Saturday, September 17, 2011

[TSS] Interlude: The Freedom Riders

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the US, and I thought after last week's very somber 10th anniversary of September 11th, I would devote this week to another important event in American history, one that many know very little about, the Freedom Rides.  I watched an excellent American Experience documentary about the Freedom Riders (linked to at the bottom of this post), and I thought I'd share with you all what I learned.

I think many Americans (myself included) can sum up their knowledge of the Freedom Rides in about two sentences:  People used non-violent means in hopes of integrating the bus system.  They were beaten for their efforts, and then were successful in overturning Jim Crow.

And while these sentences are essentially true, they completely wash out the complexities of one of the Civil Rights' Movement's most amazing success stories.  It is easy now, 50 years later, to be dismissive of racism and the stronghold it had on the United States in the mid-20th century.  I know many people, including some friends, who think that "racism is over," that women have all the rights they'll ever need, and that people are treated generally equally.  In a way, it's amazing that this sort of bliss can even exist, but human memory is very short and it's easy to think that because you yourself have never witnessed discrimination of any sort, that no one else can be experiencing it.  So it's important to remember what came before, the sacrifices that many people made so that some of us today can live in that blissful ignorance that all is well with the world.

Part of the reason I think this is such an important topic is because of the release of the movie The Help, and the highly successful book that inspired the film.  I read and enjoyed The Help, but I am a little worried that many people will read the book or watch the movie, and think, "Wow, that was wonderful!  I completely understand why the Civil Rights movement started now," and then, like my friends, go merrily about their lives without looking deeper into the issue.  I'm not by any means saying that I have done enough research into the topic (or into many other topics), but I thought I'd do my part in trying to provide a balance of information.  So here's the first of a semi-regular series on topics that I feel get glossed over in most people's minds, when they were worth looking into much more deeply.  Hopefully I can pique the interest of a few people to at least click through on my Wikipedia links!

The first wave of freedom riders were from the group CORE, the Congress for Racial Equality.  They got on two buses in Washington, DC, and planned to ride down to New Orleans to show the country that, even though the Supreme Court had already outlawed segregation on inter-state buses, it was still practiced throughout the South.  Note, too, that the Freedom Riders were not the only people on these buses; there were innocent bystanders just trying to get from one place to another on-board.

Neither bus made it to New Orleans.  Both were stopped in Alabama.  One of the buses had its tires slashed and was set on fire by local white supremacists, and the other was attacked by a mob, the freedom riders beaten horribly under the watch of Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama and a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.  One of the Riders on the bus that was set on fire said he finally managed to get off the bus, and was hacking the smoke from his lungs.  A white man came up to him an asked, "Boy, you ok?"  And the man replied that he thought he would be alright.  In response, the white man punched him in the stomach and sent him reeling to the ground.

But the Freedom Riders didn't stop.  In fact, not only did that original group of freedom riders refuse to give up, but they also inspired others to participate in the movement.  One of those people was Diane Nash, a student who organized the second wave of freedom riders to quickly follow the first.  Her group was so certain of violence that all of them made wills before boarding the bus.  Bull Connor arrested them in Birmingham, and in the middle of the night drove them to the Tennessee state line and left them to fend for themselves, unsure of whether they would be attacked by Klansmen and left for dead.  But they weren't about to let Connor intimidate them.

The next day, they were back in Birmingham.  And beaten by a mob as the police stood and watched.

A few days later, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement organized a meeting at a church in Alabama.  Dr. Martin Luther King attended, along with several Freedom Riders.  During the speeches, the church was surrounded by an angry mob, and it was only after a long tense wait filled with brick-throwing, tear gas-releasing and insult-hurling and phone calls from President Kennedy to the Alabama governor that the Alabama National Guard came in to escort the 1,500 African-Americans inside the church to safety.

After this event, even Martin Luther King, Jr. was too frightened to join the group.  But the riders kept going.  Hundreds joined- not in one mass movement but in dozens of significant, individual decisions that created positive momentum.  They rode the buses, the trains, the planes, wrote articles, snapped photos, harassed government officials and went to the infamous Parchman Penitentiary.  It is estimated that between May and September, almost 450 riders participated in one or more Freedom Rides. About 75% were male, and the same percentage were under the age of 30, mostly evenly divided between black and white.

And finally, in September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that all bus stations and bus lines had to be integrated, that people could sit wherever they wanted.  And the "Whites Only" signs started coming down, the cafes started serving Blacks at the counter, and the Civil Rights movement had a major victory.

So the Freedom Riders were doing much more than riding buses and facing vague notions of danger and beating.  They walked straight into danger, fully aware that they could count on no one to help them because the very government sworn to protect them was letting them down.  But they chose to fight, anyway.  450 of them.  For five months.  Until one day, they changed the world.

For an absolutely uh-mazing account of the Freedom Rides, including photos, footage and interviews with the Riders, I highly, highly recommend the PBS American Experience documentary.  It is harrowing and sad and brilliant, and I guarantee you will want to read tons more on the Civil Rights movement upon finishing it.


  1. Thank you so much for this - I think it's always important to continue educating ourselves and each other about our past. Otherwise, we do suffer under blissful illusions like the people you've described above.

    I didn't know very much about the Freedom Riders before, but I'm glad I do now, and I've bookmarked that documentary to watch when I have some more spare time.

  2. Meghan - I got interested in the Freedom Riders generally as part of my reading this year on the women's and civil rights movements, but I want to delve more deeply into them as well. I really enjoyed the documentary and think it was well worth the two-hour investment, so I hope you do, too!

  3. Yes, we all need reminders, or we do gloss over things and think...yes, that's history.

    I actually lived during these times, and while I didn't live in the South, I was very much aware of the happenings from the other movements to which I belonged.

    The "second wave" of Feminism came about during the sixties, too. Then came Conscious-raising groups, etc. ERA, of course, didn't pass.

    So we haven't moved beyond all discrimination, and while some issues seem resolved, others (like attitudes) remain.

    Thanks for bringing these issues to our minds again.


  4. Thanks, Laurel! Yes, I plan to do at least a few interludes on women involved with the feminist movement, too. It's unfortunate that most history classes in school end around WWII, when so much that impacts us today happened after WWII. I think it's unfair for kids not to learn about things that so directly affect their lives.

    I'd love to hear about the groups you belonged to!

  5. Whew. Thank you for this post. Very powerful stories.

    My Sunday Salon is Quiet Before the Storm.

  6. Awesome and inspiring post! I recently learned that a family friend was one of the freedom writers and spent time in a southern jail for her efforts. She was invited to be on the Oprah show where Oprah did a whole thing on the topic and the people who went down south. Such bravery!

  7. Thanks for this great post Aarti! You might be interested in the wonderful trilogy from this era by Taylor Branch: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge. They are detailed non-fiction books, but I swear they are never boring!

  8. Thank you for posting on this extremely important topic, Aarti - I certainly learned something.

    Officially, racism may be over. Unofficially, of course, it's still alive and kicking and spewing its ugly ideas out in private.

  9. Deb - Yes, really a group of amazing people. I loved learning more about them.

    Helen - Oh, wow! That's awesome- she probably spent time in Parchman, which was where many of them seemed to go.

    rhapsody - Thank you for the recommendation! I'll look into those for sure- I completely trust your judgment on social history books :-)

    Tracy - Yes, agreed, and the more people pretend it's not there, the more powerful it can become.

  10. Honestly I do not know if I could be that brave. I admire them so much

  11. "Human memory is very short" goes sadly hand-in-hand with ""Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

    Thanks for reminding us to think and learn ... and remember.

  12. Aarti, this is a wonderful post.

  13. Dude, LOVE. Please do more posts like this. That was an excellent summary, and thanks for the link.

  14. Blodeuedd - Ditto. I often don't think I am very brave, but I think a lot of ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

    Dawn - Yes, you're right. That's why I always think those memorials with the words "Never Forget" are somewhat useless, because people ALWAYS forget...

    Gavin - Oh, I'm glad you feel that way!

    Alice - Thank you! I will try to do one on a weekly basis, every Sunday.

  15. Thanks so much for posting about this - so important to get the real truth or history out to more people. I certainly didn't know all this and really appreciate learning. Thanks!

  16. What an interesting and informative post! I tend to agree with you when you say that people nowadays seem to think that racism doesn't exist nowadays, and I can tell you, living in the area that I do, that that is just plain not true. I had no idea that all these things were going on at this time, and it's interesting to find out all the details swirling about the Civil Rights movement. Your piece today melds perfectly with the types of issues that Amy is trying to talk about and address. Very wonderful post today!

  17. This is such a wonderful post. Thank you! I think my knowledge about the Freedom Riders was about the same as yours. It is amazing to me that these people did such a brave thing.

    My husband and I are roadtripping through Alabama next month and I've made a big list of all the Civil Rights museums and monuments I want to check out while we're there. I'm going to have to watch that documentary before we go.

  18. Amy - You've done a lot on your blog to educate me, too, about this period on history, so thanks for that :-)

    Zibilee - Yes, it's so fascinating and the deeper you go, the more fascinating it becomes.

    Melissa - Oh, that's wonderful! I definitely recommend the documentary. It's so full of really interesting facts that I think you will appreciate.

  19. Anonymous10/02/2011

    What a powerful documentary and thank you for posting about it. I've only read a little about the US civil rights movement including the freedom riders and am always shocked anew that this is history only from the 60s.


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