Civil Rights

Freedom Riders

Freedom RidesIn May 1961, a group of Black and white men and women left Washington, DC on two public buses. The group was traveling to states in the south to test the United States Supreme Court decision that “segregation in interstate bus and rail stations was unconstitutional.”

The bus trip was organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The trip was the beginning of what became known as the Freedom Rides.

During the trip, white people in the group sat in the back of the buses. Black people in the group sat in the front. At rest stops the white riders went into the “Black-only” areas and Black riders went into the “white-only” areas.

While traveling through the northern part of the south the Freedom Riders did not have any problems. However, things changed when they reached what is considered the deep south.

In Anniston, Alabama one of the buses was met by a mob of angry white people. The mob threw rocks at the bus and slashed the tires. The driver was able to drive away but when he stopped to change tires the bus was firebombed.

Riders on the second bus were approached by an angry crowd of white people in Birmingham, Alabama. Many of the Freedom Riders were beaten and some pretty badly.

Even though there was violence the Freedom Riders got a lot of support. Others joined the group and the Freedom Rides continued through the summer. More than 300 Riders were arrested and spent much of the summer in jails in the south.

The Freedom Riders never made it to New Orleans, which was their original goal. In the end that didn’t matter because the Rides became known and talked about around the country. They even got the attention of the White House and President Kennedy. Because of all the attention, the Freedom Riders could not be ignored. They forced President Kennedy to deal what what the Riders were trying to accomplish and talk about civil rights in the country.

The Freedom Rides also led to a an important ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The commission made segregation in interstate bus travel illegal. The ruling was a win for the Freedom Riders and Black Americans.

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005) was the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge.

She was appointed by President Lyndon B Johnson in 1966 to serve in the Southern District of New York, the largest and busiest federal court in the country.

Constance was born in New Haven, Connecticut on September 21, 1921. She earned a degree in economics at New York University. She earned her law degree at Columbia University. While studying at Columbia she joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She later became the organization’s Associate Counsel.

Before becoming a judge, Constance worked on all school segregation cases supported by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund including Brown v Board of Education. She was the only female attorney on the landmark case.

Constance Baker Motley worked with the NAACP for more than twenty years. She was the lead attorney in James Meredith’s successful fight to attend the University of Mississippi. Constance was active in the Civil Rights Movement. She won nine of the civil rights cases she argued before the US Supreme and Court. She was a judicial hero to many.

Judge Motley later went into politics. In 1964 she became the first Black woman elected to the New York State Assembly.

Marian Anderson

Marian AndersonMarian Anderson was the first African American invited to perform at the White House and the first to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Anderson was born on February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She began singing with the youth choir in her church.  Adult members were so impressed with her voice that they started a fund so she could formally train with a local and well known voice instructor.

After two years of voice lessons she won a contest organized by the New York Philharmonic and later received a scholarship to sing on a tour through Europe.

In 1939 she was invited to perform in the White House when President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertaining the King and Queen of Great Britain.

Later, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall in Washington DC, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a member of the organization, resigned in protest. Roosevelt then arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. 75,000 people attended the performance.

Marian Anderson made her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera in January 1955, and in 1961 sang the National Anthem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fanny Lou Hamer

Who was Fannie Lou Hamer?

She was born to sharecropper parents on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. The family worked on a plantation and at the age of six Fannie Lou was already helping in the cotton fields.

Hamer’s life change in 1962 when she attended a meeting and met several civil rights activists, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC members were in were in Mississippi to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Hamer was inspired by what she heard and got involved. She also decided that it was time for her to exercise her right to vote.

When Hamer tried to register she was asked to interpret a portion of the Mississippi constitution. Naturally, she failed the test. During this period Mississippi, and much of the south, had a policy that required people, particularly African Americans, to take literacy tests before they be allowed to register to vote. Those tests were almost impossible to pass and if African Americans did pass they were threatened with physical violence when they attempted to vote.

Also, blacks faced consequences from their white employers and landlords if they attempted to register. Hamer was no exception. When word got out that she had tried to register to vote, her landlord, for whom she also worked, threatened her with eviction if she attempted to register again. Not willing to give up that right, Hamer moved in with a relative.

Finding herself with no means of income, she went to work for SNCC. The organization need local black citizens to encourage their friends and neighbors to register. Hamer became a voice for voter registration. She also participated in sessions that SNCC held to help citizens interpret the Mississippi constitution. In December 1962 she passed the literacy test and became a registered voter.

This was really just the beginning of Hamer’s activism. She continued her work with SNCC and became a strong voice for voter registration. In 1963 she attended a citizenship training school in Charleston, South Carolina to learn how to teach her neighbors the benefits of citizenship. On the bus trip home from Charleston, she and others were arrested and beaten by law enforcement officers during a confrontation that occurred following their attempt to be served at a café lunch counter.

In the early 1960s grassroots activists particularly black activists, were often threatened and beaten. Hamer endured it all and sustained injuries that would stay with her for the rest of her life, yet she never gave in and continued to speak out.

In 1964 civil rights workers in Mississippi decided to challenge the all-white delegation that was selected to represent the state at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hoping to give African Americans in Mississippi a voice in the selection of the presidential nominee, they formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and selected sixty-eight people, including Hamer to represent them at the convention. Hamer gave a passionate speech at the convention and talked about how she had been jailed and beaten because she wanted to be treated like a first-class citizen and be allowed to register and vote. She also asked that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s delegates be seated* at the convention. When that request was not granted Hamer questioned America’s failure to provide equal justice for all.

Hamer did not get the outcome she wanted but she had been heard. Two MFDP delegates were seated at the convention. Also the Democratic party voted that future conventions would not welcome segregated delegations.

After the convention Hamer continued with her activism and her fight for voting rights, civil rights and equality. She died in 1977.

*Seated meant you could vote and help determine who should run for president for your political party.

Fanny Lou Hamer Quotes

“When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak our for you.”

“One day, I know the struggle will change. There’s got to be a change – not only for Mississippi,
not only for the people in the United States, but people all over the world.” 



Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin Civil Rights ActivistOrganizing and managing logistics for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a massive undertaking.

While most people are familiar with the March and Dr. King’s famous speech, little is known about the man behind the scene, the man responsible for coordinating the March and ensuring that all the parts came together for a successful, meaningful and impactful event.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin (l)

That person was Bayard Rustin, who has been described by one historian as the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement.

Rustin was a civil rights activist and he was gay. He worked mostly behind the scene to keep his sexual orientation from becoming an issue with critics.

He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 17, 1912 and was raised by grandparents who were pacifists. He attended historically black Wilberforce University in Ohio, and Cheney University in Pennsylvania before moving to New York City in 1937 and enrolling in City College of New York. Rustin had a great singing voice, and while in school, supported himself singing with African American folk artists in clubs in the city.

Journey of Reconciliation

Bayard Rustin (Back-Center)

In 1941 he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization formed by a group of Christians who were against using violence to solve international problems. Being a pacifist, Rustin was against war and in 1942 was jailed for refusing to serve in the military. He spent three years in Lewisburg Penitentiary as a conscientious objector.

When released from prison he became active with FOR again and in 1947 led a group of blacks and whites on what was called the ‘Journey of Reconciliation’ to challenge racial segregation on inter-state buses. This journey was really the first Freedom Ride.

Rustin was an advisor to Dr. King and helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and when A. Philip Randolph needed someone to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom he thought of the one person who had the skills and ability to bring it all together, Bayard Rustin.

Rustin was a brilliant tactician, strategist and expert organizer.

He died in 1987 and in 2013 was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom.