5 facts about the Freedom Riders

John Lewis, later a Congressman from Georgia, was one of the original Freedom Riders, as a college student in Nashville, Tenn.. He was photographed talking with fellow Freedom Rider James Zwerg who was beaten in Montgomery, Alabama, after riding into town on a  Greyhound bus in 1961.
John Lewis, later a Congressman from Georgia, was one of the original Freedom Riders, as a college student in Nashville, Tenn.. He was photographed talking with fellow Freedom Rider James Zwerg who was beaten in Montgomery, Alabama, after riding into town on a Greyhound bus in 1961.

Credit: Everett Collection Historical

Credit: Everett Collection Historical

May 4 marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Freedom Rides. Here are five things to know about the movement that helped change the course of the nation and the fight for equality.

What are the Freedom Rides?

In May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality launched the Freedom Rides as a way challenge segregation on interstate buses and bus facilities like waiting rooms and dining counters. Groups of Black and white activists, many college students, would board Greyhound or Trailways buses and travel across the segregated South to test the law. The Freedom Rides lasted for seven months.

How many Freedom Riders were there?

By one estimate, there were more than 436 riders from May until November of 1961. Riders included student activists, faith leaders, members of the Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities and others. Many had membership in different civil rights organizations.

Was this the first test challenging segregation using the interstate bus system?

No, in fact CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation led a 1947 two-week Journey of Reconciliation in which Black and white riders took to the road to test the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Morgan v. Virginia that determined segregated seating on a bus was unconstitutional. Even before that, individuals tested the waters. Irene Morgan (later Kirkaldy), an African-American woman refused to give up her seat to a white couple on a Greyhound bus from Gloucester, Virginia to Baltimore in 1944. Morgan was the plaintiff in the Morgan v. Virginia case that later made its way to the Supreme Court. Even earlier, in 1942, Bayard Rustin rode from Louisville, Kentucky to Nashville. Rustin refused to stay in the back of the bus and was arrested and beaten by police. Rustin served as the treasurer of CORE during the 1947 rides.

ExploreFreedom Riders: 60 years ago, they rode to challenge segregation

Did women participate in the Freedom Rides?

Yes, the Freedom Riders were men and women and also an interracial group. Some of the women involved included Diane Nash, Catherine Burks-Brooks, Ruby Doris Smith, Pauline Knight-Ofosu and Glenda Gaither Davis. Author and Freedom Rider Charles Person estimates 25% of the riders were women.

Was there violence against the riders?

Yes. In several cities the riders were intimidated and experienced beatings and arrests. During one incident John Lewis, who later became a congressman from Georgia was beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina. In Anniston, Alabama a bus carrying riders was attacked and firebombed. Riders were able to escape the burning bus, but were badly beaten.

Sources: History Channel, NPR, Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute; “Buses Are A Comin’: Memoir of a Freedom Rider” by Charles Person and Richard Rooker, Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

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