The 1961 Freedom Rides have become among the most-memorable events in American history — and a major marker of the Civil Rights Movements successful fight to end of Jim Crow segregation. But the Greyhound Bus rides were also the key turning point that reshaped the direction and the tenor of the movement and its leadership. More importantly, it forced John F. Kennedy, an American president who had little interest in advancing civil rights, to finally begin the steps that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other legislation that ended official (and de-facto) segregation for good. Now, more than ever, the lessons about unapologetic grassroots activism and speaking truth to power are ones that should be embraced by all school reformer in what is sadly turning out to be a post-No Child Left Behind Act era in which some have lost their focus on what they are supposed to do.
At the time the Freedom Rides began, the Civil Rights Movement was at a crossroads. Starting in the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its legal mastermind, Thurgood Marshall, had successfully used the courts to challenge Jim Crow laws that condemned blacks to second-class status in American society. This included the case of Irene Morgan, a Baltimore woman who had just gotten over a miscarriage arrested by Hayes Store, Va., police in 1944 for refusing to hand her seat on a Greyhound bus to white riders.
The NAACP would take up her case, successfully appealing it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that states could not apply Jim Crow to any form of interstate commerce. The legal and public policy strategy reached its crescendo in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet governors and legislators in southern states refused to enforce the court rulings and did all they could to circumvent them. In response to the Morgan ruling, states continued to segregate bus stations and other facilities; other states, including Arkansas and Virginia would respond to Brown by refusing to integrate scho0ls and even shutting down entire school districts in a form of massive resistance. The fact that Marshall and his team were reluctant to actually take it to the streets in protests, unwilling to force states to actually abide by federal rulings, and fearful of being tarred as disloyal by Americans still spooked by fears of communism (and the presence of spies, real and otherwise, working on behalf of the Soviets) made the NAACP a toothless tiger.
At the same time, another strategy pursued by the civil rights movement — the nonviolent resistance inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s successful push for India’s independence — was also struggling. Initially pushed by Bayard Rustin and the Congress of Racial Equality during the 1940s, it gained traction during the 1950s thanks to the arrest of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery, Ala. bus, and the emergence of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. as the leading voice of the civil rights movement. The efforts of King and the newly-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gained national attention, especially as media coverage of lynchings, bombings and the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, finally alarmed Americans about the viciousness of state-sanctioned segregation.
But King and his fellow nonviolent activists found themselves in a quandary. The fact that black southerners were forced to live daily with segregation — and the violence that came to their doorstep any time they fought against segregation — made them less interested in nonviolent protests. Some, such as a NAACP leader in Monroe County, N.C., Robert Williams, called for “armed self-reliance” and lived up to his word in 1957 when he and other locals shot at Klansmen. (Northerners such as Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were equally as vocal in their support for violent resistance to racial bigotry.) The rest, well-aware of the murders of such civil rights activists as Sam O’Quinn in Centreville, Miss., made others rather docile. Keeping the peace was more important for daily survival than forcing America to realize its due. That King and his fellow pastors, many of whom were the establishment in their own communities (and thus, a tad on the conservative side philosophically) meant that they were not quick to take action and did little in the way of strong, public action. They also had to deal with the NAACP, which opposed King’s strategy (and were also competing with him and the SCLC for attention and resources).
Meanwhile the federal government wished to stay out of the civil rights conversation altogether. President Harry s. Truman desegregated the military in 1947, and Dwight David Eisenhower sent National Guard troopers to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School a decade later. But neither administration was willing to take any further steps towards making America’s promise of equal opportunity for all a reality. Both administrations were unwilling to challenge the traditional view of federalism, which essentially restricted the federal role in governing how states treated citizens under law. They were also more-preoccupied with the Cold War and containing Communism than with civil rights.
The incoming president in 1961, John F. Kennedy, shared this reluctance to delve into the civil rights battle. A fierce Cold Warrior, he was more than willing to ignore the concerns of the very African-American voters who helped him win a narrow victory over Richard Nixon the previous year. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, also made sure to push the one true civil rights activist in the administration’s cabinet, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (who actually worked to pass the nation’s first civil rights act during his term as U.S. Senate majority leader) to the wayside.
As both camps struggled with their own strategies and battled with one another, a new group of voices for freedom emerged. Starting in 1959, students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities began conducting sit-ins at local restaurants and stores, demanding to sit and be served alongside whites. These protests began capturing national attention a year later when four students attending North Carolina A&T in Greensboro sat down at a lunch counter in a local Woolworth’s and ordered coffee; 20 more students would come a day later to take their place, launching one of the biggest sit-in protests of the era — and fostered sit-ins by HBCU students in cities such as Nashville and Atlanta.
These students, well-educated, talented, and energetic, were tired of being treated as second-class citizens by Jim Crow segregationists. They were also especially annoyed with the NAACP and Dr. King’s SCLC, which refused to fully support their protests and were unwilling to be the strong grassroots activists these young men and women expected them to be. And they would form their own group, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, to rally their cause. From this group would come a generation of black leaders both legendary and otherwise, including John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, mathematician Bob Moses and (unfortunately) Marion Barry. They were joined by older civil rights leaders such as Ella Baker who were equally ready to take action and were just as frustrated with the reluctance of the NAACP and SCLC to join common cause.
But one established organization was more than willing to join these young protestors. And that was CORE. An offshoot of the international Fellowship of Reconciliation movement, the organization had attempted to rally support for nonviolent protests with such efforts as the Journey of Reconciliation, a bus ride that attempted to test southern compliance to the Morgan decision. But by the 1960s, CORE was in the doldrums. The ouster of its dynamic cofounder, Jim Farmer, along with the unfamiliarity with nonviolent protest and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of alleged communists, forced the group into the wilderness. Having been the pioneer of nonviolent struggle, the emergence of King had stole its thunder; nor was it welcomed by either King’s supporters or national NAACP leaders. But the new, campus-based civil rights activists were more than ready to get any support from any established group. And even before the Greensboro protest, CORE began staging its own sit-ins and nonviolent protests in cities such as Miami.
But CORE was ready to do more, especially after Farmer returned to CORE in 1961 to retake its reigns. A tireless protester, Farmer decided that it was time to dust off one of the organization’s earlier efforts, the Journey of Reconciliation, and do a new series of protest Greyhound rides into southern cities. Calling it the Freedom Ride, Farmer and his team recruited a rainbow coalition of 13 men and women, including SNCC cofounder Lewis, and Jim Peck, a longtime CORE player, to ride on Greyhound and Trailways buses into Mississippi and Alabama. The selection was deliberate. Farmer wanted to present a face of unity, that blacks and whites could live together in brotherhood. He also wanted to make sure that the Freedom Riders were ready for anything. This meant not only mixing northern whites with their black counterparts, but even brought in the young HBCU students who were experienced with — and tired of — segregation.
They took to the road on May 4 of that year — and rode into history. At first, the riders encountered little trouble as they road through Virginia and North Carolina; one of the riders, Joe Perkins, was arrested after sitting at a shoe-shine station designated for whites. But then, in Rock Hill, S.C., Lewis was assaulted after walking into a whites-only waiting room at a Greyhound bus station. By the time the riders arrived in Atlanta, their tour had begun to capture attention and was even a distant thought in the minds of Robert Kennedy, the newly-appointed U.S. Attorney General, and his staff. The ride had also gotten the attention of Alabama’s police officials and the United Klans of America — and they had already begun conspiring to maim CORE’s crew.
When the Greyhound bus carrying some of the Freedom Riders came into Anniston, Ala., the Klan was ready. Aided and abetted by police officers, and Alabama highway patrolmen riding alongside the Freedom Riders on their bus, the Klansmen and their crew attacked the bus, smashing windows and damaging its shell. Unable to get the Riders off the bus so they can beat them, the Klan then firebombed the bus, the pommeled the Riders as they fled out of the flaming wreck. Only the fast work of the legendary Fred Shuttlesworth kept the Riders from facing an even nastier fate.
Their colleagues on the Trailways bus suffered an even worse fate. While they road from Atlanta to Alabama, Klansmen on board the bus began beating up the Riders; Peck, was particularly beaten up, with blood spurting from his face. Once the Riders got into the state capital of Montgomery, the notorious sheriff Bull Connor allowed local Klansmen to suffer even more beatings. In front of CBS newsman Howard K. Smith and other reporters, Klansmen along with other bigots chased down Peck and his colleagues, beating them mercilessly. By the time the day was over, the Riders were either in local hospitals or in Shuttleworth’s home recovering and waiting.
Thanks to Smith’s coverage and that of his fellow reporters, the beatdown of the Riders caught national attention. For the Kennedy administration, the exposure of Jim Crow violence wasn’t what it wanted. More-interested in fighting the Cold War than in dealing with the civil rights struggle, JFK and his brother, Bobby wanted to do anything they can to keep the problem on the hush. Through the administration’s point man, newspaperman-turned-Justice Department official John Seigenthaler, the administration managed to get the Riders out of Montgomery (by plane) into New Orleans, where CORE celebrated the anniversary of the Brown ruling and facing criticism from media players, the administration, and traditional civil rights organizations, wondered what it would do next.
But even as the original Riders, battered and beaten, began recovering from their wounds, new protesters were coming. The leadership of SNCC, including feisty, dynamic Fisk University student Diane Nash, decided to pull together a contingent of students to embark on their own Freedom Ride; Lewis, who had left the original Ride before the Anniston and Montgomery showdowns (in order to win a fellowship) joined them. They didn’t bother waiting for help from King, the NAACP or even on CORE (which was reluctant to undertake another civil rights road trip), and they ignored entreaties from the Kennedy administration (which would rather have seen the civil rights movement disappear altogether). They sent 10 volunteers, including Lewis, to go to Montgomery. But when their bus arrived in Birmingham, police officers stopped the bus from going further; the Riders were then arrested and jailed along with Shuttlesworth (who was detained for helping the Riders make their way). When they finally got into Montgomery, they faced another round of violence from Klansmen, who didn’t discriminate in their beatings; they even mercilessly beat Kennedy administration point man Seigenthaler when he tried to intervene.
Even as the first SNCC riders were being arrested and jailed, SNCC kept sending more Riders. So did CORE, which teamed up with SNCC on the protests. Their efforts, along with the public fascination with the movement and the growing group of collegians and middle-aged civil rights activists ready to join the Riders, finally forced the NAACP and King to offer their support. Together with SNCC and CORE, they formed a coalition that recruited and trained aspiring Riders to be ready for the roughness of Jim Crow injustice.
They had plenty who wanted to join. Some 400 people would join the rides that year, according to historian Raymond Arsenault, the author of the 2006 book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. One-third were southern blacks who grew up with the horrors of state-sanctioned discrimination and wanted to rid the nation of it. They knew that in order to rally their brothers and sisters to change things for the better (and knowing that their elders were not willing to risk their own lives to do so) they had to step up, step out and do something. And they did pay the price. Alabama and Misssissippi officials, ready to defend Jim Crow at any cost, jailed every Freedom Rider who arrived into a bus station.
The Riders didn’t necessarily have public opinion on its side. Middle class whites, in particular, were not all that interested in ending state-sanctioned racial bigotry. As Arsenault pointed out, 64 percent of Americans polled by Gallup who knew of the Rides disapproved of them. Most thought of the Freedom Riders as troublemakers disturbing a status quo that was tolerable (even if they also opposed racism). But the Riders were succeeding. Their example helped foster and energize civil rights activists even in Jim Crow hotbeds such as Neshoba, Miss.; by August, locals were also participating in Freedom Rides, challenging segregationist mythmaking that only outsiders were agitating for the end of the status quo. The Rides would to the first series of voter registration drives, bringing in natives such as Fanny Lou Hamer, whose demand for her Democratic Party affiliate to be seated at the party’s 1964 convention would be the beginning of the end of segregationist political power.
The action on the ground (and the accompanying violence and injustice perpetuated by Jim Crow regimes), along with King’s renewed advocacy, the agitation of SNCC and CORE, and support from presidential aspirants such as New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, also backed the Kennedy administration into a corner. The fact that the protests attracted international attention — and was threatening America’s global standing as the beacon of liberty against the threat of Soviet communism — also caused John and Bobby considerable anguish; that other administration officials, including Seigenthaler and future U.S. senator Harris Wofford, supported the Riders, also meant that the administration could no longer accomodate race-baiting politicians such as Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and his fellow-traveler in the U.S. Senate, James O. Eastland, who held sway in Democratic Party politics. By July, Bobby Kennedy had petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to pass a rule ending separate-but-equal in bus stations and Greyhound rides; by year-end, it became a reality. The federal government was shamed and prodded into expanding its role in ending racial discrimination, a step that would be expanded under the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s less-bigotry-tolerant successor, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
By year-end, the Freeom Rides were done. Struggling financially,CORE suspend the protests and handed off the legal representation of the Riders to the NAACP’s legal arm. But the impact of the Rides reached far beyond that year. It was the Freedom Rides that would help accelerate the plans for the March on Washington two years later, along with King’s I Have a Dream speech. It helped spur such antidiscrimination marches as those in Selma, Ala., and Montgomery. And even as SNCC disappeared into the ether, and CORE became a shell of its former glory, their strong advocacy would ultimately lead to America finally fulfilling its promise of equal legal and social opportunity for all under law; that Riders such as Lewis would go on to prominent political careers further proved the significance of the Rides in fostering servant leaders for social reform.
Five decades later, the Freedom Rides offer important lessons for school reformers, who now face an environment in which their push to overhaul American public education is attracting new voices, yet the think tankers, advocates and social entrepreneurs whose strategies have catalyzed this find themselves at a crossroads. The move by President Barack Obama last month to essentially gut No Child, along with efforts by congressional and Senate Republicans to push for the same now means that federal education policy is less-focused on pushing for systemic reform and holding states and districts accountable for improving teaching and curricula. Reversing this backslide is critical toward continuing school reform’ momentum. It is also critical to get Beltway reformers and social enterepreneurs such as charter school operators to work more-closely with grassroots advocates. And it is important to remind some Beltway reformers that focusing on poor and minority children will not only help all kids, but can even win suppoet from middle class blacks and Latinos, who will make up the majority of all Americans by mid-century.
This means that our new voices for reform, including the growing Parent Power movement must challenge education tradtionalists and political leaders through strong, vocal advocacy. This includes taking to the streets in a proverbial sense, using the Innternet to rally families, challenge failing and mediocre districts and even forcing state and federal leaders to expand choice and pass Parent Trigger laws. Using the courts as tools for reform alongside grassroots advocacy and policymaking is also key; as seen with films such as The Lottery, video and film can also serve well in furthering reform. And the new voices must call out longstanding reformers when they support positions or ideas that will weaken the ultimate goal of overhauling education for all children. This must be dome smartly, since new voices must also think through any flaws in their own efforts; but it should be done.
Fifty years after the first Freedom Riders changed America for the better, school reformers can follow their example. And help give our children schools fit for their futures.