Violence in Montgomery, Alabama

On May 21, 1961, the surviving contingent of Riders took a bus from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama, protected by a contingent of the Alabama State Highway Patrol.  However, when they reached the Montgomery city limits, the Highway Patrol abandoned them.  At the bus station, a large white mob was waiting with baseball bats and iron pipes. The local police allowed them to viciously beat the Freedom Riders uninterrupted. Again, white Freedom Riders, branded “Nigger-Lovers,” were singled out for particularly brutal beatings.  There is a famous picture of Jim Zwerg with blood running all down his suit. Justice Department official Seigenthaler was beaten and left unconscious lying in the street. Ambulances, manned by white attendants refused to take the wounded to the hospital. Brave local blacks finally rescued them. A number of the Freedom Riders were hospitalized.

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Robert Kennedy Urges Restraint

When reports of the bus burning and beatings reached Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he urged restraint on the part of Freedom Riders (!) and sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Montgomery, Alabama to observe the Freedom Riders’ arrival in that city which was scheduled to happen shortly.


Freedom Ride Goal: Integrated travel From DC to New Orleans, integrating facilities along the way.

In 1946, The Supreme Court, in the “Morgan Decision”, ruled that segregation of interstate travel facilities was unconstitutional. This ruling was totally ignored for 15 years. As a way of drawing attention to the continued segregation in public facilities, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Freedom Rides on 4 May 1961.  This Freedom Ride was modeled after an earlier Fellowship of Reconcilliation (FOR)demonstration staged in 1947 in which an integrated group planned to take public buses from Washington DC to New Orleans with the intent of integrating public facilities through out the South.

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In the 1961 Freedom Rides, an integrated group of civil rights activists rode Greyhound and Trailways buses into the South planning for black riders to enter “whites only” sections while white riders would enter the “colored” waiting rooms. The integrating actions of these Freedom Riders met with relatively minor resistance until they arrived in Anniston, Alabama on 14 May 1961.  The map below shows the route taken. [Need higher resolution picture!]thmb_13_slide0007_image025

Introduction to Segregation in the South, 1961

Racial segregation was the rule throughout all of the southern and in areas of the northern United States  until the 1960s.  Public facilities were claimed to be “separate but equal” by proponents of segregation.   Those who violated these social mores were subject to abuse ranging from beatings to bombings to lynchings.  (The lynching shown occurred in Marion, Indiana in 1930)1.  In 1961, the Civil Rights Movement to end racial segregation was still in its infancy, with only a few victories realized (notably integration of Woolworth’s lunch counters and, shown at the left, integration of the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama2 ). The federal government had passed an Interstate Commerce Commission law stating that it was illegal to segregate public interstate facilities. However, this federal law was officially ignored throughout the South with separate white and “colored” facilities enforced at bus and train stations 3 . As a rule throughout the South, police not only turned a blind eye to violence against movement people, but were often active participants in the beatings.  Pleas to President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to enforce the federal law were ignored, and the U.S. Justice Department turned a blind eye to these violations, despite pleas to them to enforce the laws prohibiting segregation of interstate facilities.

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