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*On this date in 1961, Freedom Riders were assaulted in Annison, Alabama.
Young Black and white Americans were protesting interstate travel segregation in the South. They specifically rode to test the 1960 United States Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, reiterating the earlier ruling prohibiting racial segregation in interstate transportation. Riding on a Greyhound bus, these activists were met in Anniston by a mob whose members threw rocks and slashed the bus’s tires. The driver managed to drive the bus a few miles out of town. When he stopped to repair the tires, white supremacists firebombed the vehicle. For that group, the Freedom Ride had ended.
Anniston whites also assaulted the riders in the Trailways bus. They managed to get to Birmingham, where they encountered a larger mob who beat them with baseball bats, lead pipes, and bicycle chains. Enraged by the news of the vicious assaults, Diane Nash, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized a new contingent of Freedom Riders in Nashville. The second group departed from Nashville on May 14 to reinforce the C.O.R.E. Riders in Alabama. Upon their arrival in Birmingham on May 17, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner ordered his police officers to place the activists in protective custody.
The following morning law officials transported the riders back to the Tennessee state line, leaving them on the side of the highway. Instead of abandoning the campaign, Nash led the resilient activists 100 miles back to Nashville to regroup. On May 20, the Nashville riders were back in Birmingham, where there were no incidents. Then all Freedom Riders traveled to Montgomery, where a mob of men, women and children carrying baseball bats, tire irons, and bricks met them at the terminal. Leaving the bus, the angry White gang swarmed, beating the passengers. SNCC activists John Lewis and Jim Zwerg both sustained severe injuries. When White House observer John Seigenthaler attempted to protect two Freedom Riders, Susan Wilbur and Susan Hermann, an attacker knocked him unconscious.
The nationally televised attack strengthened the resolve of the Freedom Riders. James Farmer Jr. arrived to personally lead the rest of the group to Jackson, Mississippi. Law enforcement officials protected them as they traveled across the state. Once in the bus terminal in the Mississippi capital, Jackson city police arrested all demonstrators for violating a recently passed breach of the peace statute. They were convicted and fined $200 each. When the riders refused to pay, the judge sentenced them to 90 days in jail.
These and other Freedom Rides illuminated the courage of Black and white youth and highlighted the leadership of Diane Nash. The Freedom Rides also inspired rural southern blacks to embrace civil disobedience to regain their civil rights. That inspiration would be seen in subsequent campaigns such as Mississippi’s Freedom Summer in 1964 and the Selma Movement in 1965 as well as in dozens of much less heralded efforts to register to vote or to integrate the region’s public schools.
When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America
(New York: Perennial, 2001);
The Children (New York: Random House, 1998);
Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement From 1830 to 1970
(New York: Scribner, 2001).
Mack, Dwayne, Berea College