The Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer and grassroots activism

Freedom Rides

Nonviolent protests like the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) Freedom Rides of 1961 played a significant role in the crucial phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement was inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation led by Bayard Rustin, who traveled through the Deep South by public transport with a group of eight black and eight white CORE members. Their aim was to raise awareness for racial segregation in public transport and spaces. Nearly fifteen years later in 1961, public spaces were still mostly segregated in the states of the Deep South, ignoring the fact that segregation had been made unlawful in 1946 by the Supreme Court decision of Morgan v. Virginia. Considering the ongoing ignorance after a second decision passed in 1961 (Boynton v. Virginia), CORE members planned the first Freedom Ride on May 4, 1961. Thirteen riders participated in the journey, led by James “Jim” Farmer. Starting in Washington, D.C., they intended an itinerary that went through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, setting New Orleans, Louisiana as their final destination.

Map 02 08/11
Map of the Freedom Rides between April and December 1961. Source: Civil Rights Movement Veterans

Freedom Riders' Greyhound Bus - Anniston, Alabama, 1961
Freedom Riders having just escaped their Greyhound bus near Anniston, Alabama, where it had been firebombed by a mob. Source: Black Past

The group constituted of an equal number of black and white participants, who would spread throughout the interstate buses, disregarding the assigned sections for whites and blacks. The activists only met minor trouble along their journey to begin with. Inspired their actions, more than 60 Freedom Rides took place in the following months of June, July and August of 1961. Most of them would end in Jackson, Mississippi, where the riders would be confronted with extreme violence or get arrested, in turn causing overcrowded local prisons. Mobs of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members and further opponents of desegregation often attacked and beat the Riders on their arrival at certain bus terminals, the most striking example being that of the bombing of a Greyhound Bus in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961. Other forms of protest against segregation upsprung alongside the Rides, as for example sit-ins or stand-ins in the segregated areas of restaurants and hotels.

Freedom Summer

The Freedom Summer of 1964, also known as Mississippi Summer Project, worked in a similar manner. Small groups of people would gather in order to raise the awareness of the general national public. The project was arranged by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which was formed by a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the major civil rights organizations CORE, SNCC, NAACP and SCLC, with the latter delivering the biggest support, headed by their field secretary Robert “Bob” Moses. The activists concentrated on an attempt to raise voter registrations in the state of Mississippi. By forming Freedom Schools, Houses and Churches, activists managed to raise awareness to the struggle that still existed for African Americans to register their vote since the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

Missing – Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. FBI Poster from 1964. Source: National Museum of American History
Activists singing “We Shall Overcome” in Oxford, Ohio, 1964. Source: Newseum – Ted Polumbaum Photo Collection

What both movements have in common is the nationwide attention and outrage they caused despite a relatively low success rate on an administrative level. The fact that a high number of white participants were involved seems like a sad necessity of the time in order to raise awareness in both cases. In the case of Freedom Summer, the kidnapping and murder of three student activists in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21 1964, two of them white, caused a national and international outcry. The bodies were only found two months later and the investigation made very slow progress for the years to come. This sparked general doubt in federal agencies and the government, especially in the North, where de facto segregation and severe racial discrimination was believed a thing of the past. The coverage of the extreme violence that protesters of both the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer experienced can be seen as crucial eye-openers to the general public.

Horton, James O.; Horton, Lois E.:Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of 
African America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Black Past:


Congress of Racial Equality:

Author: Annika Müller

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