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Civil Disobedience and the Freedom Rides: Introductory Essay

Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive

One of the ways African American communities fought legal segregation was through direct action protests, such as boycotts, sit-ins, and mass civil disobedience. The tactic of non-violence civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement was deeply influenced by the model of Mohandas Gandhi, an Indian lawyer who became a spiritual leader and led a successful nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial power in India. Gandhi's approach of non-violent civil disobedience involved provoking authorities by breaking the law peacefully, to force those in power to acknowledge existing injustice and bring it to an end. For its followers, this strategy involved a willingness to suffer and sacrifice oneself.

In 1960, black college students used non-violent civil disobedience to fight against segregation in restaurants and other public places. On February 1, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the whites-only lunch counter in Woolworth's and politely ordered some food. As expected, they were refused service, but they remained sitting at the counter until the store closed. The next day, they were joined by more than two dozen supporters. On day three, 63 of the 66 lunch counter seats were filled by students. By the end of the week, hundreds of black students and a few white supporters filled the lunch counters at Woolworth's and another store down the street.

The sit-ins attracted national attention, and city officials tried to end the confrontation by negotiating an end to the protests. But white community leaders were unwilling to change the segregation laws, so in April, students began the sit-ins again. After the mass arrest of student protestors on the charge of trespassing, the African American community organized a boycott of targeted stores. When the merchants felt the economic impact of the boycott, they relented, and on July 25, 1960, African Americans were served their first meal at Woolworth's.

The success of the Greensboro sit-ins led to a wave of similar protests across the South. More than 70,000 people – mostly black students, joined by some white allies – participated in sit-ins over the next year and a half, with more than 3,000 arrested for their actions.

Like the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides of 1961 were designed to provoke arrests, though in this case to prompt the Justice Department to enforce already existing laws banning segregation in interstate travel and terminal accommodations. These were not the first Freedom Rides. In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization devoted to interracial, nonviolent direct action led by the African American pacifist Bayard Rustin, co-sponsored a bus ride through the South with the Christian pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, to test compliance with 1946 Morgan v. Virginia decision that prohibited segregation on interstate buses. Those first Freedom Riders were arrested in North Carolina when they refused to leave the bus. In 1961, James Farmer – one of CORE's founders and its national director – decided to hold another interracial Freedom Ride, with support from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded in 1957 by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, founded in 1909).

The Freedom Ride began in Washington DC in May, with two interracial groups traveling on public buses headed toward Alabama and Mississippi. (John Lewis, who appears in Unit 2 lesson 7 and Unit 3 lesson 5, was among those on the first buses of Freedom Riders.) They faced only isolated harassment until they reached Anniston, Alabama, where an angry mob attacked one bus, breaking windows, slashing its tires, and throwing a firebomb through the window. The mob violently beat the Freedom Riders with iron bars and clubs while the bus burned. The second bus was also brutally attacked in Anniston. Violence followed both buses to Birmingham, where a mob beat the Freedom Riders while the police and the FBI watched and did nothing. No bus would take the remaining Freedom Riders on to Montgomery, so they flew to New Orleans on a special flight arranged by the Justice Department.

The CORE-sponsored Freedom Ride disbanded, but SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960) took up the project, gathering new volunteers to continue the rides. A new group of Freedom Riders, students from Nashville led by Diane Nash -- a young African American woman -- gathered in Birmingham and departed for Montgomery on May 20. The Montgomery bus station, which initially seemed deserted, filled with a huge mob when the passengers got off the bus. Several Freedom Riders were severely injured, as were journalists and observers. The mob violence and indifference of the Alabama police attracted negative international press for the Kennedy Administration. In response, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 400 U.S. marshals to prevent further mob violence, and called for a cooling off period, but civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, James Farmer and SNCC leaders insisted that the Freedom Rides would continue. So Robert Kennedy brokered a compromise agreement: if the Freedom Riders were allowed to pass safely through Mississippi, the federal government would not interfere with their arrest in Jackson.

At this point, the Freedom Riders developed a new strategy: fill the jails. They called on civil rights activists to join them on the Freedom Rides, and buses from all over the country headed South carrying activists committed to challenging segregation. Over the course of the summer, more than 300 Freedom Riders were arrested in Jackson, where they refused bail and instead filled the jails, often facing beatings, harassment, and deplorable conditions. More than half of the white Freedom Riders were Jewish.

Judith Frieze, a recent graduate of Smith College, was among those white northerners and many Jews who joined the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961. Arrested in Jackson, she spent six weeks in a maximum security prison. Upon her release, she documented her experience in an 8-part series of articles published in the Boston Globe.

Eventually, the Freedom Rides succeeded in their mission: by the end of 1962, the Justice Department pressed the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue clear rules prohibiting segregation in interstate travel. The experience revealed the hesitancy of the federal government to enforce the law of the land and the intransigence of white resistance to desegregation. But it also strengthened SNCC, whose leadership at a crucial moment of the Freedom Rides led to the project's success and taught these young civil rights activists about the central role of politics, and the importance of appealing to the pragmatism of politicians -- even the President -- in the fight for civil rights.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Civil Disobedience and the Freedom Rides: Introductory Essay." (Viewed on August 29, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civil-disobedience-and-freedom-rides-introductory-essay>.

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