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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

End of a Transition Year

As 1961 came to an end, the Freedom Riders could look back on a transition year. Arsenault summarized the results:

As the year of the Freedom Rides drew to a close . . . despite a general pattern of compliance with the ICC order, there was a great deal of desegregation work left to be done in the Deep South. "A well-advertised group of Freedom Riders may receive police protection," columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in the New York Times on December 3, "but it would probably still be a brave, indeed foolhardy local Negro who sat down at the 'white' restaurant in an Alabama or Mississippi bus terminal" . . . . Indeed, even in the Upper South and border states, where virtually all terminals, buses, and trains were desegregated, there were pockets of dogged segregationist resistance, as a series of arrests at several Route 40 restaurants demonstrated on December 16 . . . .

In most areas outright resistance had been replaced by a spirit of resignation, and evidence of real progress could be seen in some of the South's toughest white supremacist strongholds.

Even Bull Connor and officials in Birmingham gave up his attempts to keep transit facilities segregated. When his attempts to revoke the license of the restaurant in the Trailways station were blocked in January 1962 by Federal District Judge Seybourn H. Lynn, a conservative segregationist, "Connor and the commissioners conceded defeat on the narrow issue of segregated transit facilities and transferred their energies to other fronts in the war against desegregation and federal encroachment." [Freedom Riders, p. 474-475]

The Supreme Court would raise hope, then deal a blow to the movement's efforts to avoid the Jackson court cases. A December 16 ruling overturning convictions under the breach of peace statutes in a Baton Rouge sit-in case had raised hope for the Riders that the similar charges in Jackson would be overturned. However, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on December 18 to deny the appeal of the breach of peace charges in Jackson. The ruling turned on a technicality, namely that the three defendants chosen to represent the class of plaintiffs had not been arrested for breach of peace. Finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing, the Justices did not consider the broader issue that NAACP attorneys had argued about the breach of peace statutes. [Freedom Riders, p.476]

In Jackson, where the only change was that the Jim Crow signs had been removed in compliance with the ICC ruling, the trials would continue through May 1962. Arrests for breach of peace also would continue, although the Freedom Rides would end:

NAACP attorney and future Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell discovered this on January 10, when he was arrested for loitering in the white waiting room of the Jackson railroad terminal, and three weeks later the police arrested Ernest McBride, a black soldier from Los Angeles, for a similar infraction at the Jackson Greyhound station.

A second unanimous Supreme Court ruling on February 26, 1962, in Bailey v. Patterson, left the situation confused. Samuel Bailey and three other African-Americans from Jackson had sought injunctive relief from Jim Crow restrictions, but had not been arrested for violating them or any other reason. They were simply seeking their constitutional rights. The court ruled that it had "settled beyond question that no state may require racial segregation of interstate or intrastate transportation facilities." Arsenault summarized the confusion caused by the ruling:

Once again, however, the situation was muddied by the Court's refusal to issue an injunction staying the prosecution of the Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson. According to the Court, since the plaintiffs were not actually Freedom Riders and had never been arrested as such, Bailey and the others had no standing to enjoin the prosecutions. Though technically correct, this decision created confusion and ensured continued resistance on the part of Mississippi segregationists interested in preserving Jim Crow transit. [Freedom Riders, p. 478]

Segregationists felt empowered to use violence and the jails if necessary to block "outside agitators." Change would come slowly to Mississippi:

Here, more than anywhere else, movement leaders had to deal with a ferocious form of white supremacist resistance paradoxically fueled by a combination of outside intervention and the apparent futility of that intervention. In the long run the ICC order would lead to grudging desegregation and ultimately to new social mores, but in the short run, the perceived emptiness of the Freedom Riders' victory encouraged continued resistance on all fronts, including voting rights and school desegregation. With the help of meddling federal officials, outside agitators had invaded the state, yet the Mississippi way of life remained intact. Among white Mississippians in 1962, this was the primary lesson conveyed by the Freedom Rides. [Freedom Riders, p. 481-482]

Nevertheless, the Freedom Riders brought change to Mississippi by mid-1963:

Early in the year the Justice Department filed lawsuits against the police departments of Greenwood and Winona, which had persisted in enforcing segregation at local terminals, but in June the department reported that its investigators "knew of no rail, bus, or airline facility still maintaining segregation," in Mississippi or anywhere else. While de facto and self-segregation remained common, especially in communities where unmarked but duplicate waiting rooms and other facilities survived, and many Mississippi blacks were still wary of asserting the right to sit where they pleased, the age of systemic, legally enforced transit segregation was over . . . . For at least some of the Riders arrested in Jackson and McComb, and for the attorneys who represented them, the legal ordeal of appeals, continuances, and court appearances continued until 1965. But by that time the first major civil rights victory in the nation's most hidebound state was secure, suggesting that the Rides were only a prelude to further struggle and ultimate triumph. [Freedom Riders, p, 482-483]

Progress was also slow in Louisiana, particularly in Shreveport and Baton Rouge. "The spirit of outright defiance continued well into 1962, making Shreveport one of the last cities in the region to comply with the ICC mandate . . . . And it would be several years before local blacks could comfortably exercise the rights guaranteed by the ICC without risking economic retaliation or police harassment." Despite official efforts to resist in Baton Rouge, "the prominence of the capital ensured that transit desegregation would come earlier than in Shreveport . . . ."

In New Orleans, resistance to school desegregation slowed compliance with the ICC order. Segregationists led by George Singelmann of the Greater New Orleans Citizens' Council decided to fight the outside agitators from the north by proposing Reverse Freedom Rides in April 1962:

Singelmann's original plan, advertised on handbills distributed throughout southeastern Louisiana, offered "Free Transportation plus $5.00 for Expenses to any Negro Man or Woman, or Family (No limit to size) who desire to migrate to the Nation's Capital, or any city in the north of their choosing." On the back of the flyer, Singelmann printed a list of the addresses and phone numbers of welfare departments and NAACP and Urban League offices in Washington and four other Northern cities, ostensibly to help the Reverse Freedom Riders find a job after they arrived.

The goal was to tell the North "to put up or shut up." President Kennedy called it "a rather cheap exercise . . . in publicity," but Singelmann planned to send a one-way "freedom train" filled with "1,000 Negroes" to the north. His idea spread to nearby States, with the Capital Citizens' Council of Little Rock directing its Reverse Riders to Hyannis, Massachusetts - summer home of the Kennedys:

When, as expected, the actual reception accorded the scores of black migrants to Hyannis proved to be something less than grand, [Citizens' Council president Amos] Guthridge declared his experiment had confirmed the immutable nature of racial segregation. Here, as elsewhere, there were individual acts of kindness that belied the Citizens' Councils' sweeping claims that all white Northerners were racially prejudiced. But the generally inhospitable response of Northern officials-which included Massachusetts governor John Volpe's request for federal legislation outlawing the Reverse Rides-allowed the Citizens Council to score propaganda points that were trumpeted by conservative commentators north and south. "Listen to them squirm!" advised the Chicago-based columnist Paul Harvey. "The hypocrisy of pompous Northern do-gooders has never been more apparent." More sympathetic observers pointed out that factors other than racism were involved-that Volpe and others were understandably worried that a flood of impoverished migrants would overwhelm an already overburdened welfare system in unprepared Northern communities-but it was difficult to counter the general impression that Northern hypocrisy had been exposed.

The Hyannis migrants soon moved elsewhere, while by midsummer, "the negative publicity surrounding the general disillusionment of the approximately two hundred blacks who had joined the Reverse Freedom Rides had convinced almost everyone, including most Citizens' Council leaders, that the program had run its course. By the fall, the groups backing the Reverse Rides withdrew financial support, bringing them to an end. [Freedom Riders, p. 484-486]

In 1962, CORE launched a campaign called Freedom Highways to extend the Route 40 campaign throughout the southeast to desegregate Howard Johnson's roadside restaurants. The restaurants in Florida and Maryland had capitulated by June, and more States would follow, aided by liberal leaders such as Governor Terry Sanford of North Carolina and Senators Estes Kevauver and Albert Gore of Tennessee, who had replaced the segregationist leaders of the past.

(Maryland would pass a public accommodations law in 1963, but only after the legislature exempted Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, the State's two most segregationist areas. The law was expanded to those areas the following year, making it statewide.)

In assessing the impact of the 1961 Freedom Rides, Arsenault said that they "exerted an impact that transcended tangible, quantifiable changes in institutional behavior or public policy." He continued:

Within six months of the first Ride, travelers of all races were sitting side by side on buses and trains all across the nation without fear of arrest, the WHITE and COLORED signs that had blighted the walls of Southern bus and train stations for decades were gone, the nation's major civil rights organizations had undergone significant transformations, and the Justice Department had been pushed into a deepening engagement in civil rights matters.

Beyond the immediate results was a change in approach:

In the course of six months, the nation's first mobile nonviolent army expanded the realm of the possible in American political and social insurgency, redefining the limits of dissent and setting the stage for the escalating demands and rising expectations of the mid- and late 1960s . . . . The rising movements for women's rights, military withdrawal from Southeast Asia, environmental reform, gay and lesbian rights, and the rights of the disabled all built upon the foundation of legitimacy and success established by Freedom Riders and other nonviolent activists in the early 1960s. [Freedom Riders, p. 511-512]

[Author's Note: As the citations make clear, I have relied heavily on Raymond Arsenault's account of the Freedom Rides in writing the sections of this article on the subject. I encourage readers who would like more information about this important stage in the Civil Rights Movement to read his detailed, authoritative, and readable account.

Arsenault, Raymond, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford University Press, 2006]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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