For seven months in 1961, more than 400 black and white activists, known as Freedom Riders, took bus trips through the American South to protest segregated bus terminals to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia that declared segregated facilities for interstate passengers illegal.
The original group of 13 Freedom Riders—seven African-Americans, including future Congressman John Lewis and six whites left Washington D.C. on Greyhound bus on May 4. Their plan was to reach New Orleans on May 17th to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown V. Board of Education, which rules that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
In Rock Hill, South Carolina on May 12, Lewis, then a seminary student and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Albert Bigelow, a white Freedom rider and World War II vet and another African-American rider were viciously attacked as they tried to enter a whites-only waiting area.
The worst violence would occur in Anniston, Alabama, where a white mob surrounded a Freedom Rider bus and set it on fire and attacked the passengers as they try to exit. Outside Birmingham, Alabama, a second bus was stopped. Eight white men boarded the bus and savagely beat the non-violent freedom riders with sticks and chains.
Ultimately, President John Kennedy sent federal agents to protect the Freedom Riders, but they need reached to New Orleans. Yet the Interstate Commerce Commission did order the integration of all interstate bus, train, and air terminals. Signs indicating “colored” and “white” sections came down in more than 300 Southern stations.
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