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Meet the Freedom Riders

October 11, 2011

Freedom Riders demanding Civil Rights in New York City


The Common Ground Awards are coming up (October 27) and if you’d like to come get your tickets now!

Leading up to the event we’ll be showcasing each of our exceptional 2011 awardees. This week the spotlight is on The Freedom Riders.

In May 1961 a handful black and white Americans Freedom riders set out on a journey to the South – deliberately violating the segregation laws and thus challenging society to acknowledge the injustice of the laws and to take action to change them. The Supreme Court had twice upheld desegregation of restaurants and waiting rooms of interstate travel facilities, but the laws were ignored in the South and interstate travel continued to be an exercise in humiliation and inequality for black Americans.

To demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the legislation the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the first ‘freedom rides.’ Trained in, and committed to, nonviolent protest, 13 black and white volunteers rode together on buses headed to the deep South.

In Anniston Alabama one of the two buses was firebombed while the other continued to Birmingham where the riders were savagely beaten by vicious mobs and members of the Ku Klux Klan. CORE leadership began to doubt the effectiveness of their strategy.

Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Nashville took up the cause, determined not to see the movement falter. Over the next five months the movement grew despite brutal repressions, imprisonment and mob violence.  In Montgomery  the riders were attacked by a large mob. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by men with baseball bats and lead piping. One of the freedom riders was attacked so badly that he was left unconscious for two days and could only leave the hospital after five days. This obvious display of racism did not leave the nation untouched. From across the country, people of different ages, faiths and backgrounds felt the call to action. Most rides came to an end in Jackson, Mississippi where the riders were thrown into the notorious Parchman state prison. There the strategy became trying to fill the jail. Eventually over 300 riders were imprisoned in Parchman.

Five months after the first Freedom Rides left, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), issued a tough new Federal order banning segregation at all interstate public facilities based on “race, color or creed.” The law became effective on November 1st, 1961.

Accepting the Award on behalf of the Freedom Riders will be:

Bob Filner

Bob Filner is the Representative from southern California’s 51st congressional district, serving since 1992. While a student at Cornell University, Filner participated in the Freedom Rides and spent two months in Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Rep. John Lewis

John Lewis is the Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving since 1987. He is Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in leadership in the House, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee and Chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight. Lewis was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, playing a key role in the struggle to end segregation. He was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. During the Freedom Rides, Lewis was severely injured by mob violence in Alabama and spent 40 days in jail in Mississippi.

Diane Nash

Diane Nash was a leader and strategist of the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement. As a student of non-violent action and passive resistance, she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She led SNNC’s direct action wing and was one of the strategists and coordinators for the Freedom Rides and other direct action initiatives. She was arrested dozens of times for her activities.

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