Most of the riders were college students; many, such as the Episcopal clergymen and contingents of Yale divinity students, had religious affiliations. Some were active in civil rights groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which initiated the Freedom Rides and was founded in 1942 on Mahatma Gandhi's principle of nonviolent protest. The goal of the rides, CORE director James Farmer said as he launched the campaign, was "to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce the law."
The volunteers, from 40 states, received training in nonviolence tactics. Those who could not refrain from striking back when pushed, hit, spit on or doused with liquids while racial epithets rang in their ears were rejected.
As soon as he heard the call for riders, Robert Singleton remembers, he "was fired up and ready to go." He and his wife, Helen, had both been active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and they took 12 volunteers with them from California. "The spirit that permeated the air at that time was not unlike the feeling Barack Obama has rekindled among the youth of today," says Singleton, now 73 and an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Peter Ackerberg, a lawyer who now lives in Minneapolis, said that while he'd always talked a "big radical game," he had never acted on his convictions. "What am I going to tell my children when they ask me about this time?" he recalled thinking. Boarding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, "I was pretty scared," he told Etheridge. "The black guys and girls were singing....They were so spirited and so unafraid. They were really prepared to risk their lives." Today, Ackerberg recalls acquiescing and saying "sir" to a jail official who was "pounding a blackjack." Soon after, "I could hear the blackjack strike [rider C.T. Vivian's] head and him shrieking; I don't think he ever said 'sir.'"
John Lewis, then 21 and already a veteran of sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, was the first Freedom Rider to be assaulted. While trying to enter a whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill, South Carolina, two men set upon him, battering his face and kicking him in the ribs. Less than two weeks later, he joined a ride bound for Jackson. "We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal," Lewis, a Georgia congressman since 1987 and a celebrated civil rights figure, said recently. "We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back."
As riders poured into the South, National Guardsmen were assigned to some buses to prevent violence. When activists arrived at the Jackson bus depot, police arrested blacks who refused to heed orders to stay out of white restrooms or vacate the white waiting room. And whites were arrested if they used "colored" facilities. Officials charged the riders with breach of peace, rather than breaking segregation laws. Freedom Riders responded with a strategy they called "jail, no bail"—a deliberate effort to clog the penal facilities. Most of the 300 riders in Jackson would endure six weeks in sweltering jail or prison cells rife with mice, insects, soiled mattresses and open toilets.
"The dehumanizing process started as soon as we got there," said Hank Thomas, a Marriott hotel franchise owner in Atlanta, who was then a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "We were told to strip naked and then walked down this long corridor.... I'll never forget [CORE director] Jim Farmer, a very dignified man ...walking down this long corridor naked...that is dehumanizing. And that was the whole point."
Jean Thompson, then a 19-year-old CORE worker, said she was one of the riders slapped by a penal official for failing to call him "sir." An FBI investigation into the incident concluded that "no one was beaten," she told Etheridge. "That said a lot to me about what actually happens in this country. It was eye-opening." When prisoners were transferred from one facility to another, unexplained stops on remote dirt roads or the sight of curious onlookers peering into the transport trucks heightened fears. "We imagined every horror including an ambush by the KKK," rider Carol Silver told Etheridge. To keep up their spirits, the prisoners sang freedom songs.