Freedom Riders: The Men And Women Who Fought Segregation On Buses

By | May 2, 2020

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In 1961, a group of brave people decided to catch a bus. Their actions didn't require courage (just) because of the germs and filth that cover every surface of most public transportation vehicles; they did it specifically to defy the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South. These "Freedom Riders," as they were called, knew that the only way to affect change in the world was to face the old ways head on, breaking them down barrier by barrier. They were met with violence and rancor, as local police often left them to their own devices, but their painful efforts put the country's eyes on the Civil Rights movement.

After the Supreme Court's ruling of Boynton v. Virginia in 1960, it was unconstitutional to segregate public buses, but many local buses and stations in the South refused to desegregate. In response, activists planned "Freedom Rides" consisting of racially mixed protesters who boarded buses together. The rides were put together by the Congress of Racial Equality as a version of the same group's Journey of Reconciliation in 1947.

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(Getty Images)

A Long And Scary Trip

Seven black and six white Freedom Riders initially planned to travel from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans between May 4 and May 17, 1961 to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. The group made it through Virginia and North Carolina without any dust-ups, but when they arrived in Rock Hill, South Carolina on May 12, they were attacked as they waited to catch their next bus. When they reached Atlanta the following day, they split into two groups. One rider, Peter Ackberg, admitted that he was terrified when he got on his first bus:

I was pretty scared. The black guys and girls were singing ... They were so spirited and so unafraid. They were really prepared to risk their lives.