On This Day in History: Remembering the Freedom Rides

There is much to celebrate in the month of May but today we acknowledge the civil rights movement

There is much to celebrate in the month of May—Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Mother's Day, as well as a number of anniversaries marking special events in our nation's history. On today, we turn our focus, slightly, from remembering the Civil War to acknowledging the civil rights movement in the United States, as we remember the Freedom Rides, celebrating its 50th anniversary today.

In the 1960s, racial inequality was legislated through separate eating establishments, drinking facilities, sleeping accommodations, modes of travel and educational institutions, as blacks and whites lived segregated lives, in accordance with the laws of the land. In 1960, the United States Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public transportation in Boynton v. Virginia, citing discrimination as a violation of the the Interstate Commerce Act. The decision, which made it illegal to segregate restaurants, waiting rooms and terminals serving buses that crossed state lines, did little to change the status quo. So on May 4, 1961, a group of courageous men and women, the first of many, set out from Washington, D.C., heading south, to challenge local enforcement of the law.

Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) among others, the Freedom Rides were built around the concept of nonviolent resistance. Hailing from a cross section of the U.S. population, the riders were an overwhelmingly young group, comprised of blacks, whites, men, women, students, clergy—all committed to cause of racial equality. As they traveled deeper into the Jim Crow South, they were met with increased hostility and violence. While attempting to desegregate whites-only waiting rooms and restaurants at bus terminals, they were assaulted, beaten and arrested; their buses attacked and even firebombed.

News and photographs of the violence spread and others joined the movement, swelling the numbers of volunteers to more than 400. They also staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and businesses. The National Guard was eventually assigned to some buses to prevent violence, but the regularly scheduled rides continued for seven months. After the arrests of some volunteers for breach of peace, instead of violating segregation laws, the Freedom Riders employed the "jail, no bail" strategy in an effort to clog the prison system. Many would later fight for years to appeal their convictions.

Finally, on November 6, 1961, spurred by a petition from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy,  an order by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) went into effect, which mandated tougher new regulations, including stiff fines, which led to the  eventual end of segregated bus facilities. Many Freedom Riders would go on to become teachers, ministers, lawyers, journalists, Peace Corps volunteers and politicians. Some, continue to share their stories and continue to fight—nonviolently—for equality.

Today, we remember their sacrifice.

Read more about what happened to some of the Freedom Riders in and since 1961 and check out a photo gallery by veteran magazine editor Eric Etheridge, author of Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, where he juxtaposes some of their mug shots with more recent photos.

On Thursday, May 12, the film Freedom Riders will be screened at 6 PM as part of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. Tickets are already sold out, but you can call (202) 633-3030 to be placed on the Wait List. Additional tickets may become available or additional sessions may be added.

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