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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Justice in Jackson

The Riders decided to leave for Jackson on Wednesday, May 24. They held a nonviolence workshop to remind the Riders how to handle the situations they were likely to face. The two States and the Kennedy Administration worked out an elaborate security plan, although the Freedom Riders were unaware of the details.

Alabama National Guardsmen escorted the Trailways group of Nashville Freedom Riders along with Dr. King and other leaders to the station, where 500 armed Guardsmen separated the Riders from white bystanders. The crowd, spotting Dr. King, began screaming, but he led the Freedom Riders through the white waiting room and up to the counter:

As several reporters and camera men pressed forward to record the moment, "the white waitresses removed their aprons and stepped back," but, with the approval of the terminal's manager, black waitresses from the "negro lunch counter stepped up and took the orders," thus breaking a half-century-old local color bar. Local and state officials, it seemed, had put out the word that nothing-not even the sanctity of Jim Crow dining-was to get in the way of the Freedom Riders' timely departure from Montgomery. [Freedom Riders, p. 260]

The Riders boarded their Trailways bus without incident, but found that the only other passengers would be reporters and six Alabama National Guardsmen. As the bus pulled out of the station, the Riders saw that it was accompanied by National Guard Jeeps and police cars and motorcycles. The bus would take State Route 14 out of the city, connecting with U.S. 80 in Selma for the 258-mile trip to Jackson. At the city line, the Riders began to understand the security effort put together to get them safely out of Alabama:

In addition to several dozen highway patrol cars, there were two helicopters and three U.S. Border Patrol planes flying overhead, plus a huge contingent of press cars jammed with reporters and photographers. As the Riders would soon discover, nearly a thousand Guardsmen were stationed along the 140-mile route to the Mississippi border. Less obtrusively, there were also several FBI surveillance units placed at various points along Highways 14 and 80. [Freedom Riders, p. 262]

It would be a nonstop trip through Alabama, minus the planned rest stop in Selma. Because the bus lacked a bathroom, the Riders were disappointed but they could see the menacing crowds lining the route of the bus into and through the city.

At the State line, Mississippi authorities took over. They escorted the bus safely to the Trailways station. The Riders entered the white waiting room and used the white restroom. All 12 were immediately arrested and taken to the city jail as white protesters cheered. The Riders were charged with inciting to riot, breach of the peace, and failure to obey a police officer - not, as Arsenault noted, violation of segregation laws. They refused an NAACP offer to pay bail, preferring to remain in jail.

Much to the surprise of Alabama officials, a second group of 15 Nashville Freedom Riders arrived at the Greyhound station to buy tickets to Jackson. This group included John Lewis, Hank Thomas, and James Farmer, as well as one white student, Peter Ackerberg, and two women, Lucretia Collins and Doris Castle. Farmer, fearful for his life, almost chose not to get on the bus, but as he later wrote, "only the pleading eyes and words of the teenage Doris Castle . . . persuaded me to get on that bus at the last minute."

The State hastily put together a security force to escort the bus out of the station at 11:25 a.m. through a large crowd of jeering whites. Despite the reduced security force, the Greyhound arrived without incident in Jackson. The Nashville Freedom Riders were arrested within 3 minutes of arriving as they moved toward the white waiting room. Lewis made it as far as the white rest room where he was arrested while using the urinal.

Attorney General Kennedy was among the officials surprised by the second bus. He issued a statement calling for law and order by all parties:

For the good of the nation, he insisted, the disruptive behavior by individuals and organizations on both sides of the segregation controversy must be halted. "I think we should all keep in mind," he explained, "that the President is about to embark on a mission of great importance. Whatever we do in the United States at this time which brings or causes discredit on our country can be harmful to this mission." [Freedom Riders, p. 269]

Even as the Greyhound bus was leaving the terminal in Montgomery, a third group of Riders was leaving Atlanta. This group was not affiliated with CORE or the Nashville movement. It was led by William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a 36-year old Yale University chaplain. The group had little difficulty until reaching the Greyhound terminal in Montgomery. The crowd pelted them with rocks and bottles as National Guardsmen struggled to keep the protesters from the nine new Riders.

With help from security forces, Sloane and his associates made it safely out of the station in two cars, one of them driven by Reverend Abernathy. A reporter managed to ask Abernathy about Attorney General Kennedy's complaint that the Riders were embarrassing the Nation. "Well," the reverend replied, "doesn't the Attorney General know we've been embarrassed all our lives?" [Freedom Riders, p. 271]

In the name of safety, the Attorney General called for a cooling off period by Freedom Riders "until the present state of confusion and danger has passed and an atmosphere of reason and normalcy has been restored." As part of this cooling off, Kennedy hoped the arrested Riders would see reason and leave jail on bail. To that effect, he called Dr. King to urge him to pursue a more reasonable approach, but Dr. King rejected the plea. "You must understand," he told the Attorney General, "that we've made no gains without pressure and I hope that pressure will always be moral, legal and peaceful." He added, "I see a ray of hope, but I am different from my father. I feel the need of being free now." [Freedom Riders, p. 274-275]

Coffin, undeterred by the Attorney General's statements, led his Riders to the Montgomery Trailways terminal on Thursday to take the bus to Jackson. Of the Attorney General's viewpoint, Coffin said:

We can't drag the name of the United States in the mud. The name of the United States is already in the mud. It is up to us to get it out.

However, as soon as they walked up to the white lunch counter, they were arrested on orders from Governor Patterson for disorderly conduct and conspiring to breach of peace. Their hosts, including Reverends Abernathy and Shuttlesworth, also were arrested, bringing the total to 11. [Freedom Riders, p. 279-280] Several of Coffin's group, including Coffin, stayed only 1 day in jail before heading home, while the five remaining prisoners went on a hunger strike.

(Coffin, a former agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, had left the agency and earned a Bachelor of Divinity in 1956. Influenced by the social philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, he came involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. He is best known today for his protests during the Vietnam War.)

Far from backing off, Dr. King convened a meeting on Friday of civil rights groups at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to plan an expansion of the movement by organizing the Freedom Ride Coordinating Committee (FRCC):

At the founding meeting, the group agreed to establish recruitment centers in Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Jackson; to coordinate fund-raising for an all-out assault on Jim Crow transportation; to seek a meeting with the president; and to push for unambiguous endorsements of desegregated travel from both the Justice Department and the Interstate Commerce Commission . . . . As the FRCC's first press release put it, they felt compelled to "fill the jails of Montgomery and Jackson in order to keep a sharp image of the issue before the public." [Freedom Riders, p. 282-283]

The announcement received a mixed reaction, not only from southern segregationists, but liberals and moderates who endorsed the idea of a cooling off period.

That same Friday, the Freedom Riders in Jackson went on trial before Municipal Judge James L. Spencer, a segregationist, on a charge of breaching the peace (the charge of disobeying a police officer had been dropped). Judge Spencer went out of his way to avoid any appearance of unfairness, even letting the African-American and white defendants sit together in defiance of Mississippi law and custom.

After hearing testimony from both sides, Judge Spencer emphasized that "we're not here trying any segregation laws or the rights of these people to sit on any buses or to eat in any place." However, the defendants had come to the State to "inflame the public." He found them guilty and fined each defendant $200 in lieu of a 60-day jail term. Most of the defendants chose not to pay the fine, but to serve their sentence. [Freedom Riders, p. 285-286]

Over the next day or two, several groups of Riders boarded buses for Montgomery and Jackson. They made it through Montgomery, even using the white facilities, but arrived in Jackson safely only to be arrested for breaching the peace in the white waiting room.

On Monday, May 29, officials transferred 22 Freedom Riders from jail in Jackson to the Hinds County Penal Farm. The initial brutal treatment by the guards, who singled out the "outside agitators" for special attention, prompted three of the Riders to post bail and leave the State. The others, dressed in the traditional black-and-white striped uniforms, were confined to their cells because officials were afraid that if they were put to work on the roads or in the fields, journalists might be able to get to them.

Events continued in several locations. Governor Patterson lifted martial law in Montgomery while Reverend Abernathy and his group continued a hunger strike in jail. The Justice Department asked Judge Johnson to expand the injunction against vigilante groups to include local police officials. The Justice Department had been satisfied with its presentation during the hearing before Judge Johnson, but realized that the defense attorneys had presented a strong case. They focused on the Justice Department's involvement in the Freedom Rides. The key evidence was a transcript of Attorney General Kennedy's telephone conversation with the manager of the Greyhound station. The transcript, including Kennedy's insistence that an African-American driver be found if no white driver would take the bus out, convinced many white citizens that the Justice Department had conspired with the Freedom Riders to undermine the Southern way-of-life. [Freedom Riders, p. 297-298]

The New Orleans CORE opened a school for Freedom Riders to teach the principles of nonviolence, with Dr. Bergman, who had been beaten during the recent CORE Freedom Ride, as one of the instructors. Louisiana police were on alert for Freedom Riders; they stopped any vehicle that appeared suspicious, including a bus registered in New York that was carrying the blues singers Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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