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SNCC 1960-1966: Six years of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Freedom RidesDuring the Freedom Rides, SNCC members rode buses through the deep southern states where discrimination and segregation were most prominent.

The concept originated in the 1940's with CORE, a non-violent group out of Chicago trying to end racial discrimination. In 1947, responding to a Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination in interstate travel, CORE sponsored a Freedom Ride that they called a "Journey of Reconciliation." They rode buses throughout much of the upper south and established that most people would not create incident for those choosing to sit where they pleased.

The First Ride

A 1961 Supreme Court decision to end desegregation not only in travel, but also in bus terminal facilities, prompted a new set of Freedom Rides and SNCC's involvement. In 1961 a group of seven black and six white people, including John Lewis, left Washington, D.C. for New Orleans on two buses, a Trailways bus and a Greyhound bus. The group made it through Virginia and North Carolina without incident.

At the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the group encountered violence. A mob of twenty attacked the group, and John Lewis was the first to be hit as he approached the white waiting room. Police eventually interfered and the group was allowed access to the white waiting room. The journey continued to Georgia. After leaving Atlanta, the Greyhound bus was stopped as it entered Alabama. A mob surrounded the bus, the tires were slashed, and the bus was set on fire. The bus was burned to the ground, but the group took another bus and continued the rides.

Meanwhile, the Trailways bus arrived in Anniston, Alabama where the driver would not continue until the group sat segregated. A violent group boarded the bus and beat the African-Americans sitting in the front, causing several injuries until the group was forced to the back of the bus. A mob carrying iron pipes greeted them on arrival in Birmingham, Alabama. Many were battered, knocked unconscious and hospitalized. The group gathered the next day and prepared to head on to Montgomery, but no bus would take them. A mob gathered as they waited in the white waiting room, and finally the group decided to fly back to New Orleans, ending the first ride.

The Rides Continue

SNCC was determined to continue the rides to prove that violence could not stop them. SNCC, along with the Nashville Student Movement, organized a group that met in Nashville, determined to go on to Birmingham and Montgomery, then on to Mississippi and New Orleans. Some members of the first ride, including John Lewis, were involved in this ride.

The group of eight African-Americans and two whites was arrested in Birmingham and spent the night in jail. They were literally driven out of town by the Police Chief "Bull" O'Connor, who left the group stranded on the Tennessee border. The group returned to Birmingham and sang freedom songs outside the terminal.

While this was going on, President John F. Kennedy was concerned about the violence and bus burning that had occurred during the first Freedom Ride the previous week. He telephoned the governor of Alabama and insisted that it was the government's responsibility to guarantee safe passage of interstate travelers. A bus with police and helicopter escort was then sent to Birmingham to take the Freedom Rides on to Montgomery. Once the group arrived in Montgomery however, the protection disappeared and more violence ensued. A crowd of three hundred gathered. Approximately twenty-five of them armed with clubs and sticks began beating the newsmen and cameramen.

James Zwerg, a young white man, got off the bus and was greeted with chants of "Kill the nigger-loving son of a bitch!" He was beaten to the ground and never attempted to defend himself, even as his face was stomped into the ground. The mob turned its attention to the rest of the riders and everyone was beaten.

After what has been reported as anywhere from five to twenty minutes, police came and used tear gas to break up the crowd, which had grown to a thousand. The riders, after being hospitalized and seeking refuge in the homes of local black people, gathered at Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church in Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flew in and spoke to a crowd of twelve hundred. President Kennedy called the situation "a source of deepest concern."

With a renewed sense of faith and purpose, the freedom riders continued, escorted by national guardsmen. In Jackson, Mississippi, the group was arrested for using white restrooms and waiting rooms. They spent the night in jail. Over the next several months, riders continued to journey to Jackson, in attempt to desegregate the facilities there. The Freedom Rides had been successful in the Upper south but were halted in the Deep South, leaving the riders wounded but determined.