In 1946, the United States Supreme Court declared that
the racial segregation of passengers on interstate buses
was an "undue burden on interstate commerce" and
could no longer be enforced. Encouraged by the decision,
but dubious as to whether it would be followed, the Congress
of Racial Equality sponsored a two week "Journey of
Reconciliation" through the upper South to test the
effectiveness of the Court's decision.
In April 1947, sixteen people -- eight African Americans
and eight whites -- set off on a tour of cities in Virginia,
North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. They traveled
by bus with the express purpose of challenging existing
Jim Crow laws.
The freedom riders entered North Carolina on April 11
and made stops in Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Greensboro,
and Winston-Salem. Bus drivers and police officers challenged
the passengers at nearly every stop, resulting in arrests
in Asheville and Chapel Hill.
One of the riders arrested in Chapel Hill was Bayard Rustin,
who was on his way to becoming a prominent Civil Rights
leader and is now perhaps best known as the organizer of
the 1963 march on Washington where an estimated quarter
of a million people gathered to hear Martin Luther King
Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Rustin was sitting in the front seat of a Trailways bus
in Chapel Hill on April 13, and was ordered to move to
the back. When he refused, he and the white man sitting
next to him were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct
and for refusing to obey the order of the bus driver. Two
more riders were arrested and all four were released on
bond and taken to the home of Charles Jones, a local Presbyterian
minister who agreed to host the travelers for the night.
Before they could leave, a taxi driver assaulted one of
the freedom riders, striking James Peck, a white man, in
the head. Two cars filled with angry men followed the group
back to Rev. Jones's house where they made several threats
before leaving. Wary of more violence if they stayed in
Chapel Hill, Rustin and the others left for Greensboro
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's 1946 decision overturning
segregation on interstate carriers, the arrests of the
freedom riders were upheld by the North Carolina Supreme
Court. The North Carolina Court argued that because the
passengers were not travelling outside of the state that
day, they were not interstate travellers and thus the Supreme
Court decision did not apply to them. Bayard Rustin spent
twenty-two days on a prison chain gang in Roxboro.
George Houser and Bayard Rustin. We Challenged Jim
Crow!: A Report on the Journey of Reconciliation, April
9-23, 1947 . Congress of Racial Equality, .
"4 Men Testing Law Against Segregation Placed Under
Arrest." The Chapel Hill Weekly , 18 April
"Race Incidents Arise After Bus Seating Arrests." Daily
Tar Heel , 14 April 1947.
Jim Peck, "The First Freedom Ride, 1947." Southern
Exposure, vol. 9 no. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 36-37.
"State v. Andrew S. Johnson, Bayard Rustin, Igal
Roodenko and Joseph A. Felmont." North Carolina
Reports 229, pp. 701-707. North Carolina Collection
call number C345.4 N87 v.229