Tag: Freedom Riders- 1961


Freedom Riders- 1961



Freedom riders were civil rights lobbyists in who were residing in the southern United States and rode in interstate buses to test the decision of the United States Supreme Court on the Boynton v. Virginia case.  The Boynton ruling had outlawed racial segregation in public rest rooms and restaurants found at the termini of buses that crossed state lines in the United States. Interstate buses were fully segregated along racial lines such that the whites and African-American could not commute in the same bus. The Freedom Riders had set up their activities to challenge this status quo such that they traveled to the south via different buses including those specifically set aside for the whites. This was meant to provoke the local authorities who had enforced the segregation in public transport vehicles.

These rides were later on branded “freedom rides” and they provoked violent reactions as well leading to the arrest of most riders who were caught trespassing and violating the laws of the state. The activism of the Freedom Riders was considered as criminal especially after the establishment of violent activities. Later on in the rides they realized that the subsequent arrests were thwarting their goals hence they committed themselves to non-violent resistance; a strategy which was borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr. this strategy was equally successful because after a long struggle, the “white” and “colored” signs were pulled down from the interstate bus terminals such that people from all races were able to share the same rest rooms among other public facilities. 


Who were the Freedom Riders?

The Freedom Riders were a civil rights group which was organized in 1961 by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader James Farmer in the UnitedState of America. They were inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation which had taken place in 1947 under the stewardship of Bayard Rustin in conjunction with George Houser.  The first freedom ride was composed of thirteen black and white volunteers who were involved in the interstate traveling between Washington and New Orleans. These volunteers usually underwent three-day training on non-violent ways of stopping racial segregation. The ride from Washington to New Orleans was a move towards establishing equal traveling rights among the whites and minority blacks. The segregation of blacks sitting at the back and whites in front of public vehicles generated the first spark towards the establishment of Freedom Riders (CORE, 2010).

 The strategy used to challenge the local authority laws was to include an interracial pair in adjoining seats while a black rider sat in the font seats usually reserved for whites. The other members of the crew sat all over the bus regardless of their race. Only one rider followed the segregation ideals to avoid arrest so that incase of the others being arrested, this rider would inform the relevant authorities and arrange for bailing of the rest. In the first few days of the ride, minimal hostility was directed towards the riders but as the journey continued, they were severely beaten and one of the buses burnt. The arrests were occasionally triggered by involvement of the riders in violent protests and as the ride continued, their leaders sought for non-violent as a new strategy to reduce arrests. Consequently, after adoption of non-violence in addition to the resolute willingness of the Americans to achieve justice, the power of the strategy was exemplified in successful accomplishment of the rides (Bausum, 2006).

 Purpose of the Freedom Riders

One of the main reasons why the Freedom Riders were formed was to ensure that all human beings were treated equally regardless of their racial background. Discrimination against racial lines especially in the public buses such that those who sat at the wrong places were arrested was one of the items that led to the Freedom Rides. The Congress of Racial Equality was aiming at establishing harmonious utilization of buses such that the designations of whites only at the front and blacks would be eliminated (CORE, 2010).The authorities were quite aggressive in instilling these policies such that individuals who violated them were severely fined. This was seen as being liberal as there was no known disparity between the minority groups and the whites. The Freedom Riders wanted to ensure that everyone would be given equal chances be it in the rest rooms or buses without being branded as black or white.

This was exhibited in the first ride when whites and blacks sat on any section of the bus regardless of their racial ethnicity. They also intermingled during the ride as well as freely moving in the bus other than being restricted to only one area of the bus (Arsenault, 2007).Other than the need to eliminate racial discrimination, the freedom rides were led by the urge to reduce hatred between the white Americans and their minority counterparts. This hatred was intense such that the whites considered the position of blacks as being inferior and they would never share the same facilities nor would they interact. As a way of minimizing this hatred the interactions in the freedom buses were intensified to show the entire world that all human beings were equal (Curthoys, 2002).

The outcome of Freedom Rides

In the summer of 1961, the US president J.F. Kennedy condemned the Riders for their activities branding it as an embarrassment to the nation. He called for a “cooling off period” such that the riders would take a brake from their activism but the Riders organized intense campaigns against other forms of discrimination which were present in major sectors of the industry. This resulted into greater changes in large companies which had previously segregated their businesses as they feared a breakdown of business operations due to violence initiated by the Riders. At some point during the rides they entered a hotel which was designated for whites only and the owner opted to close down the place rather than serve them (Arsenault, 2007).

A major breakthrough in the struggle occurred in September 1961 when the interstate attorney general bowed to the pressure and passengers were allowed to sit anywhere they deemed favorable for their convenience in the interstate buses and trains. This led to the removal of signs which were previously used to designate various sections of public facilities. Rest rooms were consolidated and restaurants could serve people without having to enquire about their racial background (Arsenault, 2007).Consequently, the Freedom Rides increased the participation of whites and blacks in engaging in civil rights campaigns. Previously most of the people were afraid and they would not protest against any law which oppressed them but after the Freedom Rides they were given a stepping stone (CORE, 2010).


Arsenault, R. (2007), Freedom Riders: 1961 and the struggles for racial justice (Pivotal                 moments in American history). OxfordUniversity Press

Bausum, A. (2006), Freedom Riders Lewis J. and Zwerg  J. on the frontlines of the civil               rights movement; National Geographic Society

CORE, (2010), the Freedom Rides. Retrieved from; http://www.core-        online.org/history/freedom%20rides.htm

Couthoys, A. (2002), Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider remembers. Allen and Unwin        Publishers.

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