Jim Crow Laws and the American Experience

It would take several decades of legal action and years of nonviolent direct action to spark real change.


The segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as “Jim Crow” represented a formal, codified system of racial apartheid that dominated the American South for three quarters of a century beginning in the 1890s. The laws affected almost every aspect of daily life, mandating segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants. “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs were constant reminders of the enforced racial order.

Signs such as “Colored Waiting Room” constantly reminded travelers of the enforced racial order. Credit: Library of Congress

In legal theory, blacks received “separate but equal” treatment under the law — in actuality, public facilities for blacks were nearly always inferior to those for whites, when they existed at all. In addition, blacks were systematically denied the right to vote in most of the rural South through the selective application of literacy tests and other racially motivated criteria.

Sign at a Greyhound Bus Station in Rome, GA. Credit: Library of Congress

The Jim Crow system was upheld by local government officials and reinforced by acts of terror perpetrated by Vigilantes. In 1896, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson, after a black man in New Orleans attempted to sit in a whites-only railway car.

In 1908, journalist Ray Stannard Baker observed that “no other point of race contact is so much and so bitterly discussed among Negroes as the Jim Crow car.” As bus travel became widespread in the South over the first half of the 20th century, it followed the same pattern.

“Travel in the segregated South for black people was humiliating,” recalled Diane Nash in her interview for Freedom Riders. “The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to black people and white people that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use the public facilities that white people used.”

Transit was a core component of segregation in the South, as the 1947 Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) pamphlet and Bayard Rustin song, “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow” attests. Keeping whites and blacks from sitting together on a bus, train, or trolley car might seem insignificant, but it was one more link in a system of segregation that had to be defended at all times — lest it collapse. Thus transit was a logical point of attack for the foes of segregation, in the courtroom and on the buses themselves.

It would take several decades of legal action and months of nonviolent direct action before these efforts achieved their intended result.

Slow Progress

During the first half of the 20th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other organizations employed a variety of courtroom strategies to chip away at state and municipal Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation. These legal maneuvers achieved important victories, such as Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), in which the Supreme Court struck down segregated seating on interstate buses as a violation of the interstate commerce clause.

A Freedom Rider is searched after being charged with “breach of peace.” Credit: Corbis

With state governments bent on preserving a white supremacist system and a federal government eager to hold onto white Southern votes, these legal victories did little to change the immediate reality of daily life for African-Americans in the segregated South. However, over time these legal challenges provided the framework for overturning the apparatus of segregation. Legal victories also gave nonviolent activists greater moral authority in their confrontations with segregationists. In campaigns such as the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and the 1961 Freedom Rides, activists could proclaim that they were simply exercising their constitutional rights, even as local authorities carted them off to jail.

James Peck (right) outside the Trailways Bus station in the Port Authority Terminal. Credit: Corbis

The findings of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme U.S. Court established the “separate but equal” doctrine, was not fully overturned for 58 years — until 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education declared the segregation of public schools unconstitutional. Token school desegregation occurred in Little Rock, AR and other parts of the South, but the pace of change was slow. Many Jim Crow laws remained on the books and were vigorously enforced well into the 1960s. The system would not be officially dismantled until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 overturned state Jim Crow laws. This far-reaching federal legislation was prompted by the actions of the Freedom Riders and other direct action campaigns in the Civil Rights Movement, but it could not have happened without the series of victories won in the courts during earlier decades.

Freedom to Travel

The victory won by the Freedom Riders was decisive and unambiguous, expanding the freedom of African-Americans to travel through the United States.

One of 436 Freedom Riders in 1961. Credit: Getty Images

Since the institution of Jim Crow laws at the close of the 19th century, African-Americans in the South had been forced to endure substandard, segregated conditions while traveling on railways and buses. Blacks were forced to sit in the back of the bus and forced to use separate waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and rest rooms. In addition to the humiliation of segregated facilities, the threat of violence was always present for black travelers.

“You didn’t know what you were going to encounter,” said Freedom Rider Charles Person. “You had night riders, you had hoodlums. You could be antagonized at any point in your journey. Most of the time it was very, very difficult to plan a trip.”

John Lewis (right) and other Freedom Riders are escorted by a police officer out of the Birmingham, AL Greyhound Bus terminal. Credit: Birmingham News

On July 16, 1944, Irene Morgan was arrested by the sheriff of Middlesex County, Virginia, after refusing to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus while traveling home from Baltimore, MD. The legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took up her case, and on June 3, 1946, the U.S Supreme Court ruled in her favor, striking down racial segregation on interstate buses as a violation of the interstate commerce clause. In December 1960, Boynton v. Virginia expanded the Morgan decision, outlawing segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters, and restroom facilities for interstate passengers. However, both rulings were largely ignored in the Deep South.

On May 4, 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began a racially integrated Freedom Ride through the South on Greyhound and Trailways buses as a way to test whether buses and station facilities were compliant with the Supreme Court rulings. The ride was met with unprecedented violence, including the burning of a bus in Anniston, AL and riots in Birmingham, AL and Montgomery, AL. Further Rides followed, organized by various groups and individuals, as a way to draw national attention to the harsh reality of segregation and put pressure on the federal government to enforce the law.

On September 22, 1961, after six months of protests, arrests, and press conferences by the Freedom Riders, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) finally outlawed discriminatory seating practices on interstate bus transit and ordered the removal of “whites only” signs from interstate bus terminals by November 1. Activists vowed to step up the pressure to enforce the ruling. While pockets of racist resistance persisted for several years, even segregationist Birmingham, AL had conceded the issue by January 1962.

The signs came down. More than simply a moral victory or a public relations coup, the victory won by the Freedom Riders changed the everyday lives of black travelers throughout the South, through the remainder of the 1960s and beyond.

Victory for Nonviolence

C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash lead march to Nashville City Hall. Credit: The Nashville Tennessean

The Freedom Rides demonstrated the power of nonviolent direct action to achieve strategic victory. Along with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the student lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides were one of the earliest demonstrations that Gandhian principles of nonviolence could prove effective in the American civil rights movement.

From its founding by pacifists in 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was committed to practicing methods of nonviolent direct action. Similarly Rev. Jim Lawson, part of the second wave of Freedom Riders, had studied nonviolent philosophy and techniques in India and trained future leaders of the Nashville Student Movement prior to their involvement in the lunch counter sit-in campaigns. Training and role-playing in nonviolent techniques were part of the preparation for CORE’s original May 4 Freedom Ride. But the greatest education came from the Rides themselves.

Freedom Riders from California are held at Harris County jail in Houston, TX after refusing to post $500 bonds. The group was arrested on charges of unlawful assembly after trying to get service at the coffee shop of the train station. Credit: AP

The Freedom Riders were able to remain nonviolent when their lives were in danger, despite the burning of the Greyhound Bus near Anniston, AL on May 14 and the brutal riots in Birminghm, AL on May 14 and Montgomery, AL on May 20. Their courage and stoicism, even when beaten and bloodied, left a deep impression on the nation and the world. Nonviolence drew a stark contrast between the actions of the Freedom Riders and those of their segregationist foes, while at the same time bringing the injustice of racial oppression starkly into the spotlight.

The success of the Freedom Rides showed that nonviolent direct action could do more than simply claim the moral high ground; in many situations, it could deliver better tactical results than either violent confrontation or gradual change through established legal mechanisms.

Fresh waves of Riders would arrive to take the places of those Riders who had already been injured and jailed. Movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who initially considered the Freedom Rides too risky became outspoken supporters, paving the way for nonviolent actions like the Birmingham campaign of 1963 and the Selma to Montgomery Marches for voting rights of 1965.

“They understood that the only way it could be done in America is through peaceful methods,” said Rabbi Israel “SI” Dresner. “The Freedom Rides illustrated that.”

Spirit of the Times

Midway between the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision and the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the Freedom Rides captured the zeitgeist of the decade to come. They were a product of their era, but they also shaped the events that followed.

Credit: LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe

Why were the Freedom Rides of 1961 so effective, when the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) similar 1947 Journey of Reconciliation ride, also intended to test interstate bus desegregation, failed to ignite a fire? Multiple reasons exist — from the decision not to venture into the Deep South by organizers of the 1947 ride, to the Journey of Reconciliation’s less memorable name — but external social factors played a major role.

The emergence of 1960s counterculture and opposition to the Vietnam War were still several years away, but the seeds for these changes — and for the success of the Freedom Rides — were already present in American life. In particular, television dramatized faraway events and gave them immediate impact. When Americans saw the images of the burning bus in Anniston, AL it brought the conflict into their living rooms and forced them to choose a side. The Freedom Rides were an early example of the way in which television could amplify the effects of social protest, just as images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 or battle scenes from the 1968 Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War would shift public opinion in the years to come.

Marchers carrying banner lead way as 15,000 parade in Harlem. Credit: Library of Congress

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 introduced a new brand of patriotic rhetoric, a challenge to all Americans to do more for their country and its stated ideals. In 1961, Cold War politics still reigned supreme on the national and international stage, but the vehement anti-communism of the early 1950s had begun to fade. Civil rights were not initially a major concern for John F. Kennedy, but movement activists hoped that the new President might be more sympathetic to their cause than the complacent, consensus-oriented Eisenhower administration it had replaced. While the Kennedy administration’s support was grudging and qualified, it nevertheless yielded concrete results, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC) September 22, 1961 ruling to outlaw racial discrimination interstate bus transit and remove “whites only” signs from interstate bus terminals, and the Kennedy-endorsed Voter Education Project that prefigured the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, and ultimately, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Most important of all, the Freedom Riders were able to build on the momentum of previous legal victories and mass movements for civil rights and social justice.

Historian Raymond Arsenault wrote in his book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Jusice, “The legal successes of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the gathering strength of the Civil Rights Movement in the years since the Second World War, not to mention the emerging decolonization of the Third World, infused Freedom Riders with the belief that the arc of history was finally bending in the right direction. Racial progress, if not inevitable, was at least possible, and the Riders were determined to do all they could to accelerate the pace of change.”

Movement Leaders

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Montgomery, AL

Credit: Flip Schulke/Corbis

Rev. Ralph Abernathy was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and beyond. As the young pastor of First Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, he and Martin Luther King, Jr. were among the leaders of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott organized in response to the arrest of Rosa Parks.

In 1961, Abernathy’s First Baptist Church was the site of the May 21 “siege” where an angry mob of white segregationists surrounded 1,500 people inside the sanctuary. At one point, the situation seemed so dire that Abernathy and King considered giving themselves up to the mob to save the men, women, and children in the sanctuary.

When reporters asked Abernathy to respond to Robert Kennedy’s complaint that the Freedom Riders were embarrassing the United States in front of the world, Abernathy responded, “Well, doesn’t the Attorney General know we’ve been embarrassed all our lives?”

On May 25, Abernathy was arrested on breach of peace charges after escorting William Sloane Coffin’s Connecticut Freedom Ride to the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Terminal, neither the first nor the last instance of civil disobedience in a lifetime of activism.

After Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Abernathy took up the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Poor People’s Campaign and led the 1968 March on Washington. Ralph Abernathy died in 1990.

Stokely Carmichael, Bronx, NY

Credit: Mississippi Department of Archives & History

At the time of the Freedom Rides, Stokely Carmichael was a 19-year-old student at Howard University, the son of West Indian immigrants to New York City. Carmichael made the journey to Jackson, MS from New Orleans, LA on June 4, 1961 by train, along with eight other riders, including Joan Trumpauer.

The group was ushered by Jackson police to a waiting paddy wagon; all Riders refused bail. Carmichael was transferred to Parchman State Prison Farm, which proved to be a crucible and testing ground for future Movement leaders. Other Freedom Riders recalled his quick wit and hard-nosed political realism from their shared time at Parchman.

The acerbic Carmichael would go on to become one of the leading voices of the Black Power Movement. In 1966 Carmichael became Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chairman and, in 1967, honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party. He moved to West Africa in 1969, and changed his name to Kwame Ture in honor of African leaders Kwame Nkruma and Sekou Toure, later traveling the world as a proponent of the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party. He died in Conakry, Guinea in 1998 of prostate cancer at the age of 57.

In his posthumously published autobiography, Carmichael spoke about the significance of the Freedom Rides: “CORE would be sending an integrated team-black and white together-from the nation’s capital to New Orleans on public transportation. That’s all. Except, of course, that they would sit randomly on the buses in integrated pairs and in the stations they would use waiting room facilities casually, ignoring the white/colored signs. What could be more harmless… in any even marginally healthy society?”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta, GA

Credit: Corbis

The best known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in Atlanta, GA, the son of prominent pastor Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL when he was 25 years old. He received national attention for his role in the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott to end segregated city buses. He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and served as its first president.

King’s support for CORE’s Freedom Ride campaign was initially limited and cautious. At a reception held for the Freedom Riders in Atlanta, he passed on warnings of planned Klan violence ahead, telling the Riders, “You will never make it through Alabama.”

Later, after the Freedom Riders had made their way to Montgomery, AL, he spoke eloquently on behalf of their campaign to the national media and from the pulpit at First Baptist Church, just prior to its siege and firebombing. King was an active participant in strategy sessions over the next three days, as the Riders holed up in the Montgomery mansion of Dr. Richard Harris. However, King declined to become a Freedom Rider himself, disappointing several of the younger Riders, who mockingly referred to him as “De Lawd.”

Later in the decade, King worked with many of the new leaders who emerged from the Freedom Rides on campaigns such as the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery Marches to achieve important Movement victories, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Prior to his assassination in 1968, King had shifted his efforts on the Poor Peoples Campaign to combat economic injustice and opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1986 Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday.

Diane Nash, Chicago, IL

By 1961, Diane Nash had emerged as one of the most respected student leaders of the sit-in movement in Nashville, TN. Raised in middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Nash attended Howard University before transferring to Nashville’s Fisk University in the fall of 1959. Shocked by the extent of segregation she encountered in Tennessee, she was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. In February 1961 she served jail time in solidarity with the “Rock Hill Nine” — nine students imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in. 

When the students learned of the bus burning in Anniston, AL and the riot in Birmingham, AL, Nash argued that it was their duty to continue. 

“It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence,” says Nash in Freedom Riders

Elected coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Ride, Nash monitored the progress of the Ride from Nashville, Tennnesse, recruiting new Riders, speaking to the press, and working to gain the support of national Movement leaders and the federal government. 

Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy John Seigenthaler recalls a phone conversation with Nash where he tried to dissuade the Nashville Freedom Riders from going to Alabama, warning of the violence ahead. Nash replied that the Riders had signed their last wills and testaments prior to departure. 

In his interview for Freedom Riders, Seigenthaler recalls, “She in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.” 

Nash played a key role in bringing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery, AL on May 21 in support of the Riders. She herself was present for the violent siege of First Baptist Church. 

Later that same year, she married Freedom Rider James Bevel. In 1962, she was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, MS, although she was four months pregnant. She was later released on appeal. Nash played a major role in the Birmingham de-segregation campaign of 1963 and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965, before returning to her native Chicago to work in education, real estate and fair housing advocacy. She received an honorary degree from Fisk University in 2009.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Credit: ITN Source

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was Birmingham’s leading civil rights activist at the time of the Freedom Rides. A co-founder of the SCLC, he welcomed the Freedom Riders who showed up on his doorstep on May 14, bleeding and battered after the riot at the Trailways bus terminal and the Anniston bombing.

He offered the group shelter at the parsonage while seeking medical care for the badly injured Charles Person and Jim Peck.

That evening, Shuttlesworth spoke at a mass meeting at Bethel Baptist Church. “This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to Alabama, and it has been good for the nation,” he insisted. “No matter how many times they beat us up, segregation has still got to go.”

Shuttlesworth planned to join the Freedom Riders on their May 20 ride to Montgomery, but was arrested at the Birmingham Greyhound Bus Terminal on the charge of refusing to obey a police officer. He later traveled to Montgomery along with other Movement leaders to support the Riders and was present during the siege and firebombing of First Baptist Church. Shuttlesworth was arrested while escorting William Sloane Coffin and other members of the Connecticut Freedom Ride to the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Terminal.

In 1961, Shuttlesworth moved to Cincinnati to be pastor of Revelation Baptist Church. However, he remained active in the Deep South Civil Rights struggle, including the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963.

He returned to Birmingham after his retirement in 2007. In 2008, Birmingham’s airport officially changed its name to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

U.S. Federal Government

J. Edgar Hoover

Credit: Associated Press

The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation whose power base extended past presidential authority, J. Edgar Hoover was a racial conservative who considered many Civil Rights Movement activists to be dangerous subversives and Communist sympathizers.

Claiming that the FBI was “not a protection agency,” Hoover had ordered agents to avoid intervening in civil rights crises and to limit their activities to observation and note-taking. In addition, he had ordered surveillance of several key figures in the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr..

Hoover chose not to pass along intelligence received from Klansman and FBI operative Gary Thomas Rowe to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the planned May 14 riot at the Birmingham Trailways Bus Terminal, giving the Kennedy administration no way to prevent the violence. At the May 20 riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, Hoover’s FBI agents stayed inside several parked vans taking pictures. The agents’ film later turned out to be defective.

J. Edgar Hoover served as Director of the FBI for mare than 40 years, through the terms of 9 presidents.

Robert F. Kennedy, Brookline, MA

Credit: Corbis

Robert F. Kennedy became Attorney General in January 1961, after his brother John F. Kennedy won election as President of the United States. Robert Kennedy had given a speech expressing the administration’s support of civil rights to a Southern white audience a few days after the start of the Freedom Rides on May 6. However the issue was not yet a major priority for a Kennedy White House preoccupied with Cold War politics.

Caught off guard by the violence that erupted during the May 14 Anniston, AL bus burning and the riot at Birmingham Trailways Bus Station, Robert Kennedy dispatched special assistant John Seigenthaler to Birmingham, AL to aid the embattled CORE Freedom Riders. Seigenthaler helped arrange a plane flight from Birmingham to New Orleans, LA. Robert Kennedy sought protection for the Riders by Alabama state officials like Gov. John Patterson, with limited success, eventually sending in U.S. Marshals to protect the Riders during the May 21 siege and firebombing of the First Baptist Church.

Kennedy’s avowed wish was for a “cooling off” period, in which civil rights leaders pursued voting rights issues rather than conducting violence-provoking direct action that embarrassed the United States on the world stage. He struck a compromise with Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, allowing the Riders to be jailed in exchange for the Riders’ safety, explaining that the Federal Government’s “primary interest was that they weren’t beaten up.”

On May 25, 1961, Robert F. Kennedy delivered an idealistic radio broadcast for Voice of America, defending America’s record on race relations to the rest of the world, insisting that “there is no reason that in the near or the foreseeable future, a Negro could [not] become President of the United States.”

Just four days later, on May 29, he formally petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to adopt “stringent regulations” prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel. The proposed order, issued on September 22 and effective on November 1, removed Jim Crow signs in stations and ended segregation of waiting rooms, water fountains, and restrooms in interstate bus terminals later that same year, giving the Freedom Riders an unequivocal victory in their campaign.

The Freedom Rides campaign was an opportunity for the Kennedy brothers to begin building a rapport with civil rights leaders through phone conversations, meetings, and cautious collaborations. These ties to the Civil Rights Movement would only deepen in the coming years.

In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy was elected as U.S. Senator for New York. He was assassinated on June 5, 1968 while he campaigned for President.

John F. Kennedy

Credit: NBC

President John F. Kennedy had campaigned in part on a moderately pro-civil rights platform, but in the spring of 1961, his first priority was Cold War politics. Kennedy wanted to avoid embarrassing headlines in the weeks leading up to his June summit meeting in Vienna with Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev.

“Can’t you get your Goddamned friends off those buses?” Kennedy complained to Harris Wofford, a Justice Department official close to the Civil Rights Movement. “Stop them.”

Even as Alabama Governor John Patterson dodged Kennedy’s phone calls, the President and other administration officials worked to guarantee the physical safety of Freedom Riders, deploying U.S. Marshals to protect the Riders during the May 21 siege and firebombing of the Montgomery, AL First Baptist Church and mobilizing the National Guard. His administration permitted the Freedom Riders to be imprisoned in Mississippi on flimsy breach-of-peace charges, but also put pressure on the Interstate Commerce Commission to remove Jim Crow signs and end segregation of interstate bus travel facilities.

The events of the Freedom Rides paved the way for the administration to align itself more decisively in support of Civil Rights. Kennedy sent federal troops to the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963, to protect black students attempting to enroll. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy gave a speech calling upon Congress to pass a comprehensive Civil Rights bill, stressing that Americans were “confronted primarily with a moral issue, not a legislative or political one.”

The resulting legislation would be passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

John Seigenthaler, Nashville, TN

John Seigenthaler was a native of Nashville, TN who worked as a newspaper reporter at The Nashville Tennessean prior to working with Robert Kennedy on a committee investigating organized crime. In January 1961 he became a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Seigenthaler described his privileged upbringing and how it left him blind to the problems of Jim Crow. 

“I grew up in the South, the child of good and decent parents…” he recalls in Freedom Riders. “I don’t know where my head or heart was, or my parents’ heads and hearts, or my teachers’. I never heard it once from the pulpit. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change.” 

As special assistant to the Attorney General, Seigenthaler initially served as the intermediary between the federal government, the Freedom Riders, and white segregationist state officials. His task was to convince the Freedom Riders to cease their direct action and accept a “cooling off” period, while ensuring their physical safety from mob violence. The administration believed that as a white Southerner from Tennessee, Seigenthaler would share a common bond with Governor Patterson of Alabama and other members of the Deep South establishment. 

“I’d go in, my Southern accent dripping sorghum and molasses, and warm them up,” he explained. 

Seigenthaler successfully arranged for the original CORE Freedom Riders to depart from Birmingham on May 15 by plane, after a lack of willing bus drivers had blocked their progress. However, he soon learned that the federal government held little sway on the issue of race relations in Alabama. He was knocked unconscious while attempting to aid two Freedom Riders during the May 20 riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, after telling assailants to stop and respect his authority as a federal official. 

Seigenthaler went on to work on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, before returning to journalism. He later became editor, publisher, and CEO of Nashville’s The Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today. He founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 1961 with the mission of creating national discussion about First Amendment rights and values.

Other Figures

Eugene “Bull” Connor, Selma, AL

Eugene “Bull” Connor was Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety in 1961 when the Freedom Riders came to town. He was known as an ultra-segregationist with close ties to the KKK. Connor encouraged the violence that met the CORE Freedom Riders at the Birmingham Trailways Bus station by promising local Klansmen that, “He would see to it that 15 or 20 minutes would elapse before the police arrived.”

Connor was active in Alabama politics for many decades. In 1962 he sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, beginning his campaign in January by promising to buy “one hundred new police dogs for use in the event of more Freedom Rides.” Connor was eliminated in the May 8 primary and ultimately endorsed the eventual winner, George Wallace.

Connor stayed in the national news in the spring of 1963 when the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC) brought Project C (for Confrontation) to Birmingham. The police tried to control thousands of nonviolent protesters, including children, with high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written during this time.

Irene Morgan, Baltimore, MD

Credit: Afro American

Eleven years before Rosa Parks, Irene Morgan was arrested in Virginia for refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger. She was convicted on October 18, 1944 at the Middlesex County Circuit Court, but appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court where her conviction was upheld. With help from NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1946. Though narrowly interpreted, the Court’s decision struck down state laws requiring segregated seating for interstate bus travel. In 1947 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sent 16 volunteers on the Journey of Reconciliation to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Fourteen years later, however, the unconstitutional practice of racially segregated seating on interstate buses continued throughout the Deep South, prompting CORE to organize the Freedom Rides in 1961 in an effort to focus national attention on the issue.

John Patterson, Goldville, AL

John Patterson was elected the 44th Governor of Alabama and served from 1959 – 1963. He was an early and important supporter of John F. Kennedy for President in 1960 and later visited the President in the White House. Patterson was elected Governor on a strong segregationist platform. Patterson knew of the potential for violence when the CORE Freedom Riders reached Alabama on May 14, 1961. His Director of the Alabama Highway Patrol, Floyd Mann, positioned two undercover patrolmen on the Greyhound bus that was firebombed outside Anniston, AL. Determined to win political points with Alabama segregationists, Patterson later proclaimed that he would stand, “against Martin Luther King and these rabble-rousers.” During the Freedom Rider crisis, Patterson refused to take a phone call from President John F. Kennedy. He struggled to keep U.S. troops out of the conflict that escalated in Montgomery outside the First Baptist Church, eventually calling out the Alabama National Guard.

Howard K. Smith (CBS)

Credit: BBC/CBS

When the CORE Freedom Ride arrived, national CBS News correspondent Howard K. Smith was already in Birmingham, AL, working on a television documentary investigating allegations of lawlessness and racial intimidation in the Southern city. A native of Louisiana, Smith was still trying to decide if the claims were exaggerated.

On the night of May 13, Smith received a phone call tipping him off to hang around the downtown bus stations the next day “if he wanted to see some real action.” Smith thus witnessed the May 14 “Mother’s Day” riot at the Birmingham Trailways Bus Station, as a vicious mob of Klansmen attacked Freedom Riders and innocent bystanders alike with pipes and baseball bats. After the riot, Smith helped the badly injured Riders Jim Peck and Walter Bergman to hail a cab.

Later in the day, Smith delivered a shocking account of the riot over the national CBS radio network. “One passenger was knocked down at my feet by 12 of the hoodlums,” he reported, “and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp.” He warned of “a dangerous confusion in the Southern mind” and urged that the “laws of the land and purposes of the nation badly need a basic restatement,” perhaps by the United States President.

The presence of Smith and other members of the news media helped shift public opinion in favor of the Freedom Riders and may well have saved lives by causing the mob to refrain from lethal violence.

Decades later, Smith testified in the 1982-1983 lawsuit by Bergman against the Federal Government, seeking damages for the injuries he had sustained in the riot, in which paid FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. was an active participant.

The Cold War

President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office with his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Credit: Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Although John F. Kennedy reached out to the jailed Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960 presidential campaign, civil rights were not a major concern for the Kennedy administration. Rather, Cold War politics were front and center. Staunchly anti-communist, John F. Kennedy used his inaugural address to speak about spreading freedom throughout the world — a goal contradicted by the large number of black Americans still lacking basic freedoms and civil rights.

The Freedom Rides did not come at a convenient time for the administration. The president was still smarting from the failed April 17 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which a group of U.S.—sponsored Cuban exiles had attempted to land by boat and overthrow Castro’s regime, and he was preoccupied with preparing for his upcoming Vienna summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev on June 3, 1961. In the interim came headlines and televised images of a burning bus in Anniston, AL and savage beatings in Birmingham, AL.

Headline from the Montgomery Advertiser. Credit: Montgomery Advertiser

“For the Kennedy brothers, domestic affairs were an afterthought, and the Civil Rights Movement was an afterthought beyond an afterthought,” said activist and NAACP leader Julian Bond in his interview for Freedom Riders. “Now all of a sudden the whole world was watching.”

Communist nations were quick to see the propaganda value of the violence accompanying Freedom Rides, especially for the populations of newly independent nations in Africa and Asia. The story of the Freedom Riders was broadcast around the world. The Kennedy administration found itself on the defensive. In response, Robert F. Kennedy delivered an address for the Voice of America claiming that great progress had been made on the issue of race relations, and that a person of color might one day be president of the United States. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the administration worked with leaders in the Civil Rights Movement and white segregationist authorities to resolve the crisis with a minimum of violence and prevent the Freedom Riders from generating a fresh crop of headlines that might divert attention from the President’s international agenda.

The back burner issue of civil rights had collided with the urgent demands of Cold War realpolitik. From this point forward, the events of the Civil Rights Movement would play out on an international as well as a domestic stage.

The Solid South

When the Kennedy administration finally chose to intervene on behalf of the Freedom Riders, they did so at significant political cost. In 1960, due to restrictive and racially discriminatory voter registration practices, the overwhelming majority of voters in the segregated South was white. This bloc of voters, the so-called “Solid South,” was key to the fortunes of the Democratic Party.

JFK campaigning at a rally in Georgia.Credit: Getty Images

“The base of the Democratic party was the essentially white, voting South,” said journalist Evan Thomas in his interview for Freedom Riders.

Voters in these states had helped elect John F. Kennedy as president in an extraordinarily close race against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. Segregationist Alabama governor John Patterson endorsed Kennedy as a candidate early in the race and served as a key political ally in his campaign.

“I knew that you couldn’t run for President on a segregation ticket,” said Patterson many years later, “but I felt that if we ever got in a situation where we needed some understanding from the federal government in regard to our problems down here, we’d get an audience.”

John F. Kennedy and Alabama Governor John Patterson are surrounded by supporters at a Kennedy-Johnson rally. Credit: Alabama State Archives

Instead, it was Patterson who chose to sever communications with the federal government, instructing his secretary to say that he had “gone fishing” when the President called after Freedom Riders were jailed in Birmingham, AL.

Despite this snub and the assault on justice department representative John Seigenthaler during the May 20 riot in Montgomery, AL, the administration continued to walk a fine line, mobilizing U.S. Marshalls and National Guard units while entreating state officials to offer protection to the Freedom Riders themselves. The administration’s tacit acceptance of the jail time in Mississippi for Freedom Riders in exchange for guarantees of their physical safety represented another attempt at compromise.

Over time, the Kennedy administration gradually aligned itself with civil rights activists, at the expense of their one-time allies in the segregated South. This trend continued during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Following Johnson’s actions, the democrats lost the support of the Solid South in national presidential elections for the most of the next half century.

Originally published by PBS, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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