Civil Rights Movement

Freedom Riders

Freedom RidesIn 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.

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.

Ella Baker

Ella Baker

Who Was Ella Baker?

Ella Baker, although less known than others, was an important civil rights leader during the 1950s and 60s.

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on December 13, 1903. Growing up, her grandmother, who was formerly enslaved, often talked to her about the cruelty of slavery, including a whipping she received for refusing to marry someone chosen for her by her enslaver. The things
her grandmother shared inspired Ella to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Involvement In Civil Rights Movement
Baker attended historically black Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated as class valedictorian in 1927. After graduating she moved to New York City and joined the Young Negroes Cooperative, a grassroots organization formed for the purpose of developing Black economic power through collective planning.

In 1940 she became involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving first as a Field Secretary and then as Director of Branches from 1943 – 1946.

Ella joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was serving as president. She ran SCLC’s Crusade for Citizenship, its voter registration campaign.

When students in Greensboro, North Carolina began sit-ins at lunch counters to protest segregation in eating establishments, Ella returned to North Carolina to assist in that movement. She organized a conference at Shaw University and invited student sit-in leaders to attend. That conference led to the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Ella was  active in civil rights her entire life, quietly working behind the scenes for SNCC and other organizations. She died in New York on her birthday on December 13, 1986.