In the spring of 1961, a small interracial band of “Freedom Riders” set out to challenge discriminatory state laws and local customs that required a separation of the races on buses and in bus station facilities, like waiting areas, lunch counters, and restrooms. Their journey was dramatically opposed by white supremacists who viciously attacked the Freedom Riders on multiple occasions.
Through the media, the nation and the world witnessed the violence. Images, like that of a firebombed bus burning outside Anniston, Alabama, shocked the American public and created political pressure, which forced the Federal Government to take steps to ban segregation in interstate bus travel.
Although only thirteen Freedom Riders started the journey, they inspired hundreds of others to join their cause. In the end there were over 400 Freedom Riders. They succeeded in pressing the federal government to act. On May 29, 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue regulations banning segregation, and the ICC subsequently decreed that by November 1, 1961, bus carriers and terminals serving interstate travel had to be integrated.
The Freedom Rides and Freedom Riders made substantial gains in the fight for equal access to public accommodations. Federal orders to remove Jim Crow signs on interstate facilities did not change social mores or political institutions overnight, but the Freedom Riders nonetheless struck a powerful blow to racial segregation.
Last updated: October 15, 2019