Freedom Riders

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FREEDOM RIDERS were African American and white protesters, many associated with the Congress of Racial Equality. In 1961, the Freedom Riders traveled by bus through Alabama and Mississippi to challenge segregation at southern bus terminals. Freedom Riders who journeyed to Alabama and Mississippi often faced extraordinary violence from resentful white southerners. For example, infuriated whites assaulted bus riders in Birmingham, Anniston, and Montgomery, Alabama, and harassed riders in McComb, Mississippi. Although the Freedom Rides exacerbated racial tension and violence, they shed new light on the plight of African Americans and the brutal actions of white segregationists. They also forced the federal government to take protective action. U.S. government officials sent more than 400 federal marshals to Montgomery to protect the Freedom Riders, whose actions ultimately influenced monumental and long-lasting changes in federal law. Within the next two years, a series of federal rulings and lawsuits ended systematic segregation in interstate travel. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to outlaw segregation on trains and buses and at transportation terminals. In the wake of this ruling, the Justice Department also successfully moved to end segregation in airports. Finally, in 1964 and again in 1968, Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation that prohibited segregation in public facilities for interstate travel and fulfilled many of the Freedom Riders' dreams.


Chappell, David L. Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1990; New York: Plume, 1991.

Sheilah R.Koeppen/e. m.

See alsoAfrican Americans ; Civil Rights Movement ; Desegregation ; Segregation ; Social Legislation .

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Freedom Riders, American civil-rights demonstrators who engaged (1961) in nonviolent protests against segregation of public interstate buses and terminals in the South. From the 1940s several federal court decisions and an Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) order had ruled against such segregation. Nonetheless, it remained a fact of life in buses, trains, and terminals throughout the South. In May, 1961, 13 Freedom Rider volunteers, seven black, six white, and nearly all young, were recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge state Jim Crow laws by riding buses together into the Deep South. Two buses set out to take them from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. Serious violence erupted in Alabama when one bus was firebombed near Anniston, and riders in the other were badly beaten in Birmingham. While the original riders were forced to fly to New Orleans, waves of successive protesters followed them to integrate Southern buses. Many were injured, many forced to take refuge in local churches, and some 300 were arrested and held in Southern jails. Federal marshalls were sent to Montgomery and martial law was declared in the state. More riders continued to arrive, and within six months the Kennedy administration had taken action and the Freedom Rider movement had succeeded. The ICC outlawed segregation in interstate travel, the Supreme Court voided state segregation laws in public transportation, and segregation of such facilities in the South came to an end.

See J. Peck, Freedom Ride (1962); D. Halberstam, The Children (1998); R. Arsenault, Freedom Riders (2006); B. Watson, Freedom Summer (2010).