Get On The Bus: 50 Years Of 'Freedom Rides' Wednesday markets the 50th anniversary of the start of the Freedom Rides, when an integrated group of Civil Rights activists rode together by bus through the deep South challenging integration. Historian Raymond Arsenault recounts their journey in Freedom Riders.
NPR logo

Get On The Bus: 50 Years Of 'Freedom Rides'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Get On The Bus: 50 Years Of 'Freedom Rides'

Get On The Bus: 50 Years Of 'Freedom Rides'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Raymond Arsenault is the author of the book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Terry spoke with him in 2006.


Raymond Arsenault, welcome to FRESH AIR. We heard James Farmer describing that the Freedom Riders didn't want to be bailed out of the Parchman prison. What was the philosophy behind that jail, no bail approach they took?

Professor RAYMOND ARSENAULT (University of South Florida): This was one of the most controversial innovations of the Congress of Racial Equality.

There had been talk about jail, no bail for years, in the late 1950s, but no one had either marshaled enough courage or audacity to try it on any kind of mass level. And the first jail, no bail actually took place in Tallahassee, Florida. A young activist named Patricia Stephens(ph) and several other activists decided to take Gandhian philosophy literally and to fill the jails as best they could.

And then there are another jail, no bail incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in early 1961, and this gave the CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, leaders hope that this could become kind of standard operating procedure in the movement. But the freedom rides was really the first time this was tried on any kind of mass level.

GROSS: Why was it controversial within the civil rights movement?

Prof. ARSENAULT: It seemed to go against common sense. It seemed counterintuitive, I think, to a lot of people. Thurgood Marshall made a famous statement in Nashville when he was lecturing at Fisk, and he was criticizing the jail, no bail.

And he said: For God's sake, if somebody can get you out, get out. Take the offer. Anybody who knows what it's like to be in a Southern jail, to be a black person or even a white person who's a dissenter in jail, knows it's a very dangerous place to be. So Marshall was taking perhaps the more pragmatic view.

But jail, no bail became a badge of honor and an elemental strategy for CORE during the early 1960s.

GROSS: Was it a troublesome move(ph) for the prison authorities because they had to deal with all of these civil rights activists who were being very disruptive to the prison system?

Prof. ARSENAULT: I think it was very confounding for them. They were accustomed to intimidating people. They had all kinds of ways of manipulating and threatening and in many cases actually physically harming people.

And, you know, Southern jails and particularly Southern prisons, Parchman being the most notorious, but even the county jails and the city jails, they weren't accustomed to people, you know, trying to stay inside the bars. And so it defied logic for them, and they didn't know quite how to deal with it.

GROSS: So when the Freedom Riders refused to post bail, how did they get out of prison?

Prof. ARSENAULT: Well, in the case of most of the Freedom Riders who ended up behind bars in Mississippi, more than 300 ended up in Parchman Prison, there was a quirk of Mississippi law which said you had to get out before 40 days to be able to file an appeal.

And of course ultimately what the Congress of Racial Equality and the Freedom Riders and the other organizations involved wanted to do was to create a test case to force the legal justice system, if possible, at the local and state level, but at least at the federal level, to endorse and to sustain and protect their constitutional rights. So they needed these appeals.

So they would stay in for 39 days, but they would get out on time so that they could file their appeals in the Mississippi case, and almost all the Southern states had some quirks like this.

Part of the game in the freedom rides between whites - the white segregationists and the Freedom Riders was a test of resources. They kept increasing the bond that they had to post.

They tried to break the civil rights movement financially. They knew that resources were limited and that most of those resources were with the NAACP, which had an ambivalent attitude towards the freedom rides, that there was a feeling that the freedom rides was an enormous gamble, that if all this money was poured into it and there were no positive results, then the movement would be set back, that it would not advance. So there were a lot of people within the movement who had very serious questions about the wisdom of playing this very dangerous game.

DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault, speaking with Terry Gross. He's the author of the book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice" Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the freedom rides. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Our guest is Raymond Arsenault, author of the book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice."

GROSS: The Freedom Riders were challenging segregation on interstate bus rides. Now, buses had long been the center of protest in the South. Why were buses at the center of civil rights actions throughout the 20th century?

Prof. ARSENAULT: Well, there was an ongoing debate among civil rights activists as to where to place stress on the move for desegregation. Where should they begin? Should they begin with the schools? Should they begin with unemployment or employment policies? Should they begin with transportation? And there was no consensus on this matter.

They were fighting on all fronts. But the buses and the trains and the streetcars were a daily irritant for blacks. So it was a natural place where people would file lawsuits, where would try to test the limits of Jim Crow culture.

And this was particularly true in the 1940s, when people began to have sort of individual freedom rides. They didn't use that term, but there were a number of people who challenged Jim Crow conventions.

Jackie Robinson, 1944, refused to move to the back of the bus near Fort Hood in Texas, and he was court-marshaled. He was eventually exonerated, but that was just one example.

GROSS: Now, the Freedom Riders were specifically testing new law. What law were they testing?

Prof. ARSENAULT: They were testing compliance. There had been an attempt to test compliance back in the 1940s. There was a landmark Supreme Court decision, Morgan vs. Virginia, in 1946. Irene Morgan was a woman from Baltimore who was arrested for refusing to go to the back of the bus, sort of Rosa Parks-style in 1944.

She represented herself at first, then the NAACP took her case. Thurgood Marshall and others took it all the way to the Supreme Court, and they won. And it seemed like segregation on interstate buses and trains had been declared illegal, but the attorneys general and other officials in the South simply ignored the decision.

And they made all kinds of excuses why they couldn't enforce it. They said that the segregation was actually being maintained by company rules, railroad corporations and bus corporations, that it really wasn't state law that was mandating Jim Crow, all those sorts of things.

This led to the first freedom ride. They didn't call it a freedom ride. It was known as the Journey of Reconciliation, where 16 volunteers who belonged to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality decided to do a freedom ride to test compliance with the Morgan decision.

But they only did it in the Upper South. They knew if they went to the Deep South, to Alabama and Mississippi, it might mean major violence, maybe even certain death for them. So they spent two weeks in April of 1947 traveling on trains and buses in Virginia and Tennessee and Kentucky and North Carolina.

Several of them were arrested. Baird Rustin(ph), one of the organizers, and three others ended up on a chain gang for 22 days in North Carolina. But they didn't get a lot of attention. The press carried it, but it really didn't effect a revolution. But it set a model for civil rights, non-violent direct action.

GROSS: So what happened in 1961 that led to the formation of the freedom rides?

Prof. ARSENAULT: The election of John Kennedy gave new hope, I think, to civil rights activists. Even though he didn't have a particularly strong record as a senator, had not shown a great interest in civil rights, he talked about a new frontier.

He occasionally used the rhetoric of freedom that suggested that he might be open to this not just in foreign affairs but in rearranging the nature of domestic life in the United States.

And of course there were the onset of the sit-ins, beginning in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February of 1960, the so-called youth movement, which is a harbinger, of course, of things to come later in the 1960s. So there was a sense that maybe non-violent direct action on a mass scale was becoming possible, even in the Deep South.

GROSS: When the Freedom Riders formed in 1961, did they have the same goal as the group in 1947 did, to try to force the government to enforce an already existent law that said that interstate bus travel could no longer be segregated?

Prof. ARSENAULT: There were two landmark Supreme Court decisions: Morgan vs. Virginia in 1946, which seemed to outlaw segregation on interstate buses and, by argument, trains; but then in 1960, in December of 1960, there was a second decision, the Boynton vs. Virginia decision, which appeared to outlaw segregation in public accommodations related to interstate travel, so that you could get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter in a train station or in a bus station if you were involved in interstate transportation.

It used the Interstate Commerce Clause as the legal kind of lever to strike down state and local laws which mandated segregated facilities in restrooms, in restaurants and lunch counters and so forth.

So there were two decisions, and it was really the Boynton decision in December of 1960 which was the immediate sort of reason for thinking that another freedom ride or set of freedom rides was in order.

DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault, speaking with Terry Gross. Arsenault is the author of the book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." He'll be back in the second half of the show. Here's a 1963 recording of the CORE Freedom Singers, singing "Get Your Rights, Jack," their own version of the Ray Charles hit. In this version, the chorus urges Jack not to be a Tom and to join the movement. Jack decides to get on board, then demands his rights from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Get Your Rights, Jack")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Today were commemorating an important anniversary in the civil rights movement. Fifty years ago next week, the first busload of integrated groups of civil rights activists, known as the Freedom Riders, rode through the South to force compliance with the law desegregating interstate transportation. The Freedom Riders were pledged to nonviolence, and remained nonviolent in the face of brutal attacks against them.

In 2006, Terry spoke with Raymond Arsenault, author of the book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.


So the initial group of Freedom Riders that CORE organized was basically handpicked. I mean you almost had to audition to be part of it. Why were they so carefully selected?

Mr. RAYMOND ARSENAULT (Author, "Freedom Riders"): CORE had a philosophy of using a vanguard of carefully trained, disciplined, nonviolent activists who would not strike back no matter what happened. They felt that this was absolutely crucial, that you needed people who understood the responsibilities of nonviolence. They were terrified that if undisciplined activists were provoked it would turn into violence and that the cause of the movement would be set back, so they were very carefully chosen.

There were several dozen applicants and they had to be vouchsafed by ministers, by employers. If they were under 21 they had to get their parent's signature. They had to explain why they wanted to go on the Freedom Ride and that they were willing to follow the orders of CORE. This was extremely important part of the strategy of the original Freedom Ride.

GROSS: And did that careful selection continue through the history of the Freedom Riders?

Mr. ARSENAULT: It actually didn't continue exactly the way they hoped it would. There were ultimately 436 Freedom Riders, remarkably diverse group of people. It was intergenerational. It was interregional. It was interracial. The pace of events dictated trying to fill the buses, to fill the jails in Mississippi, to maintain the pressure, to convince Southern segregationists that the Freedom Riders were not going to go away.

So there were instances where people got on the Freedom buses without being carefully screened, and there were a couple of cases where Freedom Riders turned on each other with recriminations. There were - it was an enormously difficult thing to organize, to administer.

The civil rights movement was just emerging as a national phenomenon. They had never tried to do anything on this scale before. You had several organizations - CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Nashville Movement, the NAACP, Fellowship of Reconciliation - getting all these people to be on the same page and to make sure that there were no provocateurs, that there weren't FBI informers or there were - or Klan informers or people who were not working in the best interest of the Freedom Rides, it was not easy to maintain the discipline. And I think in general they were remarkably successful in doing so. There were relatively few incidents but it didn't have the purity of the original rides certainly in the later stages.

GROSS: It was the job of the Freedom Riders to remain nonviolent in spite of whatever anyone tried to do to provoke them. What were some of the violent acts directed against them that they had to endure?

Mr. ARSENAULT: Well, of course, the most famous violent acts were the bombing of a bus in Anniston, Alabama, where the Freedom Riders the original Freedom Riders, one group of them, there was an attempt to burn them alive in the bus. They were attacked by a mob of Klansmen - actually both men, women and children dressed in their Sunday best. It was a horrific episode which I think really scarred many of the people who endured it, who survived it.

Then, of course, the other bus that had been sent from Atlanta got to Birmingham and there had been collusion between the Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, and the police department and several klaverns of the Ku Klux Klan. And there was a Klan mob which attacked the Riders as soon as they got to the Birmingham station.

There were, of course, later attacks in Montgomery. After that the civil rights movement sort of decided they had to take a stand, that they could not allow the violence in Alabama to end the Freedom Riders in failure. And so Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders flew into Montgomery to hold a rally in First Baptist Church, Reverend Ralph Abernathy's church.

The church was surrounded by a mob of several thousand white supremacists. There was a fear that they were actually were going to burn the church to the ground. This was all in front of a number of reporters and television cameras. Eventually, Governor John Patterson, who was a committed segregationists, but decided to mobilize the National Guard at the last minute to save the church and to save the Freedom Riders and their allies.

And, of course, this is what, this episode in Montgomery on May 21st, 1961 is what drew the Kennedy administration into the fray. They had to send federal marshals to try to mitigate the situation.

GROSS: What did the FBI do about the Freedom Riders and about the white supremacists who were attacking them and the Southern police and sheriffs who weren't doing much to protect the Freedom Riders?

Mr. ARSENAULT: J. Edgar Hoover had no sympathy for civil rights activists. He was an avowed segregationist, a supporter of the status quo, and he sent that message down to the FBI. And basically the FBI in the southern scene, they often knew what was about to happen. And, of course, they had advanced information about the bus burning in Anniston and the mob gathering in Birmingham, but this information was not forwarded to the rest of the Justice Department. And from that day on, Robert Kennedy was not able to trust J. Edgar Hoover.

DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault is the author of the book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2006 interview with Raymond Arsenault. His book Freedom Riders is about the integrated group of civil rights activists who rode buses together through the Deep South in 1961 to force the government to comply with the law desegregating interstate transportation.

GROSS: In your book about the Freedom Riders, you describe the Kennedy administration as initially seeing the Freedom Riders as a distraction from what the Kennedy administration really wanted to deal with at the time, which wasn't the civil rights movement, it was the Cold War. It was Cuba. It was the Soviet Union. So would you describe a little bit the Kennedy administrations take on the Freedom Rides and how they initially handled it?

Mr. ARSENAULT: Both President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, initially at least, and for a long time considered the Freedom Rides to be a very disturbing distraction. The Cold War was at its height. The Freedom Rides came just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. John Kennedy was just about to go on his first international summit meeting in Vienna. He had Khrushchev to deal with. The building of the Berlin Wall was imminent. The world seemed to be coming apart at the seams and he did not want, you know, strife in the streets of Alabama to be on the front page.

There was a strong sense among the Kennedys and many other Americans that what the Freedom Riders were doing was disloyal. That even though they may have admired their courage, they questioned their wisdom and there were very often charges of disloyalty. Why couldn't the Freedom Riders wait for a better time? Couldn't they see that there was a deeper agenda of countering the propaganda of the Soviet Union, of making the United States look bad on the international scene?

And, of course, what all this had to do with was the change situation with respect to the decolonization of the Third World. Suddenly people of color had an important part play in the balance of power in the world and the civil rights leaders, particularly those involved the Freedom Rides sensed this, that they could use this as a lever, as a way of saying, you know, if you want to claim a legitimacy to American democracy and to spread it abroad then you've got to live up to your own ideals at home.

GROSS: So what action did the Kennedy administration take when the Freedom Riders were being jailed and beaten?

Mr. ARSENAULT: The Kennedy administration at first, they sent John Seigenthaler, who was a native of Nashville, Tennessee, a personal representative of both the president and the attorney general, down to try to make sure that the Freedom Riders stayed the original Freedom Rides stayed alive. He flew with them - when they gave up traveling from Birmingham to Montgomery by bus, he flew with them on the Freedom plane from Birmingham to New Orleans.

And both he and the other administration officials thought that was the end of it. What they didn't realize is that there was a band of student activists, the Nashville movement students, followers of Reverend Jim Lawson, who decided the Freedom Ride could not end this way. They could not allow the CORE riders to be chased out of Alabama to flee by plane and it was a disappointing end for the original Freedom Rides.

So the student activists in Nashville and other movement centers in the South said we can't let it end this way, so they organized another set of Freedom Rides, which was a terrible, terrible turn of events for the Kennedys. Said, oh my God, the crisis is reheating. Now we've got all these students threatening to come into Birmingham. So that's how it restarts and it just won't go away.

By the end of May, Bobby Kennedy decides to turn to the Interstate Commerce Commission, to beg them to pass a sweeping desegregation order. Now he knew this would take weeks and even months and, in fact, he doesn't get his order until September 22nd, 1961; it's not affective until November 1st.

And, of course, even though the civil rights activists, the Freedom Riders appreciated what Kennedy was doing, they did not adhere to his call for a cooling off period. They said we've been cooling off for a century. Were not going to cool off anymore. We want freedom now. We want you to prove to us that the ICC will render a sweeping desegregation order.

So thats why the Freedom Riders continue to board the buses and to continue to have these Freedom Rides throughout the summer. And more and more people get involved as they come into, mostly into Jackson, Mississippi, and ultimately to Parchman prison.

GROSS: Now one of the things you write in your book about the Freedom Riders is how the media covered the riders and what impact the media coverage had. And something I found really surprising in your discussion of the media is what you write about David Brinkley.

You write David Brinkley editorialized that the Freedom Riders are quote accomplishing nothing whatsoever, and on the contrary are doing positive harm. The results of these expeditions are not of benefit to anyone, white or Negro, the North or the South, nor the U.S. in general. We think they should stop it. Where did he say this?

Mr. ARSENAULT: David Brinkley did a commentary on the NBC Nightly News. He, of course, was from North Carolina. He considered himself to be a moderate liberal, certainly someone who didn't normally endorse Jim Crow segregation. But he felt that the Freedom Riders were being unreasonable. And he was not alone in this.

There were a number of sort of mainstream, many mainstream journalists who were supported by the public opinion polls. In general, more than two-thirds of Americans, although they supported the ideal of desegregation in most cases, rejected the tactics of the Freedom Riders. And Brinkley was speaking for them, suggesting that there was something unpatriotic about what the Freedom Riders were doing by not recognizing the damage that they were doing to America's reputation, to its image around the world.

And he felt that they simply were naive, that they were provocateurs, that they were largely young kids who didn't know what they were doing. And he was I think furious at them, as many Americans were, because they would not allow United States to go back to business as usual until the problems that they were addressing were paid attention to.

GROSS: You found a lot of former Freedom Riders for your book, you know, as part of your of your research. Is there anything, any kind of observation that nearly every Freedom Rider you spoke to shared? Is there something that they all had in common about the way they saw the Freedom Rides?

Mr. ARSENAULT: You know, I've often said that the Freedom Rides showed that ordinary people could do extraordinary things. But after working 10 years on this book, I really don't believe that these are or were ordinary people. You know, there were 436 of them. They took amazing risks, displayed extraordinary courage in the face of widespread censure.

I mean their own families, in many cases, telling them that they were doing things that were making them ashamed, that they were making the mistakes of their lives, that they were being unreasonable, that they were going down a road that would hurt themselves and hurt the nation. And how they stayed the course, how they kept their eyes on the prize is sometimes beyond me. I just have, you know, I thought, you know, oftentimes historians, when they dig deeper into a topic, they - when they see the real historical figures it can be kind of disillusioning. That's not what happened here. The deeper I probed the more respect I had for them and I just am in awe, really, not only of what they did in 1961, but what many of them have continued to do. They really dedicated their lives to social justice and it's just an incredibly empowering message it seems to me.

GROSS: Among the people you interviewed who had been Freedom Riders, did any of them have scars? And I don't mean emotional scars, I mean physical scars or disabilities, from beatings that they had taken during the Freedom Rides. And if so, how do they regard those scars or disabilities now?

Mr. ARSENAULT: There were a number of Freedom Riders who emerged with physical scars. Most of them are dead now. Walter Bergman, who was a white Freedom Rider from Michigan who was nearly beaten to death in the original Freedom Ride, eventually filed a lawsuit where he won a nominal judgment against the FBI for its complicity in the, for an FBI informer in the beating. He lived to be 99, despite his - he was in a wheelchair most of the rest of the years of his life. William Barbie, one of the most poignant of the Riders, who was the advance scout into Montgomery, he was attacked at the bus station in Montgomery and they stuck a jagged piece of metal into his temple. He never recovered and he lived 20 more years but was never the same.

Ed Blankenheim, a Rider that I interviewed at great length, a white rider who died last year in San Francisco, had been a carpenter and a part-time student at the University of Arizona. The joke among Freedom Riders, even though he was a secular Rider, was as Hank Thomas, one of the other Riders said, Jesus sent us a carpenter from Arizona. Ed suffered a stroke later in his life. It was, I think, in part a result of some of the things that he experienced in the rides. And - but they wear them as badges of honor.

I can't tell you how many times the Freedom Riders told me, often with tears in their eyes, that this was the moment of their lives. You know, at the time, even though they were told that they were making a mistake, they now know that this was - whatever else they did in their lives, whatever injuries they suffered, that their lives made a difference. They didn't get everything they wanted. Some of the ideals have not been realized, but they stood up for justice at a critical moment in American history, when relatively few people were willing to do so. And so, whatever injuries they suffered and they certainly did suffer them, they wore them, I think, and continue to wear them as a badge of honor.

GROSS: Raymond Arsenault, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ARSENAULT: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault, speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. He's the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida and author of the book "Freedom Riders."

Coming up, Ed Ward reviews a collection of Roy Orbison's singles from the early 60s.

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.