What Were the Freedom Rides?

A Virtual Exploration of the Civil Rights Movement


SNCC LogoGeorgia Public Broadcasting

One of the many civil rights organizations that evolved out of the protests of the early 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), also pronounced "snick," was dedicated to tactics directly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.

SNCC came to national prominence during the Freedom Rides in 1961.

Congress of Racial Equality Freedom Ride ButtonGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) came to national attention after helping to train many of the participants in the sit-in movement of 1960.

As its influence grew, CORE became instrumental in orchestrating the Freedom Rides of 1961 to test the continued segregation of bus terminals in the South.

Freedom RideGeorgia Public Broadcasting

The CORE Freedom Rides

Initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Freedom Rides involved a group of racially diverse college students, including seven blacks and six whites, who rode public transportation buses from Washington, DC, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Their purpose was to challenge Jim Crow laws and test compliance to the 1906 Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia where segregated transportation facilities were deemed unconstitutional. From South Carolina and further South, riders faced extreme resistance. They were beaten and their buses were even firebombed. Much of the violence occurred due to the lack of local and state police protection.

Who Were the Freedom Riders?Georgia Public Broadcasting

Henry Thomas MugshotGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Henry J. Thomas grew up in St. Augustine, Florida, and opposed segregation from an early age. He drank from white-only water fountains and visited white-only public libraries.

After attending Howard University in Washington, DC, Thomas became involved with SNCC and joined the Freedom Rides in 1961. Here, he is shown being booked during the second waves of Freedom Rides that ended in Jackson, Mississippi.

John Lewis Mugshot (1916-04-29/1916-04-29) by Belfast TelegraphGeorgia Public Broadcasting

John Lewis has been a pivotal figure in the fight for civil rights since he was a young man in Alabama. While attending Fisk University in Tennessee, he organized sit-in demonstrations and volunteered for the Freedom Rides in 1961. He is seen here being booked along with fellow rider Henry J. Thomas in Jackson, Mississippi.

Freedom Riders (1961-05) by Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

Violence against riders became so common that federal authorities, directed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, would accompany buses to protect the activists.

Bobby Kennedy (1961) by Edward ClarkLIFE Photo Collection

Brother of President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy openly supported civil rights in the South but was caught unprepared for the violence against the Freedom Riders.

As the violence increased and state officials refused to protect riders from angry mobs, Robert Kennedy addressed the nation via radio in late May saying, "The Federal Government's responsibility is quite clear in this situation. Our obligation is to protect interstate travelers and maintain law and order only when local authorities are unable or unwilling to do so."

Credits: Story

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
LIFE Photo Collection

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