Fiftieth Anniversary of the Freedom Rides

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides, a cornerstone civil rights campaign that desegregated public transportation throughout the United States.

On May 4, 1961, seven African American and six white freedom riders left Washington, D.C. by Trailways and Greyhound bus services for New Orleans. Although the Supreme Court had already ruled in the 1960 decision Boynton v. Virginia that segregation in public transportation was illegal, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had not enforced the ruling. Nor had sufficient pressure been applied to the federal agency by the Kennedy administration; this was due largely to the fact that the base of the Democratic party was comprised of segregationist Southern Democrats, a bloc of voters that delivered Kennedy his narrow presidential victory. In order to be able to exercise their civil rights, African Americans still required federal intervention, due to obstructions posed by segregationist Southern authorities and violent white resistance. The Freedom Rides were thus organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial civil rights organization, whose founder James Farmer was inspired by the nonviolent activism of the Indian political and human rights leader Mahatma Gandhi. Through direct action activities, CORE sought to challenge segregation and eradicate Jim Crow laws and practices.

After departing the nation’s capitol, the riders managed to travel through Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia in relative peace, though two Freedom Riders were attacked in Rock Hill, South Carolina (one of whom was John Lewis, who now represents Georgia’s Fifth District in Congress). Alabama’s resistance proved to be even more violent. The Greyhound bus was firebombed outside of Anniston while stopping to change a slashed tire; fortunately, the riders were not injured seriously. In Birmingham, however, passengers on the Trailways bus were attacked and beaten by angry whites. Matters were further complicated by the fact that bus drivers refused to drive Freedom Riders any further; the riders flew from Birmingham to New Orleans, so that they could finish their tour on schedule. After landing in New Orleans, several Freedom Riders regrouped in Nashville, where they were joined by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members who were eager to participate. Together, they traveled by bus to Birmingham. During this attempt, they were met by segregationist police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor arrested three members of the group, and personally drove the remaining seven participants over the state border to Tennessee, where he then abandoned them on the side of the road. Once more, the riders made their way back to Birmingham, where they were again rejected by bus drivers who refused to carry them to Montgomery.

At this point, the U.S. Justice Department under attorney general Robert F. Kennedy made arrangements with Alabama state authorities to protect the riders. An emissary from the justice department was assigned to travel with the riders, and bus travel to Birmingham resumed. However, the party was deserted by law enforcement protection while en route to Montgomery. While disembarking at the bus station, the riders were attacked with clubs and chains by an angry white mob, and the justice department emissary was knocked unconscious. In each Alabama incident, law enforcement was slow to respond, and it became evident that local officials had colluded with segregationist mob leaders. Pressured by increased media coverage of the violent response met by Freedom Riders, and enraged by the betrayal of Alabama state and local officials, Attorney General Kennedy obtained a federal court injunction that barred further assaults against the Freedom Riders, and ordered U.S. marshals into Montgomery. Kennedy also sought to convince the Freedom Riders to cease their travel; they refused, and twenty-seven Freedom Riders continued on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were consequently arrested and incarcerated. On May 29, 1961, the Kennedy administration directed the ICC to enforce stricter desegregation policies in interstate travel. While the first twenty-seven Freedom Riders remained in prison, further waves of Freedom Riders continued to desegregate Southern public transportation facilities into the fall; hundreds of these riders were arrested. On November 1, 1961, the ICC ruled segregation in interstate travel illegal. Freedom Riders continued to test the efficacy of the ICC’s ruling by traveling in small groups throughout Southern states, some still met resistance. In December of 1961, a group of freedom riders traveling from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia were arrested while testing the recent ICC ruling. The response to these arrests gave way to the seminal Albany Movement. Ultimately, all facilities desegregated.

The Civil Rights Digital Library contains fifteen WSB-TV newsfilm clips from the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection with footage related to the Freedom Rides, some of which are highlighted here:

(see clip above) Here, during a press conference in Montgomery, Alabama on May 23, 1961, Alabama governor John Patterson demands that “agitators” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders leave Alabama immediately and condemns the Freedom Riders for seeking to cause racial unrest.

(see clip above) In this WSB newsfilm clip from May 24, 1961, Julia Aaron and Jean Thompson, two African American female freedom riders, are arrested by police as they disembark a Trailways bus in Jackson, Mississippi.

(see clip above) This WSB newsfilm clip from May 14, 1961, includes footage of the destroyed Greyhound bus attacked in Anniston, Alabama Victims of the attack comment on the day’s events from the local hospital.

(see clip above) This WSB newsfilm clip documents a mass meeting held in Montgomery on May 21, 1961 in Ralph David Abernathy‘s First Baptist Church, the day after the bus station attack. Martin Luther King, Jr. had flown in to speak to a crowd of the freedom riders and more than one thousand supporters where an angry white mob surrounded the building until nearly six the next morning. During this meeting, King encouraged the practice of nonviolence, and church hymns were sung. Alabama National Guard trucks and federal marshals secured by Attorney General Robert Kennedy eventually dispersed the crowd and escorted members of the assembly to their homes.

The Civil Rights Digital Library also provides links to resource materials in archival collections across the country that include oral history interviews and transcripts of interviews with Freedom Riders (the transcript of an interview with U.S. Representative John Lewis conducted in 1973 is here;  as well as FBI files regarding freedom riders; and mug shots of Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. Visit for access to more resources on the Freedom Rides.


Ivan Allen Jr.

Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. was born on this day in 1911. In honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, we highlight a few of the primary resources found in the Digital Library of Georgia related to Allen and the life he devoted to Georgia’s capital city throughout most of the twentieth century.

Ivan Allen Jr. was born on March 15th 1911 in Atlanta to parents Ivan Allen Sr. and Irene Beaumont Allen. Below is his birth announcement from the March 16th issue of the Atlanta Georgian which can be found in the Atlanta Historic Newspapers Archive. During the first half of the twentieth century, his father was a prominent businessman in Atlanta and after he graduated from Georgia Tech, young Ivan joined the family business. He eventually took over the Ivan Allen Company upon his father’s retirement in 1946. His influence in the city’s business community grew and in 1960 he was elected president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

In 1961, Ivan Allen Jr. ran for the open mayoral position in Atlanta and won the office over future governor Lester Maddox. The political cartoon to the right (from Richard B. Russell Library’s Baldy Collection) depicts the first of many political battles the two would wage in Atlanta. The division between Allen and Maddox throughout most of the decade was representative of the split in the Democratic Party in the South during the 1960s.

Atlanta experienced a period of great economic and infrastructural growth during Allen’s two terms as mayor. Under his leadership, over fifty new buildings were added downtown, interstate highways were introduced, the Hartsfield International Airport was expanded, and 22,000 new jobs were added to the city’s workforce each year.  Allen also oversaw the construction of what came to be known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (below) and in 1965 he coaxed the Milwaukee Braves into moving to Atlanta to play there. The Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Hawks were also established in the city during his tenure as mayor.

Ivan Allen Jr. was well known for his progressive stance in regard to civil rights in Atlanta. As president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, before becoming mayor, he worked with the city’s business leaders to desegregate lunch counters. Upon taking office, he embraced former mayor William B. Hartsfield’s lead in promoting Atlanta as “the City Too Busy to Hate.” During his first year as mayor, he desegregated City Hall and removed racial barriers in the city’s police and fire departments. In 1963, he was the only southern elected leader to support the public accommodations section of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he testified before Congress to convey that support. Allen was also an ardent supporter of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and had the unfortunate duty of notify Coretta Scott King of her husband’s assassination in 1968. Below is a video from the Civil Rights Digital Library of Allen escorting Mrs. King to the airport after she received the news.

Allen stepped down as mayor in 1970 after serving two terms, but continued his work as an advocate for the city of Atlanta until his death on July 2, 2003.  To learn more about Ivan Allen Jr., take a look at his article in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. He also wrote an autobiography in 1971 called Mayor: Notes on the Sixties about his experiences as the mayor of Atlanta during one of the nation’s most turbulent decades.