In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating on interstate buses was unconstitutional. However, as with everything that the Supreme Court adjudicates on, its ruling only works if the people of America and the governments at state and local level agree to support such a ruling. The 1946 ruling by the Supreme Court was not accepted by the South.
To many in the civil rights movement, J F Kennedy brought hope that things would change for the better. This did not initially happen in the young president’s time in office. To test how committed Kennedy was to the civil rights issues, CORE planned another Freedom Ride. In this protest, white passengers would sit in seats reserved for black passengers and vice versa. When a bus stopped, whites would use the rest areas reserved for blacks and blacks would attempt to use the rest rooms reserved for whites.
CORE director James Farmer defended the motives of the Freedom Riders by stating quite simply that they were merely enforcing the law as laid down by America’s Supreme Court and that they were, in fact, upholding the law.
The Freedom Ride left Washington DC on May 4th, 1961. The plan was to arrive in New Orleans on May 17th. The significance of this date was plain to all – the seventh anniversary of the Brown v Topeka decision by the Supreme Court. This Freedom Ride met little resistance in the Upper South.
|“When you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it……You just can’t guarantee the safety of a fool and that’s what these folk are, just fools."Governor Patterson|
Before reaching Birmingham, the Freedom Riders had split with one group going to Birmingham and another to Anniston. The Riders who pulled into Anniston were attacked by a mob of about 200. The bus was stoned and it tyres were slashed. The driver managed to get the bus out of the town but when the driver pulled over to change its tyres some six miles from Anniston, the bus was firebombed.
It was at this time that those students involved in the Nashville sit-ins decided to continue with the Freedom Ride. They believed that any perceived weakness in the civil rights movement would play into the hands of the racists – and giving in to violence was seen as a weakness by the students who decided to persevere with the bus ride. The Nashville students went to Birmingham in an effort to persuade a bus company to let them have a bus. On May 17th, they were arrested by the city’s police and put into ‘protective custody’, driven back to the Alabama/Tennessee state line and dumped there. The students determined that they would go back to Birmingham, regardless of the circumstances they had faced.
By now, what was happening in Birmingham had come to the attention of the Attorney-General, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy. He put pressure on the Greyhound Bus Company to carry the Riders. Greyhound agreed to do so. The head of Alabama’s state highway patrol, Floyd Mann, agreed to give the Riders protection from Birmingham to Montgomery. The journey between the two cities was about 90 miles and Mann agreed that the route would have several patrol cars on it at any one time.
Martin Luther King addressed a mass meeting in Montgomery in support of the Freedom Riders surrounded by federal marshals. As night came, the church in which King was speaking was surrounded by a mob estimated at about 2,000. Clearly, the use of federal marshals was seen as no threat. King called Robert Kennedy who contacted Alabama’s Governor Patterson. He ordered in state police and the National Guard. The mob dispersed and those in the church left safely.
The Freedom Riders were given more protection as they decided to ignore Robert Kennedy’s call for a ‘cooling off’ period. They travelled to Jackson in Mississippi. The Riders were met by the police who let them use the white section in the city’s bus station. They were then arrested and moved to a city prison. However, there was no mob in Jackson. On May 25th, the Riders were put on trial for refusing to obey a police officer. They were sentenced to 60 days in a state penitentiary at Parchman.
More Freedom Riders arrived in the Jackson to continue the journey.
The Freedom Riders did not make it to New Orleans but they had made their point and received a great deal of publicity. They had also got the Attorney-General involved. In September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission introduced a ruling that was much tighter and less open to interpretation than the Supreme Court ruling of 1946. This ruling, concerning the integration of interstate transport, came into force on November 1st, 1961.