomery.”  Thus, would begin a second dramatic and pivotal day in Civil Rights history in Birmingham . . . a day which would involve the Attorney-General of the United States, the Governor of Alabama, a bus station manager and a stalwart local civil rights leader.

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