The Freedom Rides Made the Most of a Multiracial Activist Base

Today’s protests for racial justice are strikingly multiracial. Civil rights organizers have historically considered this an asset and often used it creatively and strategically to their advantage, as they did during the Freedom Rides through the American South in 1961.

The military guard a bus en route from Montgomery, Alabama, as the Freedom Riders head for Jackson, Mississippi, on May 26 1961. Express / Archive Photos / Getty Images

For three weeks now, American streets have been flooded with protestors demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man killed by Minneapolis police, and Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed by Louisville police. They have also leveled a system-wide demand to defund the police.

The protests have emerged in in more American cities and towns than any protest movement in our nation’s history. A striking feature of the movement is its highly multiracial character. Approached strategically, this can be a key strength. One of the lessons of the twentieth-century struggle for civil rights is that a multiracial activist base can be a major asset.

For a creative and successful example of multiracial anti-racist activism, look no further than the Freedom Rides that challenged segregated bus travel in the Jim Crow South.

The Journey of Reconciliation

The Freedom Rides of 1961 were an echo of an earlier organizing strategy known as the Journey of Reconciliation. In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating on interstate bus routes was illegal. But anti-segregation organizers knew better than to prematurely celebrate. Just because something was technically illegal in the United States didn’t mean it wouldn’t be practiced in the Jim Crow South. It remained to be seen whether the law of the land would be enforced.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was then a fledgling group that believed the principles of Gandhian nonviolent direct action could be applied to the struggle for racial equality in the United States. But as Mike Davis and Jon Wiener observe in Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, CORE’s “methodology — sit-ins, jail-ins, wade-ins, boycotts — derived as much from the IWW and the CIO as it did from the Indian freedom movement.”

One of CORE’s most striking characteristics at the time was that it was a highly multiracial group, boasting black leadership but more white members than black members from the outset. CORE regarded this multiracial character as an asset, not a liability. (This would change a few years later in 1966, when CORE shifted in a more black nationalist direction.)

After the Supreme Court decision came down, the organization decided to make the most of its multiracial activist base. Under the leadership of black organizer Bayard Rustin and white organizer George Houser, CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation decided to send eight white men and eight black men on two interstate bus journeys into the South. The idea was that the black men would sit in the front of the buses (they bought tickets on Greyhound and Trailways), while the white men sat in the back. Or, sometimes, the white and black men would occupy rows together.

The participants in this action, called the Journey of Reconciliation, fully expected to be ordered to resegregate, planned to peacefully resist, and anticipated that they would become targets of violence. The risk was worth it to them to expose the lack of enforcement of desegregation, which they felt was necessary to advance the struggle for civil rights.

They left from Washington, DC, on April 9, 1947. Unsurprisingly, they ran into trouble further south of the Mason-Dixon line. After a few earlier conflicts, four participants were arrested in North Carolina — two black men (including Rustin) for refusing to change seats, and two white men for defending them. One of the white men was beaten by an angry white spectator as he was hauled off the bus by police.

The Journey of Reconciliation continued after that. Conflicts with police continued. The riders also took the opportunity to meet with students, clergy, and other supporters of civil rights on their travels. But their troubles didn’t end when they returned to DC. The following year, they were ordered before a judge in North Carolina, where they had been arrested, and were sentenced to twenty-two days of hard labor on racially segregated chain gangs.

The Journey of Reconciliation didn’t make that many headlines, but it was discussed at length in the black press, drumming up enthusiasm for civil rights and helping recruit new activists to the struggle. In time, the creativity and dauntlessness of the participants served as an inspiration for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and eventually the Freedom Rides.

The Freedom Rides 

A great deal transpired between the Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ended segregation in the armed forces. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was no longer legal in public schools. The year-long 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott was followed by the 1957 creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, presided over by Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the course of the decade, the civil rights struggle evolved into what is formally taught in schools as the civil rights movement.

Just as in 1947, enforcement of federal law in the South continued to be a major obstacle to movement victories. Brown v. Board of Education may have technically desegregated schools three years earlier, but the Arkansas National Guard still blocked the Little Rock Nine from entering the schoolhouse in 1957. Activists hoped to draw attention to the lack of enforcement in order to challenge it, but while the Little Rock Nine case had garnered national headlines, the nation’s attention drifted away from the issue in the years that followed.

By 1961, after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, movement leaders feared that civil rights and equality for black people were slipping from view, and that the movement, despite receiving a jolt of energy through the recent formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was in danger of losing steam. Leaders felt they needed to carry out a symbolically powerful action to force the issue back onto the agenda.

James Farmer, CORE’s national director, proposed a repeat of the 1947 strategy, which would be called the Freedom Ride. Civil rights leaders, including King, approved of the idea. Davis and Wiener write:

In a situation where the law was now crystal clear but its application was bound to elicit violent reactions in hardcore segregationist states, Farmer calculated that Washington would be forced to act. The Ride would help sustain the energy of the student movement while redirecting it to a higher level of contestation involving governors and federal officials, as well as mayors and local businesses. Everything, however, depended on the volunteers’ willingness to risk their lives by riding into the heart of segregationist darkness.

The Journey of Reconciliation had stopped and turned around in North Carolina, after finding plenty of trouble from racists. The thirteen participants in the Freedom Ride, however, were bound by bus for New Orleans through Alabama and Mississippi. Again, the group was multiracial — seven black, six white, all recruited and trained by CORE staff — and this was part of its design.

Stokely Carmichael of SNCC said of the plan:

The plan . . . was simplicity itself. In any sane, even half-civilized society it would have been completely innocuous, hardly worth a second thought or meriting any comment at all. CORE would be sending an integrated team — black and white together — from the nation’s capital to New Orleans on public transportation. That’s all. Except, of course, they would sit randomly on the buses in integrated pairs and in the stations they would use the waiting room facilities casually, ignoring the white/colored signs. What could be more harmless . . . in any marginally healthy society?”

The group left DC on May 4. In the weeks that followed, they faced attacks and arrests similar to those experienced by the Journey of Reconciliation participants all through North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi. But that was nothing compared to what was waiting for them in Alabama.

The Alabama Attacks

The Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were acutely aware of the riders’ movements. They’d heard about the Freedom Ride before it began, despite it garnering little attention in the press. This was because the Birmingham Police were simultaneously working with the FBI and had strong connections to the Klan. In his history, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Raymond Arsenault writes:

The Klansmen had known about the Freedom Ride since mid-April, thanks to a series of FBI memos forwarded to the Birmingham Police Department. Police sergeant Tim Cook — an avid Klan supporter and anti-Communist zealot who worked closely with Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s ultra-segregationist sixty-three-year-old commissioner of public safety — provided the organization with detailed information on the Ride, including a city-by-city itinerary . . .

In a flurry of secret meetings in April and early May, the Klansmen — with Cook’s help — prepared a rude welcome for the invading “n*ggers” and “n*gger lovers” who were about to violate the timeworn customs and laws of the sovereign state of Alabama.

One member of the Eastview Klavern, the most violent Klan outfit in Alabama, was an FBI informant. He passed the information all the way up the chain, meaning that the bureau’s director J. Edgar Hoover was aware of the coming violence. Hoover did nothing to stop it.

The riders had caught wind of a mob waiting for them in Alabama, but they had no idea how violent it would be. Just as with the Journey of Reconciliation, there were two buses: one Greyhound and one Trailways bus. South of Anniston, Alabama, the Greyhound bus was flagged down on the road, and a white man warned the riders that a mob was waiting for them in town. When the bus pulled into Anniston, they were greeted by a mob of fifty Klansmen armed with pipes, clubs, and chains.

A mob of racists beats Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama on May 14, 1961. Tommy Langston, Birmingham Post-Herald / Wikimedia Commons

According to Arsenault’s history, the Klansmen yelled racial epithets and shouted “Dirty Communists!” and “Sig heil!” as they surrounded the bus. Passengers were able to close the door from the inside by leaning on it, preventing the mob from entering, but the mob began smashing the bus windows with rocks and brass knuckles. Eventually the police arrived and escorted the bus through town, but they abandoned it at the town’s edge.

Just outside the town limits, the bus was overwhelmed by “thirty or forty cars and trucks jammed with shrieking whites.” It was forced to pull over. The mob began rocking it back and forth as the riders barricaded themselves inside. An assailant threw a homemade bomb through an open window, which exploded inside, causing the riders to exit the bus as the mob yelled “Burn them alive” and “Fry the goddamn n*ggers.”

Some of the riders were beaten, and many were convinced they might die. But then the fuel tank on the flaming bus exploded, and the mob became afraid for their own safety. As the riders lay on the ground “coughing and bleeding,” a second fuel tank exploded, driving the mob away. The riders were sent to the hospital, but the Klan followed them there, causing them to flee.

This was only one of the scenes of brutal violence the Freedom Riders faced in Alabama. The riders of the other bus were beaten unconscious by Klansmen in Anniston, and when both groups arrived in Birmingham, they were greeted by white mobs that meted out beatings with bats, chains, and pipes. Police sergeant Tom Cook and Birmingham, Alabama, commissioner of public safety Bull Connor had promised the Klan in Birmingham that they could have fifteen minutes to do whatever they wanted to the riders, with no interference from police. Black riders were subjected to a string of racist insults as they were beaten mercilessly. Onlookers yelled “Kill the n*gger,” and many of the black riders recall feeling that they were moments away from being lynched.

But the white riders were not spared violence in Birmingham either. White assailants called them “n*gger lovers,” and one screamed, “You damn communists, why don’t you go back to Russia, you’re a shame to the white race.” James Peck, a white CORE leader who had also participated in the Journey of Reconciliation, was beaten so badly that his head required fifty stitches. The first hospital he was taken to refused to treat him.

The Catalyst

After the violence in Alabama, the original riders felt that they could not go on. But news of the events had galvanized more volunteers. A group of new riders from SNCC traveled to Birmingham to take their place. They were arrested by Bull Connor and dumped across state lines, but still more came.

Now, civil rights was back in the national spotlight and back on Kennedy’s agenda — and Kennedy didn’t like it. The president snapped at a civil rights leader, “Can’t you get your goddamn friends off those buses?” His brother, Bobby Kennedy, urged a “cooling off” period, but SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC refused. Instead, they formed a Freedom Rides Coordinating Committee, which kept the rides going all through the summer.

Each new round of arrests or mob violence only encouraged greater participation from black and white civil rights activists. And the rides also helped reenergize and further organize the broader civil rights movement. Davis and Wiener observe:

The Rides, of course, were more than just the Riders: they centrally involved Black campuses and communities in almost every Southern state, as well as tens of thousands of active supporters North of the Mason-Dixon line, who marched in support demonstrations, organized hundreds of meetings, and raised funds to meet the extortionate bails set by segregationist judges.

The Freedom Rides, along with a concurrent wave of sit-ins staged by the newly empowered SNCC, became the catalyst for a new wave of civil rights struggle that extended all the way through the mid-1960s, including the March on Washington in 1963 and the Freedom Summer voter registration drive in the South in 1964. It was one of the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement. On account of the structure of the actions, the 436 participants of the 1961 Freedom Rides were black and white in equal number.

The fact that the Freedom Rides were multiracial was not incidental. While it’s probably a damning indictment of the mainstream media’s racist priorities for what kind of activist did or did not deserve coverage, the knowledge that white protestors had been beaten by segregationists helped generate publicity and turn many white people into supporters — and the model of white participation helped turn many white supporters into activists themselves. The shift in white sentiment magnified the potency of the movement. And the participation of whites added numerically to the movement’s ranks. All of this made civil rights and racial equality significantly harder for the Kennedy administration, and later the Johnson administration, to ignore.

The lessons we can take from the Freedom Rides are endless. The potential of multiracial solidarity to strengthen the struggle for racial equality — something to be not merely tolerated but wielded creatively and strategically — is one worth taking to heart.