In this video segment adapted from American Experience: "Freedom Riders," watch newsreel footage, archival photos, and interviews to explore how Freedom Riders made efforts to end the segregation of African Americans in the Southern United States. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the segregation of black and white riders on interstate buses was unconstitutional, Southern states continued to enforce local segregation laws. In response, members of both races decided to force the issue and challenge illegal segregation by riding together in buses headed to the South.
Democracy in Action Study Guide (Document)
Even after the abolition of slavery, African Americans did not enjoy either freedom or equality. In an effort to protect the so-called "Southern way of life," state governments enacted laws that effectively created economic and social barriers to full citizenship. These so-called "Jim Crow" laws were challenged by African Americans and their white supporters in federal courts, even after setbacks like the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation and endorsed the notion of "separate but equal."
One of the first successful lawsuits to challenge discrimination in public accommodations at a federal level was brought by Irene Morgan. Morgan was an African American resident of Maryland who had been arrested in Virginia when she refused to yield her seat on a Greyhound bus to a white passenger. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the 1946 opinion Morgan v. Virginia, that since the buses traveled across state lines, state laws requiring segregation in instances of interstate commerce were unconstitutional.
Yet states in the South ignored the Morgan opinion and continued to enforce state and local laws that created white and black sections of public buses. In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) tried unsuccessfully to enforce the ruling in the Morgan case by placing African American activists on Greyhound and Trailways buses in what became known as the Journey of Reconciliation. The failure of this effort, and the continued enforcement of unconstitutional state laws barring integrated public transportation, inspired some of the earliest protests in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King led a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system in 1955, after Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to yield her seat in the white section of a municipal bus. A black student challenged his arrest for entering a "whites only" restaurant in a bus terminal, leading the Supreme Court to rule, in the 1960 opinion Boynton v. Virginia, that segregation of facilities engaged in interstate transportation was unconstitutional.
With the example of the Journey of Reconciliation in mind, as well as the recent legal victory in Boynton, CORE organized a Freedom Ride in May 1961. The strategy was to place interracial pairs of riders on Greyhound and Trailways buses traveling between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, Louisiana. This nonviolent protest strategy, which challenged the federal government to enforce the law and support civil rights through nonviolent protest, was seen by some as contradictory, given the possibility of a violent response from those still invested in the "Southern way of life."
As predicted, pro-segregation forces, in most cases with the complicity of state officials, responded to the Freedom Riders with vehement and often violent resistance. Attacks and arrests in North Carolina and South Carolina preceded fire bombings, tire slashing, and the burning of a Greyhound bus in Anniston, Alabama. After local residents beat and hospitalized Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama, state officials provided a Highway Patrol escort for the next leg of the journey. When the escort was abandoned outside of Montgomery, Alabama, white citizens again beat the Freedom Riders while local police took no action.
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