Even though the Civil War marked the end of slavery, African-Americans fought for equal rights throughout the century that followed. In the post-Reconstruction era, Jim Crow laws arose and the American South became a region of two segregated societies – whites and African Americans. Attempts to tear down this system in the courts bore little to no fruit. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” accommodations in public places were legal, enshrining a public policy that stayed on the books for decades.
The decision in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned Plessy marked one of the first major victories of the ever-growing Civil Rights Movement. That decision was followed by the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC) decision to ban segregation on interstate bus travel and then in 1960, the Court ruled that the terminals and waiting areas themselves, including restaurants, could not be segregated. The ICC however, neglected to truly enforce its own rules and jurisdiction.
In 1961, a group of black and white individuals decided to take their frustration with the permanence of segregation, and the federal government’s disinterest in putting an end to the discrimination, to a further level. They decided to test the limits of Jim Crow laws by riding two buses together into the Deep South. Two groups, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sponsored the Freedom Riders on their nonviolent protests of Southern segregation.
On May 4, 13 CORE and SNCC members embarked on their Freedom Ride through the American South with plans to engage in nonviolent protest and ensure that desegregation in public locales was being enforced. Many were seasoned protesters; some had even been arrested before. The overall goal was increasing awareness and decreasing segregation.
Their story, as told in the map above is one of resilience and perseverance. Some of the names are recognizable, including Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and John Lewis, while some of the Riders themselves, such as Diane Nash and Henry Thomas, are lesser-known. Facing threats from the Ku Klux Klan and Bull Connor, these protestors played a crucial part in bringing the cruelties of the Jim Crow South to a national audience.