In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that segregated seating on interstate buses and trains was unconstitutional. In 1960, the Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregated facilities (such as waiting rooms) were also unconstitutional. Because the power to enforce the law resided with the states, some local authorities refused to comply.
In 1961, interstate travel remained segregated in much of the South, despite these Supreme Court decisions. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized two integrated bus rides through the South to test the rulings. Jim Zwerg, a white college student visiting from Wisconsin, volunteered to participate in the "Freedom Rides. "
On May 4, 1961, Zwerg and 12 other Freedom Riders (5 white, 7 black) boarded two buses in Washington, D.C. 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. But on May 14, one bus was attacked and fire bombed in Anniston, Alabama, and the other bus was greeted in Birmingham by a violent mob. Beatings left one of the Freedom Riders paralyzed.
U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy and Department of Justice aide John Seigenthaler negotiated at length with Alabama's governor, John Patterson, before the governor agreed to protect the riders from further violence. On May 20, the Freedom Riders, escorted by state troopers and Greyhound Bus officials, left Birmingham for Montgomery. But once outside the Birmingham city limits, the troopers disappeared.
When the bus pulled into Montgomery, an armed mob descended. Zwerg was the first person off the bus, and was badly beaten. Several of the black riders escaped while the mob beat Zwerg. Seigenthaler, who had followed the bus, was also beaten for trying to help the riders.
Speaking to a TV reporter from his hospital bed, Zwerg insisted that he was willing to be beaten for freedom and that the ride must go on, without him.
On May 24, Robert Kennedy ordered federal marshals to accompany the rest of the Freedom Riders to the next stop in 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.