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