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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Freedom Riders

Branch described the start:

The thirteen riders embarked [from Washington, D.C.] on the morning of May 4 in two groups, one on Greyhound and the other on Trailways. According to plan, they scattered throughout each bus in various combinations-some whites in the back and Negroes in the front, with at least one interracial pair of seatmates and a few riders observing less conspicuously from traditional seats. [Parting the Waters, p. 413]

At the first stop, a Greyhound terminal on U.S. 1 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an African-American used the whites-only restaurant and ordered a drink at the counter without incident, while a white passenger used the "Colored Only" rest room. In similar tests in Richmond and Petersburg, the Freedom Riders found similar results.

In Prince Edward County, which had transferred its schools into private hands to avoid complying with Brown v. the Board of Education, the results were the same:

When the Greyhound and Trailways buses pulled into Farmville, the Freedom Riders found that the local "Colored" signs had been freshly painted over at the stations. All thirteen riders obtained service without incident, as the powers of Prince Edward County declined to extend their "massive resistance" to interstate transportation. By nightfall, the riders had passed through Lynchburg to Danville, where, for the first time, bus station officials turned them away. There were no arrests, however, and no violence. [Parting the Waters, p. 413]

An African-American waiter refused to serve a white Freedom Rider from the Greyhound bus at the "colored" counter; the manager had threatened to fire the waiter if he served a Freedom Rider on the wrong side of the racial divide. The scene was repeated later when the Trailways bus arrived, but the Freedom Riders convinced the manager to relent.

Crossing into North Carolina, the riders arrived at the Trailways station in Greensboro, where the "colored" sign had been taken down earlier in the week. The riders were able to eat in the former "whites only" section without incident. Traveling south to Salisbury on U.S. Route 29, the riders found the usual Jim Crow signs, but encountered no problems in violating local custom.

The first violence occurred when the Greyhound bus pulled into the terminal at Rock Hill, South Carolina. John Lewis, an Alabama native who was an adherent of the nonviolent philosophy of Reverend King, was the designated tester who moved toward the white waiting room. Young whites who used the terminal as a hangout blocked his way. When Lewis asserted his rights under Boynton v. Virginia, the youths shoved him toward the door:

One of the attackers threw a punch that caught Lewis in the mouth, making the first loud pop of fist against flesh on the Freedom Ride. Lewis sank to the ground. More whites surged toward the primitive sounds of violence. Albert Bigelow, next in line behind Lewis, stepped forward to put his body between Lewis and those kicking him. Bigelow's erect posture and determined passivity-such an alien sight in a fistfight-did not keep the attackers from darting in to strike him on the head and body. Three or four thudding blows dropped Bigelow to one knee, and as one of the attackers lunged toward Bigelow he knocked Genevieve Hughes, the third Freedom Rider in line, sprawling to the floor.

Rock Hill police separated the parties, and a captain asked Lewis and Bigelow if they wanted to press assault charges. When they declined because doing so was not in the spirit of nonviolent resistance, the captain was displeased because "his politically risky offer to arrest local white boys was going to waste." The Freedom Riders then went into the waiting room and placed food orders without further difficulty. (Because of a personal commitment, Lewis would have to leave the ride temporarily after Rock Hill.)

When the Trailways bus arrived two hours later, the terminal had been closed to prevent further difficulties. [Parting the Waters, p. 415-416] The restaurant had been closed weeks earlier to thwart sit-ins. The Riders were greeted by sympathizers, but the situation was dangerous, as Arsenault described:

As the Riders stepped off the bus, a welcoming committee of drivers rushed up to inform them about the assault on the Greyhound group-and to protect them from essentially the same gang of white "thugs" responsible for the earlier attack. Across the street was a line of cars filled with tough-looking young white men hoping for a second shot at the outside agitators who had dared to invade their town. Several of the men shouted epithets and motioned menacingly at the Riders. [Freedom Riders, p. 123]

As the welcoming committee took the Riders away, the cars filled with angry white men followed for a few blocks, but eventually left without attacking.

The following morning, the riders peacefully desegregated the waiting rooms in the Greyhound and Trailways terminals before boarding their buses. In Chester, the planned lunch stop for both buses, officials had closed the terminal after hearing that troublemakers were on their way.

The drivers headed to Winnsboro for the lunch break. Arsenault described the town:

Nearly 60 percent black in 1961, Winnsboro had earned a reputation as an ultra-segregationist stronghold, a place where the local White Citizens' Council invariably got its way. Challenging the white supremacist traditions of Winnsboro would have been dangerous under any circumstances, but in the wake of the Rock Hill incident it was especially so.

The situation was compounded because the Rock Hill incident had received national newspaper coverage. As Arsenault pointed out, "much of South Carolina, not to mention the rest of the South, now knew that Riders were coming their way . . . . [From] this point on the Riders would have to deal with an awakened white South."

Hank Thomas, an African-American student at Howard University, and James Peck, the white journalist who was the only person to participate in the Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Ride, had been chosen to desegregate the white lunch counter. As soon as they sat down, the manager called the police. A police officer arrived to arrest Thomas ("Come with me, boy," the officer told him) for trespassing. When Peck pointed out that Thomas had the constitutional right to eat lunch at the counter, the officer arrested Peck for interfering with the arrest. At the police station, they were placed in separate Jim Crow cells.

In accordance with procedures agreed to at the start of the Freedom Ride, the rest of the Riders boarded the buses and headed for Sumter, leaving behind Frances Bergman, a 57-year old white educator from Michigan and civil rights activist. As she tried to work with police for the release of Thomas and Peck, the police called her an "outside agitator" and told her, "We have no use for your kind here."

Around midnight, the police dropped the charges against Thomas and drove him to the nearly deserted bus station. Spotting a group of white men he thought could be a lynch mob, Thomas ducked into the station, bought a candy bar in the white section, and hoped for the best. One of the white men ordered him to the "colored" waiting area. What might have happened is unknown because he was rescued by an African-American minister summoned by Bergman. "Get in the car and stay down," the minister shouted to Thomas. The minister drove him to Columbia, where he took a bus in the morning to rejoin the other Riders on their 2-day rest in Sumter.

Peck, too, was released but he was immediately arrested again when an officer spotted a whiskey bottle, purchased just north of the South Carolina line, in his possession without a State liquor stamp. Freed when Farmer and other CORE supporters paid his $50 bail, Peck "jumped bail" by going with his rescuers to Sumter. [Freedom Riders, p. 125-127]

After a 2-day rest, the Riders boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses for the next leg of their journey via U.S. 76 to Columbia and U.S. 1 to Augusta, Georgia. Augusta police had arrested an African-American soldier who tried to desegregate one of the city's terminal lunch counters earlier in the year, but the Riders encountered no resistance:

Although the black Riders were the first nonwhites to break the color line at the Augusta bus stations, no one seemed to care, except for one white waitress who refused to serve Joe Perkins, forcing a black co-worker to do so.

The next day, the buses headed for Atlanta via U.S. 78. At rest stops in Athens and Atlanta, the Riders encountered no difficulties. Peck concluded that "our experiences traveling in Georgia were clear proof of how desegregation can come peacefully in a Deep South state, providing there is no deliberate incitement to hatred and violence by local or state political leaders." [Freedom Riders, p. 132]

While in Atlanta, Farmer learned of a plot to disrupt the ride in Alabama. He informed the other Riders that he would lead the testings for the Trailways group and that Peck would be the leader for the Greyhound group. However, he received news that night that his father had died; his mother needed him in Washington. The morning of May 14, he informed the other Riders he would have to leave the group. He designated Joseph Perkins, an African-American graduate student from the University of Michigan, to take his place.

The plot Farmer had heard about was real. CORE had been keeping the FBI aware of its plans even before they were announced. The FBI had been forwarding its memos on the Freedom Ride to the Birmingham Police Department, which informed the State's chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Several police officers with Klan links assured members that whatever they did when the Freedom Riders arrived, they would have 15-20 minutes before police would respond. A high ranking member of the Alabama Klan was an FBI informant, so the FBI was aware of developments, but took no steps to warn the Freedom Riders of the danger they faced in Alabama.

With this advance assurance, the Klandsmen had several weeks to plan how it would teach the Freedom Riders a lesson. Arsenault described the plan that emerged as the Freedom Riders came closer to the State:

The final plan, which resembled a full-scale military operation, called for an initial assault in Anniston, the Riders' first scheduled stop in Alabama, followed by a mop-up action in Birmingham. As an FBI informant reported to the Birmingham field office, the Anniston klavern was responsible for blocking the Riders' access to the local bus stations, but Birmingham Klansmen, working in conjunction with [the local police], were calling most of the shots . . . . If the Klansmen did their duty on Sunday afternoon, the Freedom Riders and others would be forced to recognize the power and passion of men who regarded massive resistance as something more than idle talk. [Freedom Riders, p. 136-139]

On May 14, Mother's Day, the Greyhound bus left Atlanta at 11 a.m. with Perkins in charge of the Freedom Riders. The bus was mostly empty, carrying only 14 passengers, including the seven Freedom Riders. Two journalists, the manager of the Atlanta Greyhound station, and two undercover officers from the Alabama Highway Patrol, Eli Cowling and Harry Sims, were among the other passengers. Cowling carried a hidden microphone to eavesdrop on the Freedom Riders.

On U.S. 78, the bus crossed the State line around 1 p.m. After passing through Heflin and Oxford, the driver, O. T. Jones, turned the bus north on State Route 21 toward the planned stop in Anniston. The driver of a southbound bus waved for Jones to pull over. Jones was told, "There's an angry and unruly crowd gathered at Anniston. There's a rumor than some people on this bus are going to stage a sit-in. The terminal has been closed. Be careful." Jones continued on to the city.

When Jones pulled the bus into the station parking lot, he found that the terminal was indeed closed. A mob quickly surrounded the bus. Jones went to open the door, but Cowling and Simms prevented anyone from entering. The mob smashed windows, dented the side of the bus, and slashed the tires. The Anniston police finally arrived to clear a path for the battered bus to leave the parking lot.

The police provided a safe escort to the Anniston city limits, but once across the line on State Route 202, Jones found a long line of cars and pickup trucks waiting for it. Two of the cars raced ahead of the bus, then slowed to force Jones to reduce speed while being trailed by "thirty or forty cars and trucks jammed with shrieking whites," as Arsenault put it. Flat tires soon forced Jones to pull his bus to the side of the road in front of the Forsyth and Son grocery store just a few hundred yards from Anniston Army Depot. While Jones ran into the store to make phone calls in a futile effort to find replacement tires, one of the undercover State police officers managed to retrieve his gun from the baggage compartment before the bus was surrounded.

The crowd battered the bus and rocked it in an attempt to tip it over. The onslaught continued for 20 minutes, with the mob demanding that the Freedom Riders leave the bus and take their beating. Highway patrolmen arrived, but took no action.

Finally, one member of the mob threw a flaming bundle of rags through a window. The bus soon filled with smoke and then flames. The passengers escaped through windows and doors as the crowd moved back, afraid of an explosion:

When Hank Thomas, the first Rider to exit the front of the bus, crawled away from the doorway, a white man rushed toward him and asked, "Are you all okay?" Before Thomas could answer, the man's concerned look turned into a sneer as he struck the astonished student in the head with a baseball bat. Thomas fell to the ground and was barely conscious as the rest of the exiting Riders spilled out onto the grass. [Freedom Riders, p. 144]

A few local residents helped the passengers, while an explosion and Cowling's gun kept the angry mob back until the State patrolmen finally stepped in to end the siege.

Getting the injured to a hospital proved a challenge when the ambulances summoned by the police were slow to arrive and their white drivers were unwilling to transport the African-American Freedom Riders. The drivers relented only after the white riders already in the ambulances exited, unwilling to leave their comrades behind - and "a few stern words from Cowling."

While the Freedom Riders received minimal help at Anniston Memorial Hospital, a mob threatened to burn the hospital down. Perkins arranged with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church for a squadron of cars from that city to rescue the Riders, and the mission was successful only because the police held back the jeering crowd. Traveling the back roads to Birmingham to avoid trouble, the rescuers answered the Greyhound Freedom Riders's questions about their companions on the Trailways bus. The story they heard was grim. [Freedom Riders, p. 148]

Even as they stood in line to buy tickets in the Atlanta Trailways station, the Freedom Riders could see white men advising white passengers to get out of line. Most of the passengers accompanying the Riders would be Klansmen. As the bus left the station, the Klansmen began making threatening remarks and assuring the Freedom Riders they would be taken care of once the bus was in Alabama. Arriving in the Anniston Greyhound station an hour or so after their companions had departed, the Trailways Freedom Riders managed to purchase a few sandwiches at the lunch counter without incident. That would be their last moment of relative calm.

The driver, John Olan Patterson, had been talking with police officers during the stop. When he stepped back on the bus, he told his passengers about the fate of the Greyhound. "We have received word that a bus has been burned to the ground and passengers are being carried to the hospital by the carloads. A mob is waiting for our bus and will do the same to us," he continued, unless the African-American Freedom Riders moved to the back. The bus, he said, wasn't moving until all African-Americans (not the word he used) had moved to the back.

One of the Freedom Riders pointed out that they had the right to sit wherever they wanted on an interstate bus. Patterson left the bus, while the Klansmen began their assault on two of the African-American Freedom Riders. Their retreat to Gandhian nonresistance only incited the Klansmen to greater violence. Peck and Walter Bergman, both white, attempted to intervene, but the Klansmen began pummeling them as well. Bergman, the oldest of the Riders, was nearly killed despite the pleading of his wife Frances, but the Klansmen stopped short of murder. They dragged the battered, bloody, and limp bodies of the Riders to the back of the bus.

With Jim Crow seating restored by force, Patterson returned to the bus and pulled it out of the station. However, he headed toward Birmingham on the back roads to avoid the mobs that had assaulted the Greyhound bus and were on the lookout for the Trailways bus.

By the time the Trailways bus reached its terminal in Birmingham, Klansmen and an even more violent group called the National States Rights Party (NSRP) were in place. The police were not in sight. They had promised the Klansmen 15 minutes alone with the Riders, and that promise would be honored.

At the station, the Klansmen on the bus departed with a few parting insults. The Riders left the bus and retrieved their luggage amidst a crowd that made no effort to stop them. Inside the station, the designated testers, Peck and Charles Person, an 18-year old African-American from Atlanta, approached the whites-only lunch counter. Within moments, the Klansmen and members of the NSRP began their assault. Several of the Riders escaped, but the others were brutally beaten. The attackers beat other passengers on the bus and even bystanders (including one Klansman) mistaken for Freedom Riders.

When the 15 minutes were up, a plainclothes police detective who had been monitoring the situation approached the FBI informant to tell him, "I'm ready to give the signal for the police to move in." Despite the chaos in and out of the station, the Klansmen and NSRP members had left the area by the time the police arrived, but only after a few last minute beatings of one of the bystanders and a newspaper photographer.

With difficulty, the Riders gradually made their way to Reverend Shuttlesworth's parsonage. While he tried to find an ambulance willing to take Peck, the most seriously injured, to a hospital, police arrived to arrest the Riders for violating local segregation laws. Only Shuttleworth's defiance stopped them.

An ambulance finally arrived for Peck but the first hospital refused to treat him. At the second hospital, Jefferson Hillman Hospital, he was operated on for his head injuries. That night, reporters gathered around his bed for an interview. Groggy and barely able to speak above a whisper, he told them of his experiences. Asked what he intended to do, he managed to strengthen his voice. "The going is getting rougher, but I'll be on that bus tomorrow headed for Montgomery."

While Peck was being treated, the Riders from the Greyhound bus reunited at the parsonage with their companions from the Trailsways bus. After comparing notes on their ordeal, they participated in a public meeting in the church, with only about 50 visitors to witness the session:

Sitting in chairs alongside the altar, looking like an array of accident victims in a hospital waiting room, they told their stories one by one . . . . Despite a badly swollen eye, cracked ribs, and deep facial cuts, Walter Bergman spoke the longest, presenting an eloquent explanation of CORE's philosophy and hopes for the future. He and others pleaded with the crowd to join the nonviolent movement, to redeem the land of Jim Crow with acts of commitment and sacrifice. [Freedom Riders, p. 145-161]

After many of the Riders had departed to spend the night with supporters, Reverend Shuttlesworth was informed that Peck had been discharged from the hospital around 2 a.m. Ordering Peck to stay put, the Reverend and one of his deacons drove to the hospital. The woozy Peck made his way into their car:

As the three men headed back to the parsonage, two policemen on motorcycles pulled them over. When one of the officers accused the deacon of stealing the car, Shuttlesworth identified himself and eventually talked his way out of the situation, but this additional round of harassment did not bode well for the Freedom Riders' future in Birmingham. [Freedom Riders, p. 162]

In the morning, the Riders realized they would need protection to continue

their journey, but could expect none from State or local police in Alabama. African-American journalist Simeon Booker called John Seigenthaler, Special Assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to request Federal help. While President John F. Kennedy and his brother, the Attorney General, were sympathetic to the civil rights cause, the Administration was focused on foreign affairs at the time:

In the White House, and even in the Justice Department, administration leaders viewed civil rights primarily as a political issue, not as a moral imperative . . . . In mid-May 1961, though, the political calculus of the administration allowed little room for interracial provocateurs, however well-meaning they might be. To the Kennedy brothers, taking the civil rights movement into the streets, where uncontrolled conflict was inevitable, was an embarrassing luxury that the United States could not afford in the context of the Cold War. [Freedom Riders, p. 164]

The Administration wanted to downplay the story; Seigenthaler urged Booker to avoid inflaming the situation in the press. The request was too late. The Mother's Day Massacre dominated the Monday morning headlines, with the few photographs of the assaults that had survived attacks on photographers letting people around the country see something they found hard to believe. In addition, CBS newsman Howard K. Smith had been an eyewitness to the brutality in Birmingham. In town by coincidence working on a story about racial issues in the city, he had received a call from Dr. Edwards R. Fields, president of the NSRP, who urged Smith to be at the bus station "if he wanted to see some real action." [Freedom Riders, p. 153]

As a result, Smith had seen the beatings, and even managed to interview some of the victims. By telephone from his motel room, he called in reports to the CBS radio network. Arsenault quoted one of the reports:

"One passenger was knocked down at my feet by twelve of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp." Obviously shaken by what he had seen, the veteran reporter insisted that "the riots have not been spontaneous outbursts of anger but carefully planned and susceptible to having been easily prevented or stopped had there been a wish to do so." Later in the broadcast, he talked about a dangerous "confusion in the Southern mind" about the sanctity of law and order and went on to suggest that the "laws of the land and purposes of the nation badly need a basic restatement, perhaps by the one American assured of an intent mass hearing at any time, the President." [Freedom Riders, p. 165]

As other reporters covered the story, the image of the burning Greyhound bus became an iconic symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

On Monday, reporters interviewed the Riders, including the heavily bandaged Peck. They had decided to continue their journey by combining forces on the Greyhound bus leaving Birmingham at 3 p.m. Attorney General Kennedy, speaking directly to the group, asked them to give him time to make arrangements for their protection, but his efforts to negotiate with the State's segregationist Governor, John Patterson, proved fruitless.

When the time came to leave for the station, the 14 remaining Riders hoped that the press coverage of the previous day's events would protect them. At the Greyhound station, they found an angry crowd of white men, but also police and press. They managed to purchase tickets for the ride to Montgomery, but then they heard a radio report that Governor Patterson had refused to guarantee their safety. "The citizens of the state are so enraged, that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers." State police, according to the news, announced that segregationists were placed along the route from Birmingham to Montgomery to intercept the bus. Governor Patterson was willing to get the Riders out of his State, but not if they were going to Montgomery "to continue their rabble-rousing." [Freedom Riders, p. 170] The station manager canceled the 3 p.m. bus.

The Riders initially decided to wait at the station while negotiations with the Attorney General continued by phone without success. At one point, Kennedy called the station manager, urging him to find a driver for the bus. Surely someone from the bus company, Kennedy told the manager, "can drive a bus, can't they?" His efforts were in vain.

By 5 p.m., the Riders had decided to fly out of the city. After much debate, they decided to fly to Montgomery rather than to their final destination, New Orleans, to continue their mission. Reverend Shuttlesworth arranged for transportation and police kept the angry crowd back as the Riders departed for the airport where they found that many members of the mob had been alerted to the plan and awaited their arrival.

The police escorted the Riders into the airport where they bought tickets for Montgomery and boarded the plane. However, a Klansman phoned in a bomb threat. Passengers were removed from the plane while it was checked for a bomb. The flight was eventually canceled. When Booker phoned Kennedy with the news, the Attorney General dispatched Seigenthaler to Birmingham.

At the airport, the Riders felt besieged. They voted by a solid majority to end the mission and fly to New Orleans. Perkins was outraged by the vote, taking it out on his white friend, Ed Blankenheim, who had voted to end the mission. "You can go back to being white anytime you want to. You have no right to make decisions where black people are involved unless you are prepared to go the distance." [Freedom Riders, p. 174] Despite the protest, Peck purchased tickets for a flight to New Orleans via Mobile. A bomb threat promptly arrived for the flight, leading to its cancelation.

Just then, Seigenthaler arrived to personally witness the heavy toll the trip through Alabama had taken on the Riders. Five of the riders, he concluded, were too weak to even be at the airport, while three members of the group were acting irrationally. "This is a trap," one Rider told a reporter, "We'll all be killed." The situation - "the bomb threats, the taunts from the police and passengers, the airport staff's refusal to serve the Freedom Riders food, the threats from the mob outside the terminal" - had taken a severe toll. [Freedom Riders, p. 175]

Seigenthaler found the solution. He convinced the airport manager to pick any flight to New Orleans, get the other passengers and their luggage on it then, at the last minute, slip the Riders on, before announcing which flight they would take. He also advised the manager not to answer his phone because it would just be another bomb threat. At 10:38 p.m., an Eastern Airlines flight lifted off with the 14 Freedom Riders, Seigenthaler, and four journalists on board. They landed in New Orleans an hour later.

Despite the presence of reporters, photographers, and television cameras, the New Orleans police had harassment in mind:

Forming a cordon along the tarmac, a long line of white police officers dressed in riot gear surrounded the Riders as they walked towards the terminal. When some of the officers shouted racial epithets, Seigenthaler became concerned and more than a little angry. Only after he identified himself as a Justice Department official did the police reluctantly back off, allowing the Riders to make their way to a small but deliriously relieved welcoming committee of CORE volunteers. Several of the Riders, with tears of joy streaming down their faces, looking much like returning prisoners of war, collapsed into the outstretched arms of their comrades. Against all odds they had made it to New Orleans after all. The great CORE Freedom Ride of 1961 was over. [Freedom Riders, p. 176]

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000