The Freedom Ride took place in 1961. Though the Freedom Ride is well known in civil rights history, it was not the first time that segregation in transport had been challenged in the Deep South.

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.

In 1947, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) planned to take a “Journey of Reconciliation” throughout the South to test the Supreme Court’s ruling. The so-called Upper Southern states reacted very negatively to the fact that the accepted norm of the South (segregation) was being challenged. The group met heavy resistance in North Carolina where some of the members of the Journey were arrested and made to work in chain gangs. With such intimidation the “Journey of Reconciliation” broke down and segregation in the South continued.

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.

However, the same was not true in Birmingham, Alabama, where the police chief, ‘Bull’ Connor, saw the Freedom Ride as a challenge to his authority in the city.

May 14th was Mother’s Day in Birmingham. Connor had given his police in the city the day off to celebrate the day with their family. However, it was also known that the Freedom Ride would be in the city on this day and that any protestors would not be policed. A mob greeted the Riders and many on the bus were severely beaten. Connor claimed that he knew nothing about the plans for the attack and the Freedom Riders received no support from Alabama’s governor:

“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.

Despite the violence in Birmingham and Anniston, the Freedom Riders were determined to continue with their journey to New Orleans. However, the bus company that provided the buses was fearful of losing more buses and the drivers – all white – did not want to risk their lives. However, the Freedom Riders had got the national attention that they wanted and with this in hand, they decided to fly to New Orleans.

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.

All went well until the bus pulled into Montgomery bus station. Suddenly the Freedom Riders were attacked by a white mob – with a minimal police presence. The Riders initially thought that it would be less provocative to leave the bus from the back. One Rider, Jim Zwerg, left the bus first. Zwerg was white and the mob attacked him while other Riders managed to move away. Mann tried to help Zwerg, as did a Justice Department official called John Seigenthaler, sent to accompany the Riders by Robert Kennedy. Seigenthaler was beaten unconscious by the mob and Zwerg suffered a severe beating. Mann ordered in state troopers to re-establish law and order. Robert Kennedy expressed his outrage at what had gone on in Montgomery and ordered federal marshals to the city.

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.