Freedom Riders

Freedom Riders, American civil-rights demonstrators who engaged (1961) in nonviolent protests against segregation of public interstate buses and terminals in the South. From the 1940s several federal court decisions and an Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) order had ruled against such segregation. Nonetheless, it remained a fact of life in buses, trains, and terminals throughout the South. In May, 1961, 13 Freedom Rider volunteers, seven black, six white, and nearly all young, were recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge state Jim Crow laws by riding buses together into the Deep South. Two buses set out to take them from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. Serious violence erupted in Alabama when one bus was firebombed near Anniston, and riders in the other were badly beaten in Birmingham. While the original riders were forced to fly to New Orleans, waves of successive protesters followed them to integrate Southern buses. Many were injured, many forced to take refuge in local churches, and some 300 were arrested and held in Southern jails. Federal marshalls were sent to Montgomery and martial law was declared in the state. More riders continued to arrive, and within six months the Kennedy administration had taken action and the Freedom Rider movement had succeeded. The ICC outlawed segregation in interstate travel, the Supreme Court voided state segregation laws in public transportation, and segregation of such facilities in the South came to an end.

See J. Peck, Freedom Ride (1962); D. Halberstam, The Children (1998); R. Arsenault, Freedom Riders (2006); B. Watson, Freedom Summer (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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