Freedom Riders – A Story Untold!
Let’s take a walk down the memory lane – the year of 1961. Mr. John F. Kennedy was appointed as 35th American president. For many, the Camelot era paved in a new beginning. A time of optimism and hope! During the same time, U.S. put its first man into space, and famous TV shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver depicted the “living the American dream” way of living.
But all was not rosy with the lives of African-American people. Those idyllic images were not exactly reflective of their lives, especially in the Deep South. Despite outrage and efforts to eliminate segregation, Jim Crow laws continued to force black people to use separate waiting rooms, public restrooms and water fountains. Apart from this disrespect, black American citizens were told to sit in the back.
But times changed and laws were devised to curb these racist practices in 1946 and 1960. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed these discriminatory acts. However, it was hard to change the mindset of white people. Several Southerners still continued to defy the laws and follow their own lead.
Then something marvelous happened in the spring of 1961. A courageous group of men and women – young and old, black and white – stood up for their rights. They began boarding buses in protest of these shameful practices. These brave men and women called themselves – The Freedom Riders! I think this is a story worth telling.
Retracing the Freedom Rides
May 4, 1961, exactly 50 years ago, the Freedom Riders began their protest in Washington, D.C. That fateful day, 13 brave men and women boarded 2 buses headed for the Deep South – a place infamous for racial injustice.
The plan was simple. The group of protestors would buy interstate bus tickets for a two-week journey that would eventually end in New Orleans. While traveling, the Riders would actually test federal laws which prohibited segregation. They would test this by sitting in waiting rooms specified as “colored” and “whites only” and riding in front of the buses. It was daring and dangerous – a few even considered it a ‘suicide mission.’
The protest was devised by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The group trained the protestors to be nonviolent and silently protest – never strike back. The CORE group hoped these silent, peaceful marches of protests would finally force the government to be more efficient in protecting the civil rights of Afro-American community. But little did they know that the 436 Freedom Riders and their Freedom Rides would change the course of American history.
CORE members, during training sessions, were deliberately subjected to staged physical and verbal attacks to prepare for what lay ahead. Their unshakable faith and utmost belief in themselves to face even death was commendable. Their unflinching determination to seek racial equality and mutual respect outweighed all fear and doubt.
When the first 13 Freedom Riders began their journey, they lacked security. But they had hope. John Lewis, a current U.S. congressman and former Freedom Rider, said that boarding the Greyhound bus to travel to the Deep South made him feel good and happy.
The initial days turned out to be uneventful. Finally, when they arrived in Atlanta on May 13, 1961, they were received by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Freedom Riders were hoping that the invincible civil rights leader would also join their movement. However, they got an ominous warning passed by him. He told them that the Ku Klux Klan was planning “quite a welcome” for the protestors in Alabama. He asked them to rethink their decision.
However, the Riders and the buses rolled on.
People who Helped the Freedom Riders
During the movement, there were southerners – both white and black – who endangered their lives to help the Freedom Riders. One such person was a 7th grader named Janie Forsyth.
She was just 12 years old when the Greyhound bus carrying the group of protestors failed in front of her family’s grocery store in Alabama. She recounts how people actually spilled out from the bus and were tripping over each other as they were sick. She remembers how she extended help and support to them.
The ‘Invincible’ Freedom Riders
The Freedom Riders were determined to achieve their mission – equal rights and respect. They never flinched from their motive even while facing strong violence and threats. They were put behind bars and subjected to humiliation. Still, they never, ever backed down. One such brave soul is Glenda Gaither Davis.
Glenda was a student of Claflin College in Orangeburg and sister of Tom Gaither, CORE field secretary. She was just 18-years-old when she became a part of the movement. She was already considered an experienced member as she participated in the movement to curb lunch counter segregation.
As a part of the first group of 8 Freedom Riders from New Orleans, she arrived in Jackson, MS, to test racial discrimination at a rail terminal. When the protestors tried to use restrooms designated for whites, they were arrested for disorderly conduct. They were sentenced a $200 fine and 60-days behind the bars term within the hour.
Glenda recalls that despite coming from different home environments, cultures and places, the Freedom Riders were somehow unified as they had a common motive. She believed that she had to take a stand as there was something much better awaiting her.
Diane Nash – Inspiration for my Story
Diane Nash was one of the movement leaders of Freedom Rides. By 1961, she had emerged as a respected student leader of the Nashville sit-in movement. She was raised in middle-class Catholic family and attended Howard University. In the fall of 1959, she transferred to Nashville’s Fisk University.
Shocked by the extent of segregation encountered by the black people in Tennessee, Nash became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was put behind the bars with the “Rock Hill Nine” in February 1961 – 9 students who were imprisoned after a lunch counter protest.
When the Freedom Riders learned of the riot in Birmingham and the bus burning in Anniston, she stood her ground. She told others that it was their primary duty to continue with their Rides.
She said that it was clear to her if they stopped the Freedom Ride at that juncture, right after being at the receiving end of so much violence, the message would have been that all you need to do to end a nonviolent campaign is instigate massive violence.
Elected as the coordinator of the Nashville student Movement Ride, she monitored the progress of the Ride from her place, recruited new Riders, spoke to the media and press, and worked in order to gain support of the federal government and national Movement leaders.
John Seigenthaler, assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, recalls the phone conversation with her where he tried to stop the Nashville Freedom Riders from reaching Alabama. He warned her of possible violence. She told him that all the Riders had already signed their last testaments and wills before departure.
Seigenthaler remembers that Nash actually gave him a quiet lecture. She was unfazed by his warnings and did not budge from her stance and belief.
Nash was responsible for bringing the famous Civil Rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Alabama on May 21 in order to support their cause. Nash was also present during the violent siege of First Baptist Church. Undeniably, she played a major role in the Freedom Riders movement. She is the source of inspiration which prompted me to write the story of these invincible people.
The Road to Victory
The world was watching with bated breath. The Riders’ created a furor in the media. After nearly 5 months of struggle and battle, the federal government gave in. The Interstate Commerce Commission on September 22 issued an order to curb segregation in rail and bus which have been prevalent for generations. The Freedom Riders movement was the first unambiguous victory in the Civil Rights Movements history. The sweet victory raised expectations across the nation for greater achievements in the future.
The Riders had moments during the movement where they learned a few important lessons from one another – the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. The movement created a positive sense that they are going to survive and make it together. And, nothing in the world is going to halt the movement.
What we learn from Freedom Rides is simple yet powerful: Great change can come from a few small steps taken together by brave people. In order to do any great thing, it is important to step out alone sometimes and lead by example. A grand salute to all the Freedom Riders!