The Road to Civil Rights
The ICC Ruling
At this low moment in the movement, the ICC issued its unanimous ruling on September 22 prohibiting racial discrimination in interstate bus transportation. Because 10 of the 11 commissioners had been appointed by President Eisenhower, and only one by President Kennedy, the unanimous verdict was a surprise:
[Endorsing virtually every point in the attorney general's petition, the commission announced that, beginning on November 1, 1961, all interstate buses would be required to display a certificate that read: "Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission." Displaying the signs would be mandatory until January 1, 1963, but the commission reserved the right to extend the requirement indefinitely. Beginning in 1963, federal law would require the same text to be printed on all bus tickets "sold for transportation in interstate or foreign commerce." This provision, which made an allowance for the thousands of tickets already printed, was the only delay granted by the commission. As of November 1, all terminals serving interstate buses would be required to post and abide by the new ICC regulations. Interstate carriers were forbidden to use racially segregated terminal facilities, which, according to the commissioners, were still common "in a substantial part of the United States." "In many motor passenger terminals," they reported, with a suggestion of feigned surprise, "Negro interstate passengers are compelled to use eating, rest room and other facilities which are segregated."
The commissioners did not extend the rule to independent roadside restaurants or other facilities where buses stopped only to pick up or discharge passengers:
However, the commissioners made it clear that the new rules applied to any ticket agent who "offers or provides facilities for the comfort and convenience of passengers, such as a public waiting room, rest room, or eating facilities." The ICC order also required bus operators to report any attempts to interfere with the new regulations and provided fines of up to five hundred dollars for each violation. [Freedom Riders, p, 439]
The rule applied only to interstate bus travel, not to air or train travel.
Although many observers praised the ruling, others were skeptical:
To most white Southerners, the ICC ruling appeared to be just another unenforceable edict. In May 1955 the Supreme Court had ordered the implementation of school desegregation "with all deliberate speed," yet six years later all but a handful of Southern schools remained segregated. In November 1955 the ICC had ordered the desegregation of interstate railway travel, yet racial segregation was still the general rule on Southern trains in 1961. [Freedom Riders, p. 441]
African-Americans praised the ruling, but its effect would depend on enforcement - and on that, they were skeptical. CORE, NAACP, FRCC, and other groups planned to begin testing enforcement in November. They dispatched dozens of groups throughout the South, the most ambitious test and the most difficult to coordinate.
The testers encountered less resistance than expected, as Arsenault explained:
The best news came out of Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, and West Virginia, where the tests found total compliance. In Florida, where tests were conducted at bus stations in Jacksonville and the Panhandle communities of Tallahassee and Marianna, there was compliance but no sign of the required ICC postings; the same was true in Arkansas, where Freedom Riders were served at bus stations in six cities. In Tennessee there was compliance in four of the five bus stations tested, with mandated segregation persisting only in the small town of Linden. In North Carolina the only community to enforce transit segregation on the first day of the new order was the tiny Piedmont town of Wadesboro, just down the road from Monroe. And in Oklahoma noncompliance was limited to McAlester, a remote hill town in the southeastern part of the state.
In other States, the testers found mixed results. In South Carolina, for example, the testers found compliance in Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, Rock Hill, Spartanburg, and Sumter, but separate facilities in Camden, Florence, and Lancaster. In Camden, the Trailways station manager "endorsed compliance but insisted that many black passengers were confused by the ICC order and 'didn't know where to sit.'"
The testers also found mixed results in Louisiana where New Orleans and southern parishes were in compliance with the order, but in some parts of the State, the Freedom Riders "encountered stiff resistance from police determined to maintain segregated facilities."
Georgia was challenging the ICC ruling in Federal court, but the testers saw that many communities, including Thomasville, Valdosta, Macon, and Augusta, were in compliance. However, four Freedom Riders were arrested in the Atlanta Trailways station for trying to desegregate the whites-only lunch counter. [Freedom Riders, p. 456-457]
The biggest challenges, as expected, were in Alabama and Mississippi, where many officials were determined to resist the ICC order. Governor Patterson of Alabama said that if the Freedom Riders "continue to invade our state and continue to try to run over us, we want to serve notice that we are going to defend ourselves and we are not going to take it lying down." In Birmingham, Bull Connor agreed with the Governor's intent.
The Freedom Riders found compliance in some Alabama communities, including Anniston. At the Greyhound station in Birmingham, the manager of the cafeteria, Ralph Sizemore, agreed to serve them. However, he was quickly arrested for violating city ordinance. The police did not arrest the testers. When testers returned a few days later, Sizemore again agreed to serve them, but he and two waitresses were arrested. Police would arrest the manager two more times in coming days. Attempts to solicit Justice Department intervention to enforce the ICC ruling prompted discussions with State and local leaders, but no action.
The Freedom Riders found similar resistance throughout nearly all of Mississippi, except in Greenville where the testers were served without incident. Violations varied, from installation of the mandatory signs but ignoring them, closing facilities for "repairs" when testers arrived, to simply ignoring the order. The biggest problems, as expected, were in Jackson. At the Trailways station, the manager had posted the mandatory sign and painted over the "White" and "Colored" signs, but police posted temporary Jim Crow signs on the sidewalk. Testers were arrested for violating the peace. [Freedom Riders, p. 458-459]
In Maryland, CORE decided to piggyback on Federal efforts to desegregate U.S. 40. In September, the head of the State Department's Route 40 initiative, Richard Sanjuan, had addressed the State legislature. He had told the legislators, "When an American citizen humiliates a foreign representative or another American citizen for racial reasons, the results can be just as damaging to his country as the passing of secret information to the enemy." When the legislature dug in its heels, CORE launched a Route 40 campaign with promises of a massive Freedom Ride along the corridor on November 11. The threat prompted about half of the restaurants along Route 40 in Delaware and Maryland to desegregate. CORE called off the ride, but promised to test desegregation over time. [Freedom Riders, p. 461-462]
The Justice Department turned to the Federal courts for assistance in enforcing the ICC ruling. One of the key test cases involved McComb, Mississippi, where police had installed Jim Crow signs outside the bus and train stations on November 1. The Department sought an injunction, which was granted by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court's November 21 ruling also found three Mississippi laws on segregation of intrastate passengers unconstitutional. Department attorneys filed the papers in Jackson on November 27, and with officials in McComb the following day. Mayor C. H. Douglas promised compliance. "There are no two ways about it. That means no attempt will be made to separate as far as race is concerned." He ordered the signs removed overnight.
Freedom Riders arrived from New Orleans by Greyhound the following day, making their way through a small crowd of angry whites. The station was closed because of "a gas leak." The testers returned several hours later, but were ordered to leave the station by the manager, who told them, "Greyhound does not own this building." White onlookers attacked the testers, who escaped with minor injuries. The testers left McComb, but Freedom Riders arrived from Baton Rouge the next day. Police kept back a large white crowd, but the testers found the lunch counter closed. They stayed in the waiting room for a short while, then left the station without violence. Instead, the crowd attacked several reporters and photographers, but not the 40 FBI agents on the scene.
A third group of Freedom Riders arrived on Saturday without notice and remained in the white waiting room without incident for several minutes. Quickly, a small group of whites arrived to attack the testers, but the police kept violence to a minimum as the testers left the station.
That afternoon, Judge Sidney Mize issued a 10-day restraining order prohibiting further tests in the city until he could rule on the matter. At the December 7 hearing, Judge Mize extended the restraining order for 2 weeks. Appeals were filed, but were assigned to Judge Cox, the segregationist appointed by President Kennedy. Judge Cox upheld Judge Mize's ruling on December 22. He concluded that the injunction applied only to outside agitators, not to African-Americans as a racial group, thereby avoiding conflict with the ICC order. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his reasoning and overturned the injunction. Arsenault summarized the result:
Of the seven communities placed under court order by the Justice Department in 1961, McComb probably did the most to tip the balance in favor of decisive federal action. [Freedom Riders, p. 462-468]
In mid-October, Attorney General Kennedy had negotiated desegregation of trains and depots operated by the Southern, Louisville and Nashville, and Illinois Central rail lines, with other smaller lines agreeing as well. The Freedom Riders undertook a test of the agreement in a Georgia ride from Atlanta to Albany, where a major effort was underway to overturn Jim Crow rules. On December 10, the testers had little difficulty until they reached Albany, where police chief Laurie Pritchett arrested them. When a mass demonstration took place on the day of the testers' trial, he arrested 267 protesters, and 202 more the following day, many of them high school students. With the arrests making national news while local officials were unsure how to fight the movement, local demonstrators desegregated the Trailways terminal.
Local activists and officials negotiated through go-betweens during the week. On December 15, Dr. King arrived for a mass meeting. The following day, he was among 265 marchers arrested, bringing the total in jail to over 400. "I will not accept bail," King told reporters. "If convicted, I will refuse to pay the fine. I expect to spend Christmas in jail. I hope thousands will join me." However, Federal efforts to defuse the situation resulted in the release of most of the prisoners, including Dr. King, when trials were postponed for 60 days.
The confrontation had divided major civil rights groups as they argued about whether to stage a mass protest in Albany. The willingness of Dr. King to leave jail and Albany while a biracial desegregation commission tried to sort out the situation was undercut when Chief Pritchett gloated that Dr. King had left without resolution of the situation that brought him to town. The division among civil rights groups grew as many leaders agreed with the New York Herald Tribune that his departure resulted in "a devastating loss of face." The Justice Department's failure to challenge the arrests undercut confidence in its enforcement efforts because it was "a troubling reminder of the political constraints that had delayed civil rights enforcement in the past." [Freedom Riders, p. 469-474]