Rise Up: Remembering Forgotten Heroes

Posted on 14 October 2015

Rise Up details the story of principled Americans who faced violence in their journey to try to end segregation. Here we learn a little bit more about them, their struggle, and they problems that they faced in 1960’s America.

Who were the Freedom Riders?

In the 1960s, a group of young principled Americans peacefully fought segregation in the Deep South. Often facing violence, institutional racism and lack of police and legal protection, these brave men and women risked their lives to take a stand against racism. They refused to use segregated transport and facilities in the Deep South of America, specifically riding down through states where segregation was enforced to take a stance against bigotry.

Why did people undertake Freedom Rides?

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the American Civil Rights Movement, a movement of peaceful protest against segregation and discrimination against African Americans, in particular in the Southern states. It led to one of the biggest breakthroughs in legislation for African Americans since the outlawing of slavery, with important civil rights legislation being passed in 1964 and 1965.

What were the Freedom Rides?

The Freedom Rides were based on on the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, when the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation organized an interracial bus ride across state lines to test a Supreme Court decision that declared segregation on interstate buses unconstitutional. Fourteen years later, in 1961 the American Civil Rights Movement was beginning to take hold, as Black Americans fought against the discrimination they faced and the Freedom Rides began. The 1961 Freedom Rides sought to test a 1960 decision by the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, was unconstitutional as well. Black and white riders traveled to the American South–where segregation continued to occur–and attempted to use whites-only restrooms, lunch counters and waiting rooms and vice-versa. The Freedom Rides were able to harness enough national attention to force federal enforcement and policy changes. Unfortunately this attention was often borne out of the extreme violence and discrimination they faced.

What kind of danger did the Freedom Riders face?

The Freedom Riders faced a lot of discrimination, threats and extreme violence, particularly in the Deep South. In Rockhill, South Carolina, two riders, including John Lewis, a student were beaten and this, along with the arrest of one participant for using a whites-only restroom and attracted widespread media coverage. In the days following the incident, the riders met and had dinner with Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders in Atlanta. Keenly aware of how much danger they were in, King purportedly whispered to Jet reporter Simeon Booker, there to cover the story, ‘‘You will never make it through Alabama’’.

In Anniston, Alabama on 14 May, a mob of a hundred violent people met the protestors. Anniston local authorities had given permission to the Ku Klux Klan to strike against the freedom riders. One of the buses was firebombed, and its passengers forced out into the angry white mob. No protection from law enforcement was offered at the Birmingham terminal, where violence continued. CORE ended the first Freedom Ride due to the extreme violence, despite having gained international media coverage.

However, still frustrated, and despite the danger, some decided to continue with the Freedom Rides. On 17 May 1961, seven men and three women rode from Nashville to Birmingham to resume the Freedom Rides. Just before reaching Birmingham, the bus was pulled over and directed to the Birmingham station, where all of the riders were arrested for defying segregation laws. The riders were left stranded in Birmingham for several days.

Federal intervention began to take place behind the scenes and with assistance from Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the bus was given a full police escort to Montgomery. However, when the state troopers left the buses at the state line, the local police who were meant to escort the bus forward never appeared. The riders entered the terminal unprotected and were beaten so severely by a white mob that some sustained permanent injuries. When the police arrived, they served the riders with an injunction barring them from continuing the Freedom Ride in Alabama.

However, this violence did not stop others from continuing to fight against segregation by partaking in Freedom Rides.

What did the Freedom Riders achieve?

On 1 November 1961, the ICC ruling that segregation on interstate buses and facilities was illegal took effect. In addition to this, more civil rights legislation was passed throughout the 1960’s which gave rights to African-Americans and fought institutionalised racism.

You can see the story of the Freedom Riders brought to life on stage this October in the new production of Rise Up, part of the Belgrade’s October Festival of Theatre for Children and Young People.