This background map, created for syndication in newspapers, shows the routes of the Freedom Rides of 1961 and several of the incidences of violence that the Freedom Riders encountered. The Freedom Rides were part of a direct action campaign that took place in the first year of John F. Kennedy's presidency. After the Supreme Court's 1960 Boynton v. Virginia decision that nonwhites could not be denied service in interstate transportation terminals, the Congress of Racial Equality decided to test the decision. On May 4, 1961, the first thirteen Freedom Riders began traveling together by bus from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. During their journeys, they sat where they wanted on buses and trains and insisted on being allowed unrestricted access to segregated terminals and restaurants. This group, empowered by two recent United States Supreme Court rulings that interstate travel was to be desegregated, eventually grew to more than four hundred people, who were trained and recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a national civil rights organization. Throughout the summer, several other groups of Freedom Riders, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), took part in the experiment by taking other rides throughout the Deep South.
The Freedom Riders knew that they would encounter violence and opposition along their way. By taking a nonviolent approach to the civil rights struggle, they were challenging federal officials to uphold the Supreme Court rulings. Many of the Freedom Riders were beaten, their buses were burned, and they were arrested for causing social disorder. The Freedom Riders used these struggles to strengthen their movement in an attempt to gain federal support for the civil rights cause. The Kennedy administration's goal was to avoid violence during the Freedom Rides, yet federal support could have been provided for the riders in states like Mississippi where they encountered the greatest amount of violence. Since the Jim Crow South had not seen a nonviolent direct action campaign of this magnitude before, however, the federal government feared the social disorder that could be caused by giving the riders protection. The Kennedy administration worked more behind the scenes with white segregationists during the Freedom Rides than with the civil rights organizations, as officials feared public backlash.
Most white southerners and many people across the nation believed the Freedom Rides were too radical and provocative to bring about any real change. The participants faced negative press coverage, which described them as dangerous radicals who were idealistic and naive in their goals. Many editorials in white newspapers even equated the Freedom Rides to a communist movement because the riders were perceived as a foreign group—northerners “invading” the segregated South. Despite a negative initial public reaction, the Freedom Riders continued their struggle and found strength in the opposition that they faced.
The Freedom Rides are often seen as an introductory step toward the more dramatic civil rights events of the late 1960s. The Freedom Rides showed the then-internationally focused federal government the hypocrisy of promoting freedom abroad while there was discrimination in the United States. They also signaled the start of a new era of civil rights activism, led by groups like CORE and SNCC instead of the NAACP. The efforts of the Freedom Riders helped other nonviolent, direct action campaigns to evolve from the Freedom Riders efforts into those that would advance the movement as a whole throughout the next decade.
1. What were the Freedom Rides?
2. Who participated in the Freedom Rides?
3. How were the Freedom Rides portrayed by the media?
4. Were the Freedom Rides successful?
1. The Freedom Rides marked just the beginning of a decade of efforts, large and small, to gain equal rights for African Americans. Many other direct action campaigns were organized by CORE, SNCC, and other civil rights organizations throughout the 1960s. Research some of these campaigns. How can they be compared to the Freedom Rides? Did they have similar leaders, participants, and tactics? How successful were the other campaigns in comparison to the Freedom Rides?
The Freedom Riders were typically thought to be only white northerners, either college students or religious leaders. While many did fit this description, the group was actually very diverse. Six of the original thirteen Freedom Riders were African American and were raised in the South.
Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Oxford, Eng.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1994.