Saturday 13 February 2016

The Freedom Riders

Attacked by a white mob when participating in the first Freedom Ride in 1961, James Peck lay on an operating table as a doctor closed a head wound 4 inches long.  In total, he required 50 stitches.  Once sewn up, James was asked by an Anniston, Alabama reporter if now that he was seriously injured, would he abandon the ride.  His response?  “I’ll be on the bus tomorrow for Montgomery.”

The first Freedom Ride bus left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961 filled with 13 riders, 7 Black and 6 White.  Their aim was to ride through several Southern States as an integrated party.  They planned to arrive in New Orleans, Louisiana on May 17.  No incidents occurred in Virginia.  However, when the Greyhound bus reached South Carolina, one of its occupants, John Lewis, was attacked.  Arrests for alleged violations of the segregation laws took place in North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi.


Map of Freedom Ride routes courtesy

In Birmingham, the Klu Klux Klan planned an assault on the Freedom Riders, sanctioned by the local police who said they would give them 15 minutes to attack before they arrived.  On Mother’s Day Sunday, a white mob, some still wearing their church clothes, attacked the Greyhound bus, slashing the tires.  In fear, the bus driver put the petal to the metal, but the angry mob followed in hot pursuit in cars.  They chased the crippled bus which soon blew some tires and was forced to stop.  The mob firebombed the bus and then held the doors shut, trapping the Freedom Riders.  Either an exploding fuel tank or a trooper with a revolver forced the mob members to retreat, enabling the riders to make a hasty exit.  The mob still beat the riders, and if not for the arrival of a trooper with a revolver, would have likely lynched them.

Birmingham Bus Station courtesy  Note the "Colored Waiting Room" sign, indicative of why the Freedom Riders were protesting.

Hospitalized, many of the Freedom Writers were refused care.  Hospital officials released then at 2:00 am, fearful of the mob assembling outside the hospital’s doors. 

President Kennedy saw the image of the burning bus on his television screen.  Knowing he must act, he put pressure on the Greyhound bus drivers to complete the ride.  They refused and therefore Kennedy offered them a police escort to which they said yes.  Driving down the Alabama freeway at 90 miles an hour, the riders remained safe with the Alabama State Highway Patrol at their side.  But they were abandoned by the escort at the Montgomery city limits.  An angry mob greeted them at the bus station, which started to beat the riders while the local police looked the other way.  Reporters and photographers were attacked first so there would be no evidence of the assault.  Ambulance drivers refused to transport the injured riders to the hospital; it was local black residents who rescued the wounded riders.

The freedom riders finally arrived at First Baptist Church in Montgomery where they were greeted by a crowd of 1500 people to honour their efforts.  Martin Luther King addressed the congregation along with Ralph Abernathy.  After the service, Dr. King was told that an angry white mob totalling 3000 was outside waiting to pounce on the parishioners.  Rocks flew through the stained glass windows.  Tear gas canisters were released.  Armed black taxi drivers arrived to rescue those inside.  However, fearful of more violence, Dr. King managed to talk the taxi drivers into leaving.  The National Guard arrived later and dispersed the angry mob. 

The second Freedom Ride bus to leave Washington D.C. in May, a Trailways vehicle, received a similar reception as it made its way through the Southern states.  In Birmingham, KKK members, along with police officers led by Commissioner Bull Connor, attacked the non-violent protesters using baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains, leaving them semi-conscious.  This was where rider James Peck ended up with a four-inch gash on his head.  He was refused treatment at the first hospital he went to, but he was treated at the second one.  


Klansmen attacking a Freedom Rider in May 1961 courtesy

In total, there were 60 Freedom Riders that participated that first summer.  More than three hundred arrests were made.  Many of the riders chose to stay in jail rather than post bail.  In groups, they sang freedom songs to help pass the time and boost morale.  One sheriff was so annoyed by their singing that he personally drove a group up to the Tennessee border.  Another group had their mattresses, sheets and toothbrushes confiscated.  But still they sang.

On September 22, 1961,  the I.C.C. outlawed segregation on Interstate Busses.  All "Whites Only" signs were ordered removed by November of that year.  

For more information, read:

  1. Freedom Ride, James Peck, 1962.
  2. Walking with the Wind:  A Memoir of the Movement, John Lewis, 1998.
  3. Freedom Writers:  1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Raymond Arsenault, 2011.

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