The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized a daring challenge to Jim Crow when, on this day (May 4) in 1961, it sent seven Black and six White activists on two buses from Washington D.C. to New Orleans for the first Freedom Ride.
According to Blackpast.org, CORE leader James Farmer recruited activists to test if the federal government would enforce the Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia, which upheld its 1946 decision in Morgan v. Virginia that racial segregation in interstate travel was illegal under the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. Southern states largely ignored the 1946 ruling, and archival footage used in Stanley Nelson’s 2011 documentary, “Freedom Riders,” shows CORE members preparing the activists to nonviolently attempt to use segregated facilities in the face of retaliatory violence.
The activists, including current Georgia congressman John Lewis, traveled through the South in multiracial groups without incident until arriving at a bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. There, groups of White men beat Black riders trying to use a “Whites only” bathroom. The caravan continued through Georgia and into Alabama, encountering a White mob with Ku Klux Klan members in the town of Anniston that firebombed one of the buses and attacked the escaping riders.
The other bus successfully escaped Anniston, only to face more Klan members and police in Birmingham, where public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor allowed the assembled group to attack the riders. The group received reinforcements on May 17 from another caravan led by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Diane Nash from Nashville, then proceeded to Montgomery to face yet another mob.
The Freedom Riders never reached New Orleans; they were arrested and incarcerated in Mississippi. But their resolve eventually forced then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy to petition the Interstate Commerce Commission to more-explicitly outlaw all interstate travel segregation and impose stricter sanctions on those who violated that policy.
Learn more about this Freedom Ride and others by watching “Freedom Riders,” available for stream via PBS.