Freedom Riders: American Experience

Freedom Riders bus, outside of Birmingham, 1961

Freedom Riders bus, outside of Birmingham, 1961

I am saying now to these meddlers from out of our city the best thing for them to do is stay out if they don’t want to get slapped in jail. Our people of Birmingham are a peaceful people and we never have any trouble here unless some people come into our city looking for trouble. And I’ve never seen anyone yet look for trouble who wasn’t able to find it. – Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor

The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia (of 1960). Boynton v. Virginia had outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines.

The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961.

I got up one morning in May and I said to my folks at home, I won’t be back today because I’m a Freedom Rider. It was like a wave or a wind that you didn’t know where it was coming from or where it was going, but you knew you were supposed to be there.  — Pauline Knight-Ofuso, Freedom Rider

Some were college students who gave up the chance to graduate to join the ride. As they buses were burned and passengers beaten, all with the tacit approval of local law enforcement, the Riders had to face the idea that their acts of civil disobedience were likely to be their own death sentences.

The deep South was that tough, and nobody was ready for this change, yet.

The FBI knew of the violence, but did not act. The Kennedy administration was busy dealing with an overheating Cold War. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said that he “does not feel that the Department of Justice can side with one group or the other in disputes over Constitutional rights.”

The people that took a seat on these buses, that went to jail in Jackson, that went to Parchman (the nickname for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison), they were never the same. We had moments there to learn, to teach each other the way of nonviolence, the way of love, the way of peace. The Freedom Ride created an unbelievable sense: Yes, we will make it. Yes, we will survive.

And that nothing, but nothing, was going to stop this movement – Congressman John Lewis, one of the original Riders.

Freedom Riders: American Experience
5/16/2011 9:00 pm WOSU TV
5/17/2011 1:00 am WOSU TV
5/17/2011 9:00 pm WOSU PLUS