In February 1946, Jackie Robinson, the first Black man to play in major league baseball, and his wife, Rachel, boarded a plane in Los Angeles, bound for spring training in Daytona Beach, Fla. They had first class tickets.
When the plane had to stop to refuel in New Orleans, they were told they’d been bumped and not permitted to re-board with the other passengers.
When they finally were able to get another flight out of New Orleans the next day, they landed in Pensacola, Fla., and had to find another way to get to Daytona Beach.
They completed the last 12 hours of their trip riding in the back of a segregated bus.
A ruling by the Supreme Court later that same year said segregated interstate travel was unconstitutional, but nothing changed on the nation’s trains, planes and buses or inside their stations.
And nothing would change until 1961 when a group of activists pushed the Kennedy Administration to begin enacting change.
May 4 marked the 60th Anniversary of the first group of Freedom Riders setting off on passenger buses from Washington, D.C., destined for New Orleans. The events that followed changed history and interstate travel.
“A lot of people are familiar with the history surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” said Dorothy Walker, site director of the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery. “They believe that was the end of segregation on buses. However, the interstate system - the buses, airlines and passenger trains - they were still segregated even after the boycott ended.”
Nearly 10 years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1946 Morgan v. Virginia case that it was unconstitutional to have segregated interstate travel.
In practice, however, the system remained the same: Blacks and whites were not allowed to sit together, wait in the same waiting areas or eat at the same station diners.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group made up of white and Black members, decided to test the ruling and its enforcement, said Walker. The rode buses through the upper South - Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. On this trip, the Journey of Reconciliation, “They found that segregation was still being enforced. Some were arrested, served time in prison, were sentenced to chain gangs,” said Walker.
Another Supreme Court ruling followed in 1960, Boynton v. Virginia, that again found segregated interstate travel to be unconstitutional.
“You have all these ruling by the federal government that interstate travel should be desegregated,” said Walker. Yet, without the government to enforce the Supreme Court ruling, nothing was changing.
In January, 1961, John F. Kennedy, the charismatic senator from Massachusetts, was sworn in as president. A Democrat, he won the presidency with the support of southern Democratic governors and Black voters, who had switched from being “Lincoln Republicans” to support him.
“He knows he’s got votes down here,” said Walker, but Kennedy was not in a hurry to fulfill his campaign promises regarding civil rights.
“It’s not the first thing he’s going to tackle,” she said. “He knows there are votes on both sides.”
CORE, though, was not waiting on the new president to get around to it.
“CORE said, ‘Let’s do this again,’ but this time in the Deep South,” said Walker. Their approach was to use non-violent direct action to cause change. The plan was for white and Black men and women buy tickets on regularly scheduled buses traveling from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.
“It was a simple plan,” said Walker. “They felt that these [Supreme Court] rulings gave them the right as American citizens. This should not have been an issue.”
Bus bombed in Anniston
A group of 13 Freedom Riders - six white, seven Black, including six women - left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, with half on a Trailways bus and the other on a Greyhound. Among them was 21-year-old Troy, Ala., native John Lewis, who was attacked at a stop in Rock Hill, SC. It was a foreshadowing of the violence to come. When the bus stopped in Atlanta, riders met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He declined an invitation to join the riders, but warned them of what lay ahead: “‘You’re headed further into the deep South, it’s going to be a little different,’” Walker said he told them.
He was right.
The buses arrived in Alabama on Sunday, May 14. The Greyhound bus was the first to arrive at the Anniston station and was met by a white mob that attacked the bus with clubs and bats. With windows broken and tires slashed, the bus driver attempted to drive the bus away from the mob, but was forced to stop several miles out of town. Someone from the mob lobbed a firebomb onto the bus and passengers barely made it out. Outside the bus, the mob continued to attack the Freedom Riders with clubs and bats. Eventually, police stopped the attackers and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, arranged for the Freedom Riders to be transported from the Anniston hospital to Birmingham.
The Trailways bus arrived in Anniston about an hour later. On it was Charles Person, 18, the youngest of the riders. When he boarded the bus in D.C., he said they had no expectations of what would happen, but knew they had to do something to draw attention to the situation.
“Most people in the country didn’t believe some of the practices that were going on,” he said.
The first few days of the ride they encountered only a couple of issues. “It gave me time to acclimate to what would happen,” said Person. “It was setting the stage for ‘maybe your time is coming,’ and I guess eventually it did.”
When the Trailways bus arrived in Anniston, they learned what had happened to the other bus. Klansmen boarded the Trailways bus and told the Freedom Riders to move to the back. When they refused, said Person, the Klansmen, “physically threw us into the back of the bus and they taunted us all the way into Birmingham. When we got to Birmingham, they got off and their other buddies were already in the terminal.”
Beaten in Birmingham
Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor was ready for the Freedom Riders. He gave the Ku Klux Klan 15 minutes to do what they wanted.
As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten with iron pipes, baseball bats and chains. More than half the Freedom Riders were injured.
“When we left DC the worst thing that we thought could happen to us was someone might yank you off a stool, squirt you with ketchup or they might pour milkshake on you or they might event put a cigarette out on you,” said Person. “And that was about the extent of the violence we anticipated. We had no idea the Klan had other things planned for us.”
The violence the riders suffered received national attention. “Kennedy gets involved and he’s like, ‘Let’s get you out of there,’” said Walker. But even then, the riders were under threat of violence.
“Even trying to board the plane to fly out of Birmingham, they had to get off because there were bomb threats,” she said. Eventually - by not announcing the plane to New Orleans was about to board - the riders were able to get on the plane and fly on to New Orleans.
“For CORE that was a disappointment,” said Walker. “They wanted to continue the ride by bus but the federal government is just trying to end this.”
Nashville students get involved
Like the rest of the nation, members of the Nashville Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were paying attention to what was happening to the Freedom Riders. And they weren’t going to let the Freedom Rides end in Birmingham.
Walker said the students were concerned that the message quitting represented: inflict enough violence and they’ll stop.
“The students in Nashville sign their wills and they get on buses and go to Birmingham,” said Walker.
They arrived on May 17 and Connor immediately placed them into “protective custody.”
In the middle of the night, though, he ushered the students out of the jail and into a waiting car.
Catherine Burks-Brooks - then Catherine Burks, a 21-year-old student from Birmingham and senior at Tennessee State University - was one of the students on that midnight ride.
“[Connor] told us we were going back to Nashville,” said Burks-Brooks.
She was seated next to Connor as he drove. They talked. “Bull and I had a conversation off and on for the whole trip,” said Burks-Brooks. He talked about the Dixiecrats who broke from the Democratic party in 1948 over the party’s civil rights platform and she talked about the civil rights movement.
“That was the type of conversation that we were having,” she said. “We didn’t have anything like a violent conversation. He was talking to me like I was his daughter or his niece,” she said.
She invited him to have breakfast with them in Nashville. He accepted.
But Connor wasn’t taking them to Nashville. He stopped before the state line in Ardmore, Ala., around 2-3 a.m., let the students out and told them there was a train depot nearby. There wasn’t but the students found a Black family who sheltered them and let them use the phone to call their contact in Nashville. By morning they were back on the road to Birmingham.
‘All hell breaks loose’
Burks-Brooks and 20 other students boarded a bus in Birmingham on May 20, bound for Montgomery. State police provided an escort, but once they arrived in Montgomery, they were left unprotected.
“Local law enforcement had arranged with the mob that they would have 30 minutes to attack the Freedom Riders,” said Walker. “It’s horrific violence on this group of students with hundreds of people in the mob. It’s a miracle they survive.”
“I thought all hell was going to break loose and we had to see our way out of there without fighting,” said Burks-Brooks. “I could see [the mob] running from different spots.”
The Black women were put in cabs driven by Black men - taxi’s were still segregated - and out the window she saw the violence surrounding them. “I could see [John] Lewis and Jim Zwerg being beaten up. I could look out the window and see blood just running down their faces,” she said.
The Riders took refuge that night, but did not give up.
Despite President Kennedy calling for a “cooling off period,” the riders were determined to make it to Mississippi. “They decided, ‘we’ll take the beating and keep going,’” said Walker.
“Federal and state officials then realize that they are going to have to deal with it,” said Walker. “So they put them on their own bus with National Guardsmen on it and zoom them through the state with a police escort. The riders don’t want to do it that way, but they agree.”
Jailed in Mississippi
The federal government had made a deal with Mississippi authorities that there would be no mobs, but they could arrest the students on “breach of peace” charges, said Walker. “I think they thought the students would spend a few days in a Mississippi jail, get the crap scared out of them and go back to their campuses in Nashville.”
When the bus arrived in Jackson, Miss., the Riders were arrested, but instead of a few days in jail, the Freedom Riders were sentenced to 40 days at Parchman State Penitentiary, one of the most notorious prisons at the time. There, they were subjected to physical and psychological abuse.
Despite this, others followed.
“By the end of the summer you had hundreds of people flooding in to Mississippi in solidarity,” said Walker. They did so at great personal cost. Along with abuse from authorities and the Klan, many were expelled from colleges or cut off from their families.
Eventually more than 400 Freedom Riders joined the cause. “Fifty percent of them were white, and 50 percent were Black, and one fourth were women. That wasn’t planned,” said Person. All of them were nonviolent.
The situation had grown into a crisis for Kennedy, who was now forced to take action. His brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, directed the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue rules to companies to desegregate interstate travel.
“It was only about a five month campaign, but today we get to travel across the country together, and we never think about once Jackie Robinson and his wife were kicked off a plane for having a first class ticket,” said Walker. “We take it for granted that we can sit together. It’s because the courage of the 436 Freedom Riders and others courageous enough to challenge the system of segregation and many people don’t know their names or their stories.”
The Freedom Riders pushed the Kennedy Administration to take up its promise of civil rights reform long before they’d planned to, said Walker. “It accelerated the movement and changed the trajectory,” she said.
Walker notes that along with the 436 Freedom Riders that took up the cause that summer, there were hundreds more who provided support along the way, providing legal support, housing, food and transportation.
“All those things played a success in the movement,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have to be on the bus. There are things each of us can do in our everyday, ordinary lives to make a difference.”