By Brad Hicks
The Freedom Riders were remarkable, fearless Americans. They were extraordinary, ordinary people … young people who took the reins of history and wouldn’t let go.
— Mark Samels, American Experience executive producer
When I did see the young people, first the sit-ins and the courage that they had to have, and then a couple years later on the bus in Anniston, and Jim Peck being so brutally beaten, I thought I just had to do something, and simply volunteered and proceeded.
— Albert Gordon, Freedom Rider, teacher, Jewish immigrant whose family had been killed by the Nazis during World War II
My good friend, Steve Gehring, pointed out to me a couple days ago that the route I’ve been traveling on my civil-rights discovery road trip this month is very similar to the original “Freedom Ride” that left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, and ended on May 23, 1961, in Jackson, Miss. And he’s right, though it’s quite coincidental; I didn’t intend to do so. But seeing that I have, indeed, been traveling through many towns and cities of that courageous bus ride sixty years ago feels serendipitous, a bit ironic, and so I brushed up on my American history about the Freedom Ride of May 1961, which happened during my mother’s ninth month of being pregnant with me.
I’ve traveled through, visited, and/or stayed in several of the Freedom Ride towns on my trip and by the time I’ve completed my journey I will have gone through several more. Already, the Freedom Ride towns I’ve been through are Washington D.C.; Richmond, Va.; Greensboro, N.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Rock Hill, S.C.; Columbia, S.C.; and I’m currently in Atlanta, Ga. On Monday, March 22, I’ll go on to mirror the Freedom Ride route through the Alabama towns of Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery. Then, I’ll proceed to the the final Freedom Ride city of Jackson, Miss., where the original Freedom Ride ended, short of their originally scheduled final destination of New Orleans, La.
Of course, the purpose of my one-man trip this month in a comfy new Chevy Malibu rental car is for personal learning, writing, and enjoyment, contrasted with the life-threatening goal of the brave young men and women of mixed races who rode buses through the deep Jim Crow South in the Sixties. Their purpose was to nonviolently challenge racial segregation and discrimination by deliberately using the “wrong” segregated restrooms, waiting rooms, and lunch counters at the bus stations at each stop. There was little doubt from the outset of their journey that some of their bodies would be bloodied and bruised to accomplish their goals.
The civil-rights organization Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored a series of integrated bus rides, called Freedom Rides, throughout the southern United States in the spring and summer of 1961. The Rides were strategized to test compliance with recent court rulings barring segregation in interstate travel. CORE organizers recognized an opportunity to galvanize national support for their cause and, perhaps more important, to compel federal involvement in the freedom struggle for American blacks.
Using the map of Freedom Riders route above, here are some details of what happened on the original, the very first, CORE-sponsored Freedom Ride in May 1961.
1. Washington, D.C. (May 4) – Following a careful selection process and a weekend of intensive training in the methods of nonviolent protest, the thirteen original CORE Freedom Riders (seven black, six white) departed, traveling aboard two separate coaches, one operated by Greyhound and the other by Trailways. Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending with a rally in New Orleans on May 17 to commemorate the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.
2. Richmond, Va. — 3. Farmville, Va. — 4. Greensboro, N.C. – The group passed with little difficulty.
5. Charlotte, N.C. (May 8) – Joseph Perkins is the first rider to be arrested after sitting at a whites only shoe-shine stand.
6. Rock Hill, S.C. (May 9) 💥💥💥 – First encounter of violent opposition in this working-class town with a large Ku Klux Klan presence. Rider John Lewis, a black seminary student who later represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, is assaulted in the Greyhound bus terminal after attempting to enter the white waiting room with fellow rider Al Bigelow, a white retired World War II naval officer.
7. Winnsboro, S.C. (May 10) – Other riders, among them James Peck, were arrested for sitting in an integrated fashion at a lunch counter.
8. Atlanta, Ga. (May 12) – Riders were greeted by throngs of supporters, many of them students and veterans of the city’s sit-in movement. That evening, they dined at one of the city’s most popular black-owned restaurants with Martin Luther King Jr., who commended their courage and commitment to nonviolent protest. Although his comments to the larger group remained positive, King confided to the riders and to Simeon Booker, a journalist covering the journey for Ebony and Jet, that segregationists were plotting to attack the riders when they reached Birmingham. After King’s warning, some of the riders traveled to New Orleans by plane, but most of them kept traveling on.
9. Anniston, Ala. (May 14) 💥💥💥 – Events confirmed King’s worst fears. The Greyhound bus was the first to arrive in Anniston. An angry mob of white people and many Klansmen surrounded the bus, causing the driver to continue past the bus station. The mob followed the bus in automobiles, and when the tires on the bus blew out, someone threw a firebomb into the bus and it burst into flames. The riders escaped the explosion and flames only to be brutally beaten by members of the surrounding mob. An hour later, the Trailways bus pulled in at the terminal in Anniston, and eight Klansmen boarded and assaulted the riders. James Peck, who was also arrested in Winnsboro, was severely injured in the beating and required fifty stitches.
10. Birmingham, Ala. (May 15-18) 💥💥💥 – The Trailways bus then traveled on to Birmingham; a mob of angry whites descended on these riders as well, seriously injuring many of them. James Peck (again) along with Charles Person, a black student from Atlanta, were the first to descend from the bus into a crowd of Klansmen. Howard K. Smith, reporting on-the-scene for CBS, described the ensuing violence on the radio, in words cited by John Lewis in his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: “Toughs grabbed the passengers into alleys and corridors, pounding them with pipes, with key rings, and with fists. One passenger was knocked down at my feet by twelve of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp.” Lewis added, “That was Jim Peck’s face.” Peck was severely beaten and needed 53 stitches to his head.
Birmingham Chief of Police Eugene “Bull” Connor stated that, although he knew the Freedom Riders were arriving, and violence awaited them, he posted no police protection at the station “because it was Mother’s Day.” Their hopes of pushing forward toward Montgomery, the injuries sustained in Birmingham, and the unavailability of police protection (or a willing bus driver) forced the original group of riders to suspend their journey. With logistical support from the attorney general’s office in Washington, the original group, who had already endured so much violence and brutality, boarded a plane on May 15 bound for New Orleans, the trip’s intended final destination.
Only two days later, however, a second group of Freedom Riders composed of ten veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly called “snick”) in Nashville, Tenn., volunteered to resume the protest. After securing financial support, the group departed for Birmingham, where they were immediately arrested and detained overnight. Shortly before midnight on May 18, a police caravan led by Connor escorted the Nashville riders out of town and dropped them off in a remote location just over the Tennessee state line. By the following afternoon, however, the Nashville riders had arranged for a return passage to Birmingham, where they were welcomed by a second group of Nashville-based volunteers that had arrived only a few hours earlier to continue the trip to Montgomery and beyond.
Under pressure to defuse tensions in the region, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy meanwhile worked behind the scenes to secure police protection for the riders from Alabama Governor John Patterson. Despite the governor’s commitment, however, the Riders were unprotected when they entered Montgomery.
11. Montgomery, Ala. (May 19-20) 💥💥💥 – Riders arrived in Montgomery, where their police escort abandoned them to a white mob who attacked them with baseball bats and clubs. Riders James Zwerg, John Lewis (again), and a federal official appointed by Robert Kennedy, John Seigenthaler, were badly injured in an ensuing brawl. The following night, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a service at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, which was attended by more than a thousand supporters of the Freedom Riders. A riot of furious whites ensued outside the church, and King called Robert Kennedy to ask for protection. Kennedy summoned federal marshals, who used tear gas to disperse the white mob. Patterson declared martial law in the city and dispatched the National Guard to restore order. Meanwhile, Kennedy sought unsuccessfully to convince the Freedom Riders to suspend their journey. Refusing the attorney general’s request, the riders in Montgomery boarded a bus for Jackson.
Diane Nash, who was at that time the 23-year-old spokesperson for SNCC, later reflected, “It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.”
12. Jackson, Miss. (May 23) 💥💥💥 – Riders entered Jackson under National Guard escort. They were jailed upon arrival under the formal charges of incitement to riot, breach of the peace, and failure to obey a police officer. During the Mississippi hearings, the judge turned and looked at the wall rather than listen to the Freedom Riders’ defense—as had been the case when sit-in participants were arrested for protesting segregated lunch counters in Tennessee earlier that year. He sentenced the riders to thirty days in jail. Riders continued to arrive in Jackson and be jailed throughout summer. All told, more than 300 Freedom Riders were jailed in Jackson alone.
13. Parchman, Miss. (June 11) – The riders were moved from jail in Jackson to Parchman State Prison Farm, a penitentiary 134 miles north of Jackson. Segregationist authorities attempted to break their spirits by removing mattresses from the cells. New Freedom Attorneys from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) appealed the convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed them.
Already intense, media attention only increased in the aftermath of Montgomery’s violence, thereby forcing the Kennedy administration to take a definitive position in defense of civil rights. As a result, the administration announced on May 29, 1961, that it had instructed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to ban segregation in all facilities under its jurisdiction.
Freedom Rides continued throughout the rest of the summer as successive waves of protesters, now with the benefit of federal protection, headed south for Mississippi to take part in protests that were assuming historic proportions. After months of delay, the ICC officially ruled segregation in interstate travel illegal on November 1, 1961.
John Lewis’s remarkable civil rights legacy
John Lewis is one of the most remarkable figures of the civil rights movement. In his early twenties, he was one of the nine speakers who preceded Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington; he was the director of SNCC for several year; he led the protest-march from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and was subsequently the first person beaten by Selma police on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965; he served as a United States congressman from 1987 until his death in July 2020, and, as mentioned in this article, he was one of the original 13 CORE Freedom Riders. Lewis was arrested over forty times for his civil rights protests and he was beaten numerable times; some of the most iconic civil rights photos of civil rights brutality included Lewis in them!
As far as I can tell, Lewis is also the only original CORE Freedom Fighter who has received an apology from his abusers during the legendary 1961 Freedom Ride. He received two such apologies later in his life.
One apology was from Elwin Wilson, a former supporter of the Ku Klux Klan and one of the men who beat Lewis and Albert Bigelow when the two of them got off the Freedom Ride bus at the Greyhound station in Rock Hill, S.C. on May 9, 1961. Lewis and Bigelow, of course, did not fight back and they declined to press charges. In 2009, Wilson sought forgiveness from Lewis for the violent assault. He traveled to Washington and met with Lewis to apologize. “He started crying, his son started crying, and I started crying,” Lewis said. Lewis said that he had not remembered the faces or known the names of the men who beat him that day, but that he believed Wilson was “very sincere” in his apology. He noted that the apology from Wilson was the first he had received for the violence committed against him in the civil rights era, and he said that he had never questioned whether to accept it. “It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence,” he said on Monday. “That’s what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation.”
The other apology was offered to Lewis by Montgomery, Ala., police chief Kevin Murphy in 2013. He apologized to Lewis for the conduct of the Montgomery Police Department during and before the civil rights movement and particularly for the crime committed by Montgomery police against the Freedom Riders and their supporters in May 1961 when they failed to protect them from an angry white mob. The video below recounts the story of how and why Murphy was drawn to apologize to Lewis.
“Map of Freedom Riders Route,” tripline.net.
Hatfield, Edward A. “Freedom Rides,” History & Archeology: Civil Rights & Modern Georgia, Since 1945. New Georgia Encyclopedia, August 14, 2020.
“Freedom Riders,” history.com, January 25, 2021.
Yardley, William. “Elwin Wilson, Who Apologized for Racist Acts, Dies at 76,” The New York Times, April 1, 2013.