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Who Were the Freedom Riders and What Did They Do?

A famous quote says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The brave men and women known as the Freedom Riders didn’t just sit by and let evil happen. They stood toe to toe and called it for what it was.

These brave men and women played a huge part in the civil rights movement throughout the South. Instead of sitting on the sidelines when they saw an injustice, they took their seats in the middle of the action.

So who were the Freedom riders, and what did they do? Let’s find out.

Who Were the Freedom Riders?

The Freedom Riders were a mixture of black and white civil rights activists. They were students, a pastor, and retired educators tired of what they were experiencing. These individuals fought against segregation in various ways throughout the South. 

The activists often used restrooms, lunch counters, and bus seats labeled “whites only.” Their actions brought national and international attention to the civil rights movement in the United States.

Seven black and six white people made up the original 13 Freedom Riders. One of whom, John Lewis, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1986. He served as a Representative until he died in 2020. 

Where Were the Freedom Riders From?

The original 13 Freedom Riders were from all over the East Coast, from New York to Florida. Of the original 13, James L. Farmer Jr., Jimmy McDonald, and James Peck were from New York. Walter Bergman, John Lewis, Charles Person, and Frances Bergman came from Georgia. 

The two from North Carolina included Ed Blankenheim and Rev. B. Elton Cox. Hank Thomas of Florida, Genevieve Hughes of Washington D.C., Joe Perkins of Kentucky, and Albert Bigelow of Massachusetts made up the final four Freedom Riders.

The diversity of their origins raises evidence of the country’s widespread issues during the 1960s. These brave men and women stood up to the faces of evil and racism and helped pave the way for future generations to continue the pursuit of equality.

We the People portion of the Constitution
The Freedom Riders were crucial to the progression of the Civil Rights Movement.

What Happened During the First Ride?

The first ride occurred on May 4, 1961, when the group left Washington D.C. on a Greyhound bus in pursuit of New Orleans, La. They traveled through Virginia and North Carolina without much attention. 

However, on May 12, some group members entered a whites-only waiting area and were attacked. Once the group reached Atlanta, Ga., they split into two groups. One riding a Greyhound bus and the other riding a Trailways bus.

On May 14, 1961, the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, Ala., where a group of 200 angry white people met them. The driver refused to stop and continued past the bus station, but portions of the mob followed the bus in their vehicles. 

The tires blew, and protestors threw a bomb onto the Greyhound, but the Freedom Riders escaped before it burst into flames. The angry mob proceeded to beat the members of the group severely.

The members on the Trailways bus didn’t fare much better. The angry mob in Birmingham, Ala., beat the riders with metal pipes. Local law enforcement knew of the potential for violence but refused to position any law enforcement officers because it was Mother’s Day.

The Freedom Riders faced continued beatings at bus stops, and the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, had to get involved. Kennedy sent 600 federal marshals to Montgomery, Ala., to stop the violence.

However, when the group made their way to Jackson, Miss., the Freedom Riders were immediately arrested for trespassing when they attempted to use the whites-only facilities. They were taken directly to a maximum-security prison in Parchman, Miss. 

While the Freedom Riders didn’t receive a fair trial from the Mississippi judge, they appealed the convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately reversed the decisions. The Freedom Riders continued for several months until the Interstate Commerce Commission prohibited segregation in interstate transit terminals in the fall of 1961.

Pro Tip: While learning about the history of Alabama, make sure to check out these 10 Unusual Things To Do in Alabama.

Young boy protesting with megaphone
The legacy of the Freedom Riders continues on today.

What Was the Freedom Riders’ Purpose?

The Freedom Riders set out for equality regarding segregation on buses and at the bus terminals. There were many “whites-only” facilities that Blacks couldn’t use based on the color of their skin.

The Freedom Riders challenged these rules by using these facilities, regardless of their skin color. It took time, but they helped bring about change and create legislation that prohibited the practice.

When Did the Bus Rides Stop?

The bus rides stopped on Sept. 22, 1961, six months after the Freedom Riders began. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) made the discriminatory segregated seating on interstate bus transits illegal. They ordered that stations remove “white-only” signs from all interstate bus terminals by Nov. 1, 1961.

What Is the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

The 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2. It prohibited discrimination in all public places, including theaters, restaurants, and hotels.

It also prohibited discriminatory practices regarding employment, public schools, swimming pools, and libraries.

The Freedom Riders: Activists Who Challenged the Status Quo 

The Civil Rights Movement is one of the lowest and highest moments in the history of our country. It was the lowest because a tremendous amount of hatred and bigotry revealed itself through violent acts. 

However, it was also some of the highest moments in our nation’s history as many brave men and women prevented evil from triumphing. They set an example for the rest of us in how we should behave and respond to inequality. We must do whatever it takes to end it.

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