Wednesday, May 14, 2008

May 14

On this date in 1961 -- Mothers’ Day -- civil rights activists affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were attacked by white mobs in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, when they attempted to ride through the state on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia -- which ruled segregation on interstate bus lines unconstitutional -- black and white “Freedom Riders” decided to test the willingness of white Southerners to adhere to the law. Fewer than two dozen set out from the nation’s capital on May 4. They had dutifully sent their itinerary to the Justice Department. J. Edgar Hoover promptly forwarded it to state officials in Alabama, many of whom were known to have Klan affiliations.

The rides began in early May. Defying custom, white riders sat in the back while black passengers occupied the front seats. When the buses stopped, the CORE riders refused to observe the segregated conditions that were still observed in southern bus terminals; whites used “colored” restrooms and waiting areas, while blacks used facilities reserved for whites.

The rides encountered minor violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but everyone knew the worst was yet to come. As Martin Luther king, Jr., had warned the riders, “You won’t make it through Alabama.” Indeed, when the CORE buses crossed the Georgia state line on their way to Birmingham, they encountered ferocious resistance. At a rest stop in Anniston, the Greyhound passengers were attacked by local members of the Ku Klux Klan and nearly 200 of their closest friends. One of the riders, James Peck, wrote about the incident in his book Freedom Rider (1962):
They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital.
By this point, Walter Bergman had been kicked until his brain hemorrhaged. He remained in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The reception in Anniston was not entirely unhelpful, though. A 12-year-old white girl named Jamie Miller brought a bucket of water to the riders, who were choking from smoke inhalation. Facing constant taunts and threats from other whites in the community, she and her family soon moved from Anniston.

When the Trailways bus arrived two hours later, Klansmen boarded as well, beat the Freedom Riders and forced them to the back of the bus for the two-hour ride to Birmingham. As they drew nearer to the city, Klansmen taunted and threatened the passengers. When the group arrived in Birmingham, the violence resumed with the complicity of the local police, who allowed the racist mob fifteen minutes of unimpeded access to the riders. Gary Thomas Rowe was among those who awaited the arrival of the civil rights activists. Years later, he described the event:
We made an astounding sight . . . men running and walking down the streets of Birmingham on Sunday afternoon carrying chains, sticks, and clubs. Everything was deserted; no police officers were to be seen except one on a street corner. He stepped off and let us go by, and we barged into the bus station and took it over like an army of occupation. There were Klansmen in the waiting room, in the rest rooms, in the parking area.
When the bus arrived in Birmingham, the seven Freedom Riders were dragged from the vehicle, chased into the streets, punched and kicked into semi-consciousness. After 20 minutes, the mob dispersed.

Photographs of the assaults in Anniston and Birmingham were published nationwide and even overseas. When activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee joined the Freedom Riders to help them complete the journey, they were attacked as well in Montgomery, where one man was doused in gasoline and set on fire. The Kennedy administration, embarrassed and shocked by the violence, quietly negotiated with the racist governor of Mississippi, James Eastland, to have the riders arrested for their own protection when they crossed into his jurisdiction. As more riders entered Mississippi and as the arrests mounted, some of the activists were shipped off to Parchman Farm, a former slave plantation than had become one of the most notorious facilities in American history.

The Freedom Rides -- scores of them -- continued throughout the summer and into the fall of 1961. The Kennedy administration did as little as possible, blaming the activists themselves for causing international embarrassment to the US. In September, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a long-overdue order that put the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings into effect.