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!
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.
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.
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.