In May 1961, a group of men and women, blacks and whites, departed Washington, DC on two public interstate buses. The group was headed south to test the US Supreme Court ruling that “segregation in interstate bus and rail stations was unconstitutional.”
The bus trip which was organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was the beginning of what became known as the Freedom Rides.
During the trip, whites sat in the back of the buses and blacks sat in the front. At rest stops the white riders went into the “black-only” areas and blacks went into the “white-only” areas.
While traveling through the northern parts of the south the Freedom Riders were met with little or no resistance. However, things changed dramatically when they reached what is considered the deep south.
In Anniston, Alabama one of the buses was met by a mob of angry whites. 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 accosted by an angry crowd of whites in Birmingham, Alabama. Many of the Freedom Rider were beaten and some pretty severely.
Despite the violence the Freedom Riders garnered a lot of support. Others joined and the Rides continued through the summer. More than 300 Riders were arrested and spent much of the summer in southern jails.
The Freedom Riders never made it to New Orleans, which was their original goal. Nevertheless, they got the attention of the country. They also got the attention of President Kennedy and forced his administration to take a stand on civil rights.
The Freedom Rides also led to a ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) that outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel. The ICC ruling took effect in September 1961 and was more specific than the Supreme Court ruling.