Fifty years ago, on May 4, 1961, thirteen Americans—7 black, 6 white—departed Washington, D.C., on Greyhound and Trailways buses with the intent of challenging Jim Crow travel laws in the Deep South.
They called themselves the Freedom Riders.
Eventually 450 different people—75% of them under the age of 30—would take part in the months-long journey.
Their final destination was New Orleans. Their ultimate vision was to dismantle the legal and societal systems that kept African-Americans segregated and suppressed in the South.
The impact the Freedom Riders made was significant. But it was not without cost.
Although the Freedom Riders themselves were committed to and trained in the practice of non-violent protest, those who opposed them were not.
On Sunday, May 14, the first bus rolled into Anniston, Alabama. An angry mob, organized by nearby Birmingham police officials, attacked the bus. The driver was finally able to pull the bus away from the crowd, only to realize the mob had slashed its tires.
The bus was forced to a stop outside of town. The mob firebombed the bus, then held the doors shut as the passengers attempted to escape the smoke and flames. Eventually the riders were allowed to exit, only to be severely beaten. Even after the violence ended, most of the victims were refused medical care at local hospitals.
With law enforcement unwilling to protect them and bus drivers too scared to transport them, it looked like the Freedom Rides were over.
But Nashville college student Diane Nash believed if they abandoned the cause at this point, the segregationists would have won. She organized a new group of 10 people to head to Birmingham and continue the Rides. As they boarded their bus, many of them handed Nash sealed envelopes containing their last will and testaments.
Join me tonight in watching Freedom Riders, the compelling PBS documentary about this dark chapter in our country’s history, and the light that overcame it. (Check your local listings for exact show times.)
Here’s a trailer for the show:
(If the video doesn’t show up in your browser, click here to view.)
Photo credit: Library of Congress