The 1961 Freedom Rides, organized by CORE, were modeled after the organization’s 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. During the 1947 action, African-American and white bus riders tested the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Virginia that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional. The 1961 Freedom Rides sought to test a 1960 decision by the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, was unconstitutional as well. A big difference between the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and the 1961 Freedom Rides was the inclusion of women in the later initiative. In both actions, black riders traveled to the American South–where segregation continued to occur–and attempted to use whites-only restrooms, lunch counters and waiting rooms.
The original group of 13 Freedom Riders–seven African Americans and six whites– left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. Their plan was to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional. The group traveled through Virginia and North Carolina, drawing little public notice. The first violent incident occurred on May 12 in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where John Lewis (1940-), an African-American seminary student and influential member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization; white Freedom Rider and World War II (1939-45) Navy veteran Albert Bigelow (1906-93); and another African-American rider were viciously attacked as they attempted to enter a whites-only waiting area. The next day, the group reached Atlanta, Georgia, where some of the riders split off onto a Trailways bus.
The violence and arrests continued to garner national and international attention, and drew hundreds of new Freedom Riders to the cause. The rides continued over the next several months, and that fall, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals.
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