Freedom Rides: A Civil Rights Milestone

Spring ‘61: Federal legislation struck down segregation in America’s transit systems prompting a series of nonviolent protests known as the Freedom Rides

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Starting in the spring of 1961, new federal legislation that struck down segregation in America's transit systems was put to the test with a series of nonviolent protests known as the Freedom Rides. Civil rights activists both black and white boarded buses and ventured southward, stopping at terminals along the way to eat and rest, disregarding any signage throughout the facilities that tried to dictate how different ethnicities must be kept separate. The riders' travels exposed the virulent racism teeming in the deep South as they put their lives on the line while exercising basic civil freedoms.

“Riders endured beatings, bombings, harassment and imprisonment for doing something the Supreme Court had said they had a right to do,” says Brent D. Glass, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Their bravery and commitment to nonviolence demonstrated the power of ordinary citizens to change the nation and inspired future actions.”

The initial ride that departed from Washington, DC in May 1961 had only 13 riders on board, but by November of that year, the movement had more than 400 participants. After five months of protest, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally took a firmer hand in enforcing the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate interstate travel, requiring all buses and terminals to serve travelers without regard to race, color, creed or national origin. (Enforcement, however, was something of an issue. While some states complied, others were bent on maintaining segregationism. Furthermore, the ICC's ruling was limited in that it did not cover air or rail travel.)

To honor the Freedom Riders' work to initiate change, the American History Museum, in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, are sponsoring a national youth summit. The program, intended for middle and high school students, is accessible to anyone with an internet connection—just register online and you will have full access to the live webcast as well as supplementary classroom materials. In addition to scholars and historians offering their insights into this period in history, students will be allowed to talk with four Freedom Riders. For those of you who are unable to participate, you can read up on the series of rides headed into Jackson, Mississippi that served as the basis of the book Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders. Also, be sure to check your local television listings for a PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders, which is slated to premiere on May 16, 2011.

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