Riding the Bus to Freedom

— Dianne Feeley

Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice
Raymond Arsenault
Oxford University Press, 2006, 690 pages, $19.95 paper

THE 1961 FREEDOM Rides challenged a racially segregated society by openly defying its customs, riding in interracial groups on interstate buses going South and desegregating the stations’ facilities. Asserting their constitutional right to travel, participants employed direct action in the face of intimidation, violence and police complicity with the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens’ Councils.

Four hundred and thirty-six individuals boarded the buses. Black southerners comprised fully 40% of the total; northern Blacks brought Black participation up to 53%. Twenty-five percent were under 20, another 50% were in their 20s. Riders were most likely to be students, but in the mix were professors, ministers, workers, professionals, the unemployed, and even a state legislator. One quarter of the participants were women.

Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders chronicles the events of that year through the words of those who were there: the Riders, journalists and government officials. He not only recounts the heroic story of how the Freedom Rides challenged Jim Crow practices, but also reveals the internal discussions and tensions within the group.

The participants were not interested in martyrdom but in social change. Yet when officials in the Kennedy administration told them they’d made their point, now they should just call it a day, they voted to press on.

Arsenault points out that the Freedom Rides occupy a midpoint between the 1954 Brown decision and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, yet they are usually seen as a mere prelude to the civil rights movement. Although most histories of the civil rights movement cover them, Freedom Riders is the first book-length account.

The Pioneers

After a brief introductory chapter, the author begins with the 1944 journey of Irene Morgan, who was returning home to Baltimore after visiting her mother in Virginia. Refusing to give up her seat on the bus, she was beaten by several policemen and thrown into jail. She represented herself at her trial. Convicted, she refused to pay the $10 fine and court costs, and appealed her case. In 1946 the U.S. Supreme Court sustained her appeal, reasoning, “there is no Federal act dealing with the separation of races.” (18) (Morgan died in August 2007.)

Yet strict segregation on interstate transportation continued throughout the South, and, in some cases, increased. Arsenault pinpoints the NAACP’s reliance on a legal strategy to the exclusion of economic boycotts, picketing or marches as a key factor in explaining why the victory did not lead anywhere. Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, however:

“(A) small but determined group of radical activists seized the opportunity to take the desegregation struggle out of the courts and into the streets. Inspired by an international tradition of nonviolent direct action, this response to segregationist intransigence transcended the cautious legal pragmatism of the NAACP.” (22)

Those activists were members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Bayard Rustin and George Houser hatched a plan for a “Journey of Reconciliation” through the South. A.J. Muste, a titan both of the 1930s unemployed movement and later the Vietnam antiwar movement, supported it.

Deciding that “mixing the races and sexes would possibly exacerbate an already volatile situation” (35), they agreed that only men would participate. Ella Baker and Pauli Murray, who had been involved in the planning, were disappointed with the decision.

After investigation, the group also agreed to limit the trip to the upper South. Combining the interracial bus ride with educational meetings on using nonviolent direct action to end segregation, they set out from Washington, D.C. in April 1947 on a two-week journey. CORE’s official balance sheet listed 26 tests of compliance, 12 arrests and only one act of violent resistance. More importantly, they found courageous Black and white southerners willing to join them in desegregating the buses.

Although the Black press covered the journey, and participants published their accounts, the mainstream press ignored the event. The journey did not spark desegregation, but in the long run it presented a model that would reemerge with the Freedom Rides more than a decade later.

A New Movement

In December 1960 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Bruce Boynton, a Howard University law student arrested two years before for attempting to eat in a whites-only restaurant at a Trailways terminal. Extending the Morgan case, the Court outlawed state segregation laws for interstate passengers.

CORE felt that this legal victory provided the civil rights movement with an opening that could end segregation and deepen the movement’s commitment to nonviolent direct action. By launching the Freedom Ride they also wanted to build their own organization, which had energetically supported the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that first erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1961. Within six months sit-ins in over a 100 southern cities and towns had at least partially destroyed Jim Crow laws and customs.

The Freedom Ride was to follow the original plan for the 1947 journey. Scouting out the cities along the road, CORE staffer Tom Gaither lined up local sponsors who would welcome the riders and organize meetings where participants could tell their stories. But he saw Alabama and Mississippi as white supremacist strongholds, as they would prove to be.

CORE recruited a dozen individuals who demonstrated a commitment to nonviolence. After an intensive three-day training, 13 men and women boarded Greyhound and Trailway buses on May 4th. Despite CORE press releases announcing the trip, there was only token coverage for the sendoff, with only three reporters/photographers accompanying them.

The riders traveled with relative ease through Virginia and North Carolina. In Richmond they found that although the signs of segregation were down, the “traditional patterns of separation and deference still prevailed.” (114) Were the Freedom Riders taking great risks only for a “potentially empty victory”? (114)

The CORE plan called for mass meetings at the nightly stops along the way. All of the Riders took turns as spokespeople. In truth, from the beginning they met with a mixed reception within the Black community. Sometimes they encountered a host preacher who was having second thoughts about what he had agreed to do. One announced “If God had wanted us to sit in the front of the bus, he would have put us there.” (117)

At other meetings the Freedom Riders were enthusiastically embraced, often by veterans who had themselves built impressive desegregation campaigns. Wherever the Riders spoke, as John Lewis later recalled, their message was that “no place was too small and no people were too powerless to do what we on those buses were doing.” (116)

While CORE staffers had carefully planned the trip, the Klan was even better prepared. Arsenault recounts how they organized their forces and coordinated their plan with friendly police officers. Two weeks before the Freedom Ride began, Gary Rowe, a member of the most violent Klan enclave in Alabama and an FBI informant, met with Police Sergeant Tom Cook, who worked closely with Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety.

The racists’ plan, as it finally emerged, called for an initial assault in Anniston followed by a mop-up operation in Birmingham. Cook also assured Rowe that both the police department and the Alabama Highway Patrol would cooperate by giving the Klan an initial 15-minute head start at the Birmingham terminals to assault arriving Freedom Riders.

Two plainclothes detectives were present during the attack and warned the thugs when it was time for the police to move in.

Anniston and Birmingham

Chapter 4 details the battle of Anniston and Birmingham. The Greyhound bus from Atlanta was less than half full. There were seven Riders, two journalists and five “regular” passengers, including the manager of the Atlanta Greyhound station and two undercover plainclothes agents of the Alabama Highway Patrol. Instructed by Floyd Mann, director of the highway patrol, they carried a hidden microphone to eavesdrop on the Riders’ conversations.

Before the bus reached Anniston the driver was flagged down by a driver coming from the town, informing him that there was an angry crowd waiting at the terminal. The station was locked when the bus pulled into the parking lot; suddenly a mob rushed the bus. Prevented from entering by the two agents, the Klan laid siege to the bus, smashing windows and slashing tires. Finally the police arrived, but showed no interest in arresting anyone. They cleared a path, motioned for the battered bus to exit and escorted it as far as the city limits.

A caravan of about 30 cars and trucks streamed past, tailing the bus until a pair of flat tires forced the driver to pull over and run to a grocery store to call for replacement tires.

Still dressed in their Sunday church clothes, men emerged from their vehicles and surrounded the bus, first attempting to board, then attempting to tip the bus over.

Finally two members of the mob tossed a firebomb. Forced to abandon the bus, the Riders, coughing and bleeding, faced the mob. Meanwhile several white families gathered in front of the grocery store to watch the attack. While some urged the Klan on, a few, including 12-year-old Janie Miller, stepped forward to aid the Riders.

Without the presence of the armed undercover agents, the Riders might have been killed. With their help the Riders finally managed to get to a hospital, only to find the medical staff unwilling to treat the interracial group.

A mob surrounded the hospital, threatening to burn the building to the ground. As night fell, the superintendent demanded that they leave as soon as possible. Finally they placed a frantic call to Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who dispatched a fleet of eight cars to travel the back roads and pick them up.

An hour after the first group had left Atlanta, the second group boarded a Trailways bus. While purchasing their tickets, the seven Riders noticed that several passengers disappeared from the line after being approached by white men, who later boarded the bus.

As soon as the bus pulled out of the station, the white men, later identified as Klansmen, began threatening the Riders. Two hours later, when the bus pulled into the Anniston terminal, the driver got the news that the Greyhound bus had been burned and demanded that the Black Freedom Riders retreat to the back. When one Rider reminded him they were interstate passengers who had the right to sit wherever they pleased, he exited. Klan passengers then attacked Black Riders, and when white Riders intervened, attacked them too. They dragged Blacks to the back of the bus and sat down in the middle in order to enforce the color line.

Moments later the driver returned with a cop. Viewing the restoration of the Jim Crow seating, the officer approved the arrangement. The driver pulled out, but took the back roads to Birmingham. For the next two hours the Riders were intimidated and threatened by the Klansmen, who informed them that they would get what was coming to them once they reached Birmingham.

Alabama Manhood in Action

The ride itself must have been as psychologically terrifying as the bombing of the Greyhound bus. During most of the ride Jim Peck, one of that day’s designated “testers,” lay unconscious from his beating. The Klan passengers prevented Riders from being able to prepare themselves collectively for what was to happen.

Meanwhile Klansmen in Birmingham were ready to greet the Freedom Riders at the Greyhound station. A call from police headquarters alerted FBI informant Gary Rowe, that they would have to get over to the Trailways station within minutes, as the second bus would be pulling in momentarily. The Klansmen sprinted over to the station with their chains, sticks and clubs.

It was Mothers Day so there were few bystanders, yet Klan organizers “couldn’t resist the temptation to let the outside world catch a glimpse of Alabama manhood in action” and tipped off the media. (153)

The attack backfired for two reasons. First, they assaulted the Freedom Riders in front of the press. Dr. Edward R. Fields, president of the National States Right Party, had tipped off Howard K. Smith, in town working on a TV documentary, that he should hang around the bus stations “if he wanted to see some real action.” (153)

Shaken by what he had seen, Smith set up hourly radio broadcasts, including interviews with three injured Black men — one a Freedom Rider, the other two bystanders. Later his TV documentary Who Speaks for Birmingham spotlighted the situation for a national audience. He remarked that “... the riots have not been spontaneous outbursts of anger but carefully planned and susceptible to having been easily prevented or stopped had there been a wish to do so.” (165)

Although some photographers had their film destroyed, there were enough remaining photos so that the nation saw the violence: the burning bus on the country road near Anniston, the Klan attack on bystander George Webb in the corridor of the Trailways station, the bloody and beaten Freedom Riders.

Second, the Klan made the mistake of roughing up Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s assistant, John Seigenthaler, who was had been dispatched to keep an eye on the Freedom Riders. When thugs assaulted the Riders as they got off the bus in Birmingham, Seigenthaler was driving to the station. Seeing what was happening, he tried to intervene, only to be struck from behind with a pipe and kicked in the ribs. He was found unconscious nearly a half hour later.

Police officers arranged to be absent and give the thugs a period of time to attack, but when they were present, usually they refused to call ambulances for the injured, arrested the victims of the violence, not the perpetrators, and allowed the rioting to continue. The FBI collected information, but never informed the Freedom Riders of possible attempts on their lives. Hoover claimed the FBI only had an “intelligence” mission. (Some of the FBI’s fact finding was sent on to the Justice Department, but “apparently not all.”) (137)

No Way Out

Birmingham closed off the first Freedom Ride when the Riders couldn’t find a way out of the city. Governor Patterson claimed that the citizens were so outraged he couldn’t guarantee safe passage. Accordingly Greyhound cancelled its bus to Montgomery. Later Eastern Airlines cancelled its flight as well. Finally, with five Riders severely weakened from the attacks, they agreed to take a plane directly to New Orleans.

The ride was over — even if they were able to make it out of Birmingham alive and celebrate the seventh anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education at a mass rally of 1,500 in New Orleans on May 17. CORE chapters organized emergency demonstrations throughout the country that same day. Joined by the National Student Association and several unions, they picketed bus terminals from Boston to LA. The largest action was in New York, with a lunchtime march of 2,000 demonstrating in front of the Port Authority bus terminal. They were led by Freedom Riders Jim Peck and Hank Thomas, who flew in from New Orleans.

Nashville Students to the Rescue

Meanwhile the Nashville students, who had launched sit-ins and other acts of nonviolent resistance and who had played a pivotal role in the founding of SNCC, called an emergency meeting. As Bob Moses would later put it, “Only the Nashville student movement had the fire to match that of the burning bus.” (179)

Even before the Freedom Riders flew out of Birmingham, students in The Nashville Movement were strategizing about how to reinforce the Freedom Rides. Once they realized the ride was discontinuing, even understanding the situation which they would encounter, they organized to resume it. With Diane Nash as their brilliant organizer, they raised $900, refused the Kennedy administration’s entreaties to postpone their plan, and, within three days, had 10 Riders on the bus bound for Birmingham. By Wednesday night the 10, and Shuttlesworth, who had met them at the station, were all in jail. There they refused to eat and spent the night singing freedom songs.

Raymond Arsenault tells the story of the Freedom Rides right through to the end (Chapter 5–11), and beyond. For many, the road led to confrontation, mass arrest and a stay in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison.

How Jim Crow Was Defeated

Freedom Riders does not attempt to prettify the Kennedy administration. Both President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy saw the Freedom Riders as an annoyance. Arsenault writes:

“To the Kennedy brothers, taking the civil rights movement into the streets, where uncontrolled conflict was inevitable, was an embarrassing luxury that the United States could not afford in the context of the Cold War. The president was first and foremost a Cold Warrior, and his focus on world affairs was never more intense than during the troubled spring following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.” (164)

Although the strategy was direct action, the Freedom Riders faced the dilemma of how they could thread through the South with its politicians, police and paramilitary units and the white mobs that howled for segregation. When the level of violence was high, they demanded that the federal government intervene to protect them. And with the entrance of the Nashville students, the nonviolent tactic was broadened to “fill the jails.”

The Interstate Commerce Commission issued a unanimous ruling in September, 1961 that as of November 1st racial discrimination would be prohibited on interstate bus transit. The mainstream viewpoint has hailed its implementation as an achievement of the Kennedy administration, without remembering who had put their feet to the fire.

In the epilogue, the author writes that looking back over four decades of uneven progress, if the civil rights movement forced the federal government to take action, the government also imposed certain limits on the movement. That is, once the ICC made its ruling, the movement had to adopt new tactics. For example, the fall 1961 mass demonstration being planned for Washington, DC in order to pressure the Kennedy administration was shelved. Such a march wouldn’t happen until 1963.

Arsenault makes clear in his meticulous account that only mass civil disobedience broke the back of segregation. What fighters against Jim Crow had on their side was their moral demand for equality, their youth and determination, their willingness to continue in the face of violence, and the law itself. In its corner Jim Crow had local politicians and police committed to maintaining segregation, a paramilitary force that collaborated with the police and was determined to use violence, and a federal administration that saw its base in the southern white population.

The rising decolonialization of Africa and the Cold War provided the civil rights movement with a favorable context in which the federal government was embarrassed enough to agree that the law be implemented.

Not only did the Freedom Rides provide the second in the one-two punch that overthrew Jim Crow, but reconfigured the make up of civil rights activism: “... students generally took the lead while lawyers, ministers, and other elders struggled to keep up.” (478) Not everything could be attributed to the Freedom Rides, but Arsenault points out that along with the sit-ins, the bus rides tipped the balance so that “virtually all matters related to the movement — from generational and organizational lines — were in flux or undergoing serious reexamination.” (479)

Freedom Riders makes clear that the moral authority of the civil rights movement was able to inspire a new generation to put their bodies on the line, and that’s what it took to end segregation. Raymond Arsenault has written a very detailed account of one civil rights campaign and how that connected to the larger struggle for social justice. It is rich with lessons.

ATC 132, January–February 2008