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The Freedom Rides
Remembered on her gravestone as “the original
freedom rider,” 27 year-old Irene Morgan,
employed by a military defense contractor, was
arrested in 1944 en route from Gloucester,
Virginia, to her home in Baltimore, Maryland, for
refusing to abide by segregation ordnances on a
Greyhound bus. Her arrest made national news,
and the NAACP ultimately took her case to the
Supreme Court. In a landmark decision, the Court
ruled that, because Morgan had been travelling on
a bus that crossed state lines, federal law rather
than state law had jurisdiction. The Court’s
majority declared that Morgan’s arrest had been a
violation of her civil rights. In effect, the Court
deemed segregation on interstate transportation
unconstitutional. In practice, segregation would
for years remain widely in place on interstate
buses throughout the South in clear violation of
the Supreme Court ruling.
Morgan v. Virginia (1946)
In 1947, CORE and the
Fellowship of
Reconciliation (FOR)
embarked on what they
called a “Journey of
Reconciliation,” a two-
week precursor to the
1961 Freedom Rides. Six
riders were arrested.
Freedom Rides: The Plan
• Highlight and challenge continued violations of federal court rulings
overturning segregation on interstate transportation, i.e. Morgan v. Virginia
in 1946, Boynton v. Virginia in 1960.
• Force new Kennedy administration to act.
• Begin on a bus in the upper South (D.C.) and continue into the Deep South
states of Mississippi and Alabama.
• Sit at least one Black rider at the front of the bus, at least one white rider at
the back of the bus, at least one interracial pair of riders somewhere in the
middle, and one rider abiding by segregation law so they could contact
CORE and arrange bail in the event the others were arrested.
• According to most accounts, the riders anticipated only minor resistance,
and possibly arrest.
Increasingly frustrated by the failures of the federal government to enforce federal laws,
King concluded in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “the Negro’s greatest
stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku
Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…who
paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”
Kennedy’s lack of support for an important
1957 civil rights bill while a U.S. Senator
prompted NAACP leader Roy Wilkins to
denounce him publicly for “rubbing political
elbows” with Southern segregationists.
Early on in his presidency, King, too,
expressed doubts about Kennedy’s
commitment to civil rights, lamenting, “I’m
convinced that he has the understanding and
the political skill, but so far I’m afraid that the
moral passion is missing.”
CORE leader James Farmer sent numerous
telegraphs urging Kennedy to protect civil rights
activists in the South, but believed that the
president “…wasn’t going to do anything unless
he had to. Politicians respond to anxiety, and Jack
Kennedy was no exception. Furthermore, Jack
Kennedy was particularly ignorant on civil rights
in particular and blacks in general at the time he
became president. He had had no contact with
blacks….[Baseball player] Jackie Robinson
said…that during the 1960 campaign Jack
Kennedy said to him, ‘Mr. Robinson, I don’t know
any Negroes. Would you introduce me to some?’”
At left: A bus carrying freedom riders was firebombed in Anniston, AL (14 May 1961).
At right: A KKK mob attacked freedom riders in Birmingham, AL (17 May 1961).
Freedom Riders John Lewis and Jim Zwerg were severely beaten by a mob at a bus terminal
in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when they attempted to enter the white waiting room together
(20 May 1961).
James Peck
(Birmingham)
Jim Zwerg
(Montgomery)
Zwerg commented years later, “I looked at it [the photo], and what it brings back to me more than
anything else is that I got so much notoriety because I was white…I looked at that picture and I
thought of all the people that never get their names in a book, never get interviewed but literally had
given their lives. Who the hell am I to have my picture up there?”
Every rider who arrived in
Jackson, Mississippi was
arrested, some 300 in total.
Mississippi State Penitentiary
(aka Parchman Farm),
est. 1901. Many Freedom
Riders, including Stokely
Carmichael, served several
weeks there upon their arrest in
Jackson for participating in the
Freedom Rides.
Significance of the Freedom Rides
• Sought to force federal government to intervene to enforce the Supreme Court rulings overturning
segregation on interstate transportation.
• A test of the new Kennedy administration’s stance on civil rights. Kennedy’s initial lack of
response was not encouraging.
• Sparked internal debates among civil rights organization about this tactic. King and the SCLC felt
the rides were too risky and antagonistic and might lead to mass arrests, violence, and death. King
himself refused to participate, citing fears he would be killed.
• Resurrected strategy of “jail, no bail,” not used since Nashville sit-ins.
• Illustrated the paradox of nonviolence as a tactic, as in effect it courted violence in hopes of
garnering publicity. Initiated pattern wherein organizations rallied around movement actions that
were met with violence, even if they had disagreed with that action initially.
• Represented an escalation of student-led direct action, which had been successful in desegregating
lunch counters in the upper South and mid-South but had previously been unable to penetrate the
Deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi.
• Within one year, interstate transportation in the South was almost completely desegregated,
representing a clear victory for the Freedom Riders.

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2.7.23 The Freedom Rides.pptx

  • 2. Remembered on her gravestone as “the original freedom rider,” 27 year-old Irene Morgan, employed by a military defense contractor, was arrested in 1944 en route from Gloucester, Virginia, to her home in Baltimore, Maryland, for refusing to abide by segregation ordnances on a Greyhound bus. Her arrest made national news, and the NAACP ultimately took her case to the Supreme Court. In a landmark decision, the Court ruled that, because Morgan had been travelling on a bus that crossed state lines, federal law rather than state law had jurisdiction. The Court’s majority declared that Morgan’s arrest had been a violation of her civil rights. In effect, the Court deemed segregation on interstate transportation unconstitutional. In practice, segregation would for years remain widely in place on interstate buses throughout the South in clear violation of the Supreme Court ruling. Morgan v. Virginia (1946)
  • 3. In 1947, CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) embarked on what they called a “Journey of Reconciliation,” a two- week precursor to the 1961 Freedom Rides. Six riders were arrested.
  • 4.
  • 5. Freedom Rides: The Plan • Highlight and challenge continued violations of federal court rulings overturning segregation on interstate transportation, i.e. Morgan v. Virginia in 1946, Boynton v. Virginia in 1960. • Force new Kennedy administration to act. • Begin on a bus in the upper South (D.C.) and continue into the Deep South states of Mississippi and Alabama. • Sit at least one Black rider at the front of the bus, at least one white rider at the back of the bus, at least one interracial pair of riders somewhere in the middle, and one rider abiding by segregation law so they could contact CORE and arrange bail in the event the others were arrested. • According to most accounts, the riders anticipated only minor resistance, and possibly arrest.
  • 6. Increasingly frustrated by the failures of the federal government to enforce federal laws, King concluded in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” Kennedy’s lack of support for an important 1957 civil rights bill while a U.S. Senator prompted NAACP leader Roy Wilkins to denounce him publicly for “rubbing political elbows” with Southern segregationists. Early on in his presidency, King, too, expressed doubts about Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights, lamenting, “I’m convinced that he has the understanding and the political skill, but so far I’m afraid that the moral passion is missing.”
  • 7. CORE leader James Farmer sent numerous telegraphs urging Kennedy to protect civil rights activists in the South, but believed that the president “…wasn’t going to do anything unless he had to. Politicians respond to anxiety, and Jack Kennedy was no exception. Furthermore, Jack Kennedy was particularly ignorant on civil rights in particular and blacks in general at the time he became president. He had had no contact with blacks….[Baseball player] Jackie Robinson said…that during the 1960 campaign Jack Kennedy said to him, ‘Mr. Robinson, I don’t know any Negroes. Would you introduce me to some?’”
  • 8. At left: A bus carrying freedom riders was firebombed in Anniston, AL (14 May 1961). At right: A KKK mob attacked freedom riders in Birmingham, AL (17 May 1961).
  • 9. Freedom Riders John Lewis and Jim Zwerg were severely beaten by a mob at a bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when they attempted to enter the white waiting room together (20 May 1961).
  • 10. James Peck (Birmingham) Jim Zwerg (Montgomery) Zwerg commented years later, “I looked at it [the photo], and what it brings back to me more than anything else is that I got so much notoriety because I was white…I looked at that picture and I thought of all the people that never get their names in a book, never get interviewed but literally had given their lives. Who the hell am I to have my picture up there?”
  • 11. Every rider who arrived in Jackson, Mississippi was arrested, some 300 in total.
  • 12. Mississippi State Penitentiary (aka Parchman Farm), est. 1901. Many Freedom Riders, including Stokely Carmichael, served several weeks there upon their arrest in Jackson for participating in the Freedom Rides.
  • 13.
  • 14. Significance of the Freedom Rides • Sought to force federal government to intervene to enforce the Supreme Court rulings overturning segregation on interstate transportation. • A test of the new Kennedy administration’s stance on civil rights. Kennedy’s initial lack of response was not encouraging. • Sparked internal debates among civil rights organization about this tactic. King and the SCLC felt the rides were too risky and antagonistic and might lead to mass arrests, violence, and death. King himself refused to participate, citing fears he would be killed. • Resurrected strategy of “jail, no bail,” not used since Nashville sit-ins. • Illustrated the paradox of nonviolence as a tactic, as in effect it courted violence in hopes of garnering publicity. Initiated pattern wherein organizations rallied around movement actions that were met with violence, even if they had disagreed with that action initially. • Represented an escalation of student-led direct action, which had been successful in desegregating lunch counters in the upper South and mid-South but had previously been unable to penetrate the Deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi. • Within one year, interstate transportation in the South was almost completely desegregated, representing a clear victory for the Freedom Riders.

Editor's Notes

  1. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion," King wrote, "that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice... who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."
  2. CORE leader James Farmer, who sent numerous telegraphs urging President Kennedy to intercede to stop violence against civil rights activists in the South, later recalled, ““…he wasn’t going to do anything unless he had to. Politicians respond to anxiety, and Jack Kennedy was no exception. Furthermore, Jack Kennedy was particularly ignorant on civil rights in particular and blacks in general at the time he became president. He had had no contact with blacks. The late Jackie Robinson said, and I guess this can be taken as truth, that during the 1960 campaign Jack Kennedy said to him, ‘Mr. Robinson, I don’t know any Negroes. Would you introduce me to some?’” –Let Us Begin Anew
  3. http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/05/16/Zwerg.freedom.rides/index.html
  4. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/07/27/john-lewis-freedom-riders-montgomery-alabama-family-hosted/5515859002/
  5. “I looked at it [the photo], and what it brings back to me more than anything else is that I got so much notoriety because I was white…I looked at that picture and I thought of all the people that never get their names in a book, never get interviewed but literally had given their lives. Who the hell am I to have my picture up there?”
  6. 1930s. Superintendent’s home.
  7. James Lawson, Jackson, MS, May 24 1961
  8. https://www.crmvet.org/riders/freedom_rides.pdf