"When you got near the station you had this eerie feeling. It must have been about ten or ten-thirty on a Saturday and you didn't see anything and all at once when the bus pulled up and we started out of the bus an angry mob of about a thousand people came toward the bus. And they first started reporters and then they started attacking us. Several of us were beaten and just left lying in the street."
The Freedom Rides of 1961 are an important example of an increase in nonviolent direct action by civil rights activists. The Freedom Riders were a multiracial group of 436 activists who demanded that Supreme Court decisions outlawing discrimination on interstate travel (1947) and in bus terminal facilities (1961) be upheld by all states. As small groups they traveled on public buses through areas of the South where segregation and discrimination remained prominent. The first riders departed from Washington, DC for New Orleans, Louisiana on May 4, 1961 and traveled through the upper South with little incident. However, as they entered Alabama on May 14th one of two buses was mobbed and burned, and the second was met by a violent crowd at the Birmingham bus terminal. The city of Birmingham and its Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Conner, would repeatedly make headlines because of the racial violence that occurred there throughout the early-1960s.
The violent reaction to the first* Freedom Ride was shown on national television, inspiring mixed reactions from the public and the White House. Many people, despite feeling outraged over the violence that ensued, felt the Freedom Riders were agitators, stirring up domestic problems at a time when the country was already facing immense international troubles. The Kennedy administration was also displeased, but understood that the law must be upheld.
It took pressure from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to convince the bus company to allow the Freedom Riders to re-board. He also requested that the Alabama State Police provide them with protection on the ninety mile trip from Birmingham to Montgomery. The state troopers agreed and after almost a week of failed attempts, the Freedom Riders set out on their second trip. Regrettably, Attorney General Kennedy’s efforts to avoid a violent repeat were insufficient. The Freedom Riders were met by an angry mob when they reached Montgomery’s bus terminal. The chaos that ensued required federal marshals to be deployed.
That evening, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church in support of the Freedom Riders, who later continued on only to be arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. More riders came to replace those in jail and they too were arrested. So many came to help that by summer’s end over 300 Freedom Riders had been jailed. Their trip to New Orleans was never completed, but the Freedom Rides forced the Kennedy administration to take an important stand on civil rights. As a result, a second, more specific ruling was passed outlawing segregation in interstate buses and travel facilities.
*This refers to the first Freedom Ride in May 1961. It should not be confused with the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, which was a predecessor to the Freedom Rides of 1961.