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Who Were the Freedom Riders?

In December 1960, the Interstate Commerce Commission, as a result of the Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court case, initiated new regulations banning racial segregation on interstate transportation and in bus terminals.  On May 04, 1961, a group of friends, six whites and twelve blacks ranging in ages from 18 to 61, set out to test the new regulation by planning an interstate bus ride from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana.  Along the way, these Freedom Riders also tested whether they could sit wherever they wanted, eat together in restaurants, use the same public restrooms, etc.  These brave people were met with angry mobs and attacked along the way. On May 14th, their bus was attacked with rocks, bricks, pipes, axes and a fire-bomb near Anniston, Alabama and Hank Thomas was beaten over the head with a baseball bat.  Members of the mob shouted, “Burn them alive!” and “Fry the goddamn niggers!”  In Anniston, they were attacked by another mob that boarded their bus, but they managed to escape and move forward toward Birmingham.  But the Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and Police Sergeant Tom Cook (an avid KKK supporter) encouraged people to again attack the Freedom Riders.  They promised FBI informer Gary Thomas Rowe (a member of the most violent Klan sub-group in Alabama) that the KKK would have 15 minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any interference from the police.  Another mob then assaulted them with iron pipes, baseball bats and bicycle chains, resulting in Jim Peck needing 53 stitches.  The Greyhound and Trailways bus drivers then refused to drive any bus carrying freedom riders.  So they were ultimately forced out of their mission before reaching Montgomery, Alabama when Attorney General Robert Kennedy called for a “cooling off period”.  But the riders then boarded an airplane to New Orleans where they attended a rally.  News of the events of their journey became widespread in world-wide media. Their mission inspired others to become Freedom Riders and more joined the cause, successfully arriving in Montgomery.  On May 24th, twelve more boarded a bus headed to Jackson, Mississippi.  When the Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson, they attempted to eat at a “whites only” restaurant and were arrested.  More and more citizens, an estimated over 400, became Freedom Riders and the rides continued through the summer of 1961.  Most of the Freedom Rides were sponsored and organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  In September 1961, Robert Kennedy commanded the Interstate Commerce Commission to end discrimination on an interstate level.  And in November 1961, all interstate buses were required to display a sign stating, “Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.”

A list of names and details about individual Freedom Riders compiled by Oxford University Press can be downloaded here :

A PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders can be purchased on Amazon here :


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