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40 years later, mission accomplished

'Freedom Riders' reunite on anniversary of civil rights struggle

Police guard
A bus load of "Freedom Riders," arrives in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961 under police guard  

May 11, 2001
Web posted at: 5:01 PM EDT (2101 GMT)


WASHINGTON -- The Greyhound Bus -- a 1954 model occupied by a handful of black and white civil rights activists, students and ministers -- had cruised without incident from Washington to Atlanta, Georgia.

The problems began in Alabama, with a group of 200 whites setting the vehicle on fire when it got a flat tire in Anniston. The trip continued in another bus onto Birmingham, where the occupants -- the "Freedom Riders," as they were better known -- were met by another mob and assaulted with stones, baseball bats, lead pipes and chains.

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  • From HighWired: Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a dream' speech
  • From Holt, Rinehart and Winston: School segregation, 1964
    John Lewis, a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and now a congressman, recounts the Freedom Rides (May 10)

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    Trace the path of the Freedom Riders

    "It was very violent," said John Lewis, one of the 13 occupants who went on to become a Democratic congressman from Georgia. "I thought I was going to die."

    But despite additional beatings, jail time and persecution, the original Freedom Riders did survive, having brought the civil rights movement to the deep South and awareness to the entire country.

    This week, they reunited in Washington on the 40th anniversary of their historic ride, an event sponsored by Greyhound Lines. The group not only reminisced, but they recreated the event by hopping on a bus and heading south once again.

    "To go down those roads, to get on a Greyhound bus, just to relive this whole thing is going to be very moving," Lewis said.

    Testing a 1960 decision

    The Freedom Rides took place in May of 1961, in the early days of the U.S. civil rights movement. Rosa Parks' refusal to budge from her seat near the front of a Birmingham bus had ignited a massive and largely successful boycott four years earlier, but in other ways discrimination was still very much ingrained in American, and especially southern, society.

    Lewis described the first ride as "very violent" (Audio 174 K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)  

    The Freedom Riders set out to test a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that segregation in interstate bus and rail travel was unconstitutional. Starting May 4, 1961, they planned to travel from the nation's capital south to Atlanta, west through Alabama and Mississippi, then down to New Orleans, Louisiana.

    "Segregation was the order of the day," Lewis said. "There was a tremendous amount of fear. So the Ride was going to test this decision, try to desegregate these places, but also to take the civil rights movement into the heart of the deep South."

    The Freedom Riders would ride together, black and whites sitting side-by-side, walking into the same waiting rooms and restrooms in protesting signs limiting areas to "whites" or "colored."

    A violent voyage

    Many of the protesters, Lewis among them, were brutally beaten at several stops in Alabama. Some called their families to wish them goodbye during the journey, fearing they'd never see them again.

    "Many of us didn't know whether we would return," Lewis said. "Many of us wrote our wills, and we signed statements because it was a very dangerous mission."

    In Birmingham, where the Freedom Riders were joined by First Baptist Church preacher Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., police arrested the riders then dropped them off late at night just across the Tennessee border. The riders reorganized themselves and continued on to Montgomery, where they were met by their most violent opposition.

    Bus on fire
    A bus went up in flames in May 1961 when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Alabama  

    "I was kicked in the spine, thrown forward and felt a foot come down on my face," said Jim Zwerg, a retired white minister for United Church of Christ. "That's basically the last thing I remember until I woke up in a vehicle. I thought I was getting taken out to get lynched."

    Mission accomplished

    The riders continued on to Mississippi, where they were sentenced to 60 days in jail. By the time the bus stopped permanently, they had attracted the support of 300 protesters as well as the attention of many national television networks and publications.

    They never reached destination in New Orleans, but they achieved their objective. Later in 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the previous year's Supreme Court ruling.

    Forty years later, many of the signs of segregation -- both explicit and implicit -- no longer exist in Alabama, Mississippi and elsewhere in the United States. Last week's conviction of ex-Klansman Thomas Blanton for his part in a September 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American girls signals a renewed effort to find justice after years of racially-related violence and prejudice.

    "We have come such a distance," Lewis said. "Those signs are gone. The fear is gone."

    But Lewis and other Freedom Riders say the civil rights situation in the United States remains imperfect.

    "We still have a lot of work to do," said Catherine Burks Brooks, one of the protesters who is now a Birmingham school teacher. "There's no time to rest."



    people who actively support or rally against a particular, oftentimes controversial cause



    thought (and oftetimes, talked) about past experiences



    to refuse to have dealings with (i.e. to buy a company's goods, attend an event, etc.), especially to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions



    the forced separation of a race, class or ethnic group

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    March 16, 1998

    Congress of Racial Equality
    National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
    U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division
    Congressman John Lewis
    U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
    Timeline of the American Civil Rights Movement

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