This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first "freedom ride" through the segregated South. In May, 1961, 13 Americans defied social customs that forbade blacks and whites from sitting together on buses, under penalty of law.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1960 that "separate but equal" rules for interstate travel accommodations violated the Constitution. Citizens traveling between states were free to disregard Jim Crow laws. But segregated water fountains and bathrooms at bus stations remained common practices in the South.
After the success of lunch-counter protests, an interracial group of university students, seminarians, and other citizens braved the wrath of white Southern mobs throughout the South to challenge Jim Crow laws at bus stations. Many of the freedom riders belonged to the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Riding Greyhound and Trailways buses through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Mississippi, they encountered harassment and arrest. In Alabama, local police turned a blind eye to unrestrained violence by Ku Klux Klan members who beat the riders and torched their buses.
Undeterred, more students and activists boarded buses to challenge Jim Crow laws in the following weeks. The notorious police chief of Birmingham, Ala., Bull Connor, arrested many of them, although they were quickly released.
President John F. Kennedy ordered Alabama Gov. John Patterson to protect the freedom riders on the road between Birmingham and Montgomery. Although the protesters still were attacked, the number of activists who joined the crusade grew, as did news coverage.
The Kennedy administration pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce bus desegregation rules that had been issued in 1955. By November 1961, "whites only" and "colored only" signs began coming down.
Freedom riders of all colors defied white mobs in their quest to change the country for the better. Today, as many Southerners celebrate the 150th anniversary of secession, the country should remember the Americans who worked bravely to hold this country together.
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