The freedom to sit where you want or to use any bathroom you choose wasn’t always an option for Blacks when traveling.
In 1955, Rosa Parks helped integrate the Montgomery, Alabama bus system when she refused to give up her seat. But interstate bus travel remained segregated in the south until the Freedom Rides of 1961. Blood was shed and lives were nearly lost as their non-violent protest was met with brutal beatings and jail.
The Freedom Rides began on May 4, 1961. A small group of 13 Black and white members of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, set out from Washington D.C., heading to New Orleans on what was supposed to be a two-week ride to challenge the Jim Crow Laws of the south.
The first few stops were uneventful until they reached Rock Hill, South Carolina. Three riders were viciously attacked for trying to use the “whites only” restroom. Among them, a 21-year-old John Lewis, the future congressman.
The further south the Freedom Riders went, the more vicious the attacks.
In Anniston, Alabama, a mob of about 200 Klu Klux Klansmen firebombed the bus as police watched. On the same day, another group of Freedom Riders were brutally beaten by a mob waiting for them at the Birmingham bus station.
After the violence in Anniston and Birmingham, CORE announced it was ending the rides. But SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, picked up the cause.
The brutal attacks continued as the group rode into Montgomery, Alabama. The group, determined to continue, headed to Jackson, Mississippi, but this time the bus was loaded with armed troops, followed by patrol cars.
As they got off the bus, some still bearing the bandages of the beatings in Alabama, they headed into the bus station. They were arrested for attempting to use “white only” facilities. Some in the group refused to pay the fine and choose to stay in jail.
As word got out, other Freedom Riders headed to Jackson. And as they were arrested, others streamed south to take their place. It began attracting national, even international media attention. The “jail, no bail tactic” put so much pressure on the Mississippi penal system that the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered the white and colored signs to be taken down in the terminals.
After several months, almost 400 arrests and at least 60 rides later, the Freedom Riders were able to claim victory.