Leader Of The Freedom Riders – Representative John Lewis, who died Friday at the age of 80, was a towering figure in American politics and the civil rights movement. But his legacy of directly confronting racism, while never wavering from his commitment to nonviolence, began long before he became a national figure.
Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, was among the original 13 Freedom Riders who rode buses across the South in 1961 to challenge segregation on public transportation. The riders were attacked and beaten, and one of their buses was bombed, but the rides changed the way people traveled and set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Leader Of The Freedom Riders
In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE, created a “campaign of reconciliation” to draw attention to racial segregation on public transportation in cities and southern states across the United States. This movement was only moderately successful, but it led to the Freedom Rides of 1961, which forever changed the way Americans traveled interstate.
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Freedom Riders at a bus stop in Montgomery, Ala., May 1961. Credit… Paul Schulzer/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images
The Freedom Rides, which began in May 1961 and ended at the end of that year, were organized by CORE’s national director, James Farmer. The mission of the trips was to examine compliance with two Supreme Court rulings: Boynton v. Virginia, which declared that segregated restrooms, waiting rooms, and lunch counters were unconstitutional, and Morgan v. Virginia, in which the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to implement and enforce segregation on buses and trains between countries. The Freedom Rides took place as the civil rights movement gained momentum, and during a time when African Americans were routinely harassed and segregated in the Jim Crow South.
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, bottom center, one of the organizers of the Freedom Rides, and other activists at the Greyhound bus terminal in Birmingham, Ala., in May 1961. Credit… The Birmingham News, via Associated Press
The original Freedom Riders were 13 black and white men and women of various ages from across the United States.
Freedom Riders Mississippi 1961 Breach Peace Portraits
Raymond Arsenault, a civil rights historian and author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” said CORE advertised for participants and solicited applications. “They wanted geographic distribution and age distribution,” he said.
Among those chosen were the Rev. Benjamin Alton Cox, a minister from High Point, N.C., and Charles Press of Atlanta, then a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who was the youngest in the group at 18. “They had anti-nuclear activists; they had a husband-and-wife team from Michigan,” Mr. Arsenault said of the diverse group of attendees.
Mr. Lewis, then 21, represented the Nashville movement, which held department store protests and lunch counter sit-ins. But Mr. Lewis nearly missed his chance to, according to his 1998 autobiography, “go with the wind.” After receiving his bus ticket to Washington, DC from CORE, Mr. Lewis was driven to the bus stop by two friends, James Bevell and Bernard Lafayette. He arrived to find that his scheduled bus had already left. “We threw my bag back in Bewell’s car, sped it east and got caught in Murfreesboro,” Mr. Lewis said.
The original group completed several days of training in Washington, Mr. Arsenault said, and prepared by role-playing how to respond in nonviolent ways to the harassment they would suffer.
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As the traffic grows, so does the number of participants. Later in May, in Jackson, Miss., Mr. Lewis and hundreds of other protesters were arrested and summarily convicted of breaching the peace. Many of the Freedom Riders spent six weeks in prison, languishing in filthy, vermin-infested cells.
A mob bombed one of the Freedom Riders’ buses outside Anniston, Ala., on May 14, 1961. Credit… Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images
On May 4, 1961, the first crew of 13 Freedom Riders left Washington for New Orleans in two buses. The group encountered some resistance in Virginia, but they encountered no violence until they reached Rock Hill, S.C. At the bus stop there, Mr. Lewis and another rider were beaten, and a third man was arrested after using a boys-only car. Services.
When they arrived in Anniston, Ala., on May 14, Mother’s Day, they were met by an angry mob. Local officials gave the Ku Klux Klan permission to attack the riders without consequence. The first bus was bombed outside Aniston while the mob held the door closed. The passengers were beaten as they escaped the burning bus.
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When the second bus arrived in Anniston, eight Clansmen boarded it and attacked and beat the Freedom Riders. The bus was able to continue to Birmingham, Ala., where passengers were again attacked at a bus terminal, this time with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains.
At one point during the trips, Mr. Lewis and others were attacked by a mob of white people in Montgomery, Ala., and he was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound bus terminal. He was imprisoned several times and spent a month in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman prison.
The attacks received wide attention in the news media, but they pushed Mr. Farmer to end the primary campaign. The Freedom Riders ended their journey to New Orleans by plane.
Many more vacation trips followed over the next few months. In the end, 436 riders participated in more than 60 free rides, Mr. Arsenault said.
Freedom Riders: John Lewis And Jim Zwerg On The Front Lines Of The Civil Rights Movement: Bausum, Ann: 9780792241737: Amazon.com: Books
On May 29, 1961, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation on interstate bus rides, according to PBS. The order, which was issued on September 22 and took effect on November 1, led to the removal of Jim Crow signs from stations, waiting rooms, water fountains and bus terminal toilets.
Three years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public spaces across the United States.
Mr. Lewis addressed the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington, which he helped organize. Credit… African American Newspapers/Gado, via Getty Images
Mr. Lewis achieved a certain status as a civil rights activist because he was arrested and beaten so many times, Mr. Arsenault said.
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“He was fearless and absolutely brave, absolutely committed,” he said. “People knew that he always had their back and that they could trust him. He had an unwavering commitment to non-violence.”
In 1963, Mr. Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize the March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“All of that experience and his role with the Freedom Riders really cemented his reputation as this fearless civil rights activist who really had a strategic sense of the power of nonviolence,” said Kevin Gaines, the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia Yania. “Lewis really emerged among a group of very impressive and effective civil rights leaders.”
Derrick Bryson Taylor is a general assignment reporter at the Express Desk. He previously worked for PageSix.com magazine and the New York Post’s Essence magazine. More on Derrick Bryson Taylo Separate facilities for whites and blacks were the norm in the South, like at this Durham, North Carolina bus stop in 1940.
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Hundreds of mug shots, side by side, line by line, fill a movie screen over and over again; Young faces, some still in high school, were beaten and arrested for daring to ride the bus or enter the terminal. There was Joanne Trumpeur, a nineteen-year-old secretary in Washington, DC. After becoming a free rider, she spent months in Parchman State Prison, Mississippi’s toughest prison. Upon her release she returned to college and then in 1964 worked as an organizer of the Freedom Summer. Historian Raymond Arsenault collected all the essential data on Tremfeaure: she later worked for the Smithsonian and elsewhere in the federal government. Today, her married name is Mulholland, and she teaches English as a second language at an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia.
The Nashville Freedom Riders were led by students CT Vivian (left) and Diane Nash, center, who organized other successful nonviolent protests in Tennessee.
And there was Jim Zwerg, who was an exchange student in Wisconsin at Fisk University when he became a Freedom Rider. Arsenault also has his story.
Zwerg was hospitalized after a mob beat him with bats and pipes in Montgomery, Alabama. He became a minister in the United Church of Messiah, then changed career paths in 1975 to become a personnel manager at IBM. He later worked at Hospice in Tucson, and still lives in Tucson, where he retired.
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Arsenault collected 436 such stories. A fifty-four-page appendix in the back of his nearly 700-page 2006 book
Provides a biographical dictionary of every freerider he can find, documenting every rider in every ride, giving their age, gender, hometown, profession or college they attended, and what became of them. The rest of the book carefully documents the great and mundane details of all the events related to the Freedom Rides, when between May and December 1961 a group of people – students, clergy and others of all colors, most of them under
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