In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that segregated seating on interstate buses and trains was unconstitutional. However, the power of enforcement fell to the states, and many southern states refused to comply. In 1947, James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the Journey of Reconciliation, an integrated bus ride through the South, but it was cut short when several riders were arrested for violating segregation ordinances in North Carolina.
Segregation on interstate buses and trains continued in the South for another 13 years. Moreover, there was no law against segregated waiting rooms in bus and train stations, only seating on buses and trains. But in December of 1960, just weeks before President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, the Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia against segregated facilities as well.
The next year, James Farmer became the executive director of CORE and organized a second ride. The Freedom Rides, named for the two integrated buses that would travel through the South, would test the new president and both Supreme Court rulings. Farmer and the other 12 riders (5 white, 7 black) were called the Freedom Riders.
On May 4, 1961, they boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., and traveled quietly through Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Their goal was to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
On May 20, one bus was fire bombed in Anniston, Alabama, and the other bus was greeted by an angry mob and more violence in Birmingham. Alabama governor John Patterson refused to guarantee the safety of the riders, forcing President Kennedy and U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy to take action. Ultimately, the riders were protected in Birmingham but were later attacked in Montgomery.
On May 24, Robert Kennedy ordered federal marshals to accompany the Freedom Riders to Mississippi. To avoid further violence, Kennedy struck a deal with Mississippi senator James Eastland, a segregationist. Eastland would make sure there was no violence, and in return Kennedy would not use federal troops to enforce the desegregation laws. The riders arrived safely in Jackson, Mississippi, but as soon as they walked through the waiting room, they were arrested and jailed for using segregated facilities. They never made it to New Orleans.
More than 300 Freedom Riders, many of them college students, were arrested and jailed before Kennedy and the Interstate Commerce Commission finally enforced the Supreme Court's ban on interstate travel segregation in September 1961.
What were the Freedom Riders trying to accomplish?
What were opponents' responses to the Freedom Rides?
What was the sequence of responses by the federal government? Why did Robert Kennedy want the Freedom Rides to stop?
Why do you think James Farmer changed his mind and joined the Freedom Ride Riders in Montgomery, Alabama?