In the 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was involved in the struggle to end segregation on buses and trains. In 1952 segregation on inter-state railways was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was followed in 1954 by a similar judgment concerning inter-state buses. However, states in the Deep South continued their own policy of transport segregation. This usually involved whites sitting in the front and blacks sitting nearest to the front had to give up their seats to any whites that were standing.
African American people who disobeyed the state's transport segregation policies were arrested and fined. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor's assistant from Montgomery, Alabama, who was tired after a hard day's work, refused to give up her seat to a white man. After her arrest, Martin Luther King, a pastor at the local Baptist Church, helped organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued.
For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration.
Transport segregation continued in some parts of the United States, so in 1961, a civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South.
James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Governor James Patterson commented that: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers." Patterson, who had been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan added that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body."
The Freedom Riders were split between two buses. They travelled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. When they reached Anniston on 14th May the Freedom Riders were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. One of the buses was fire-bombed and the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death.
James Peck later explained what happened: "When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital."
The surviving bus travelled to Birmingham, Alabama. A meeting of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee decided to send reinforcements. This included John Lewis, James Zwerg, and eleven others including two white women. The volunteers realized their mission was extremely dangerous. Zwerg later recalled: "My faith was never so strong as during that time. I knew I was doing what I should be doing." Zwerg wrote a letter to his parents that stated that he would probably be dead by the time they received it.
During the Freedom Riders campaign the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy was phoning Jim Eastland “seven or eight or twelve times each day, about what was going to happen when they got to Mississippi and what needed to be done. That was finally decided was that there wouldn’t be any violence: as they came over the border, they’d lock them all up.” When they were arrested Kennedy issued a statement as Attorney General criticizing the activities of the Freedom Riders. Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler to negotiate with Governor James Patterson of Alabama.. Harris Wofford, the president's Special Assistant for Civil Rights, later pointed out: "Seigenthaler arrived in time to escort the first group of wounded and shaken riders from the bus terminal to the airport, and flew with them to safety in New Orleans."
The Freedom Riders now traveled onto Montgomery. Zwerg later recalled: "As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up."
The passangers were attacked by a large mob. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by men with baseball bats and lead piping. Taylor Branch, the author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) wrote: "One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage." James Zwerg later argued: "There was noting particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died."
According to Ann Bausum: "Zwerg was denied prompt medical attention at the end of the riot on the pretext that no white ambulances were available for transport. He remained unconscious in a Montgomery hospital for two-and-a-half days after the beating and stayed hospitalized for a total of five days. Only later did doctors diagnose that his injuries included a broken back."
Some of the Freedom Riders, including seven women, ran for safety. The women approached an African-American taxicab driver and asked him to take them to the First Baptist Church. However, he was unwilling to violate Jim Crow restrictions by taking any white women. He agreed to take the five African-Americans, but the two white women, Susan Wilbur and Susan Hermann, were left on the curb. They were then attacked by the white mob.
John Seigenthaler, who was driving past, stopped and got the two women in his car. According to Raymond Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders (2006): "Suddenly, two rough-looking men dressed in overalls blocked his path to the car door, demanding to know who the hell he was. Seigenthaler replied that he was a federal agent and that they had better not challenge his authority. Before he could say any more, a third man struck him in the back of the head with a pipe. Unconscious, he fell to the pavement, where he was kicked in the ribs by other members of the mob. Pushed under the rear bumper of the car, his battered and motionless body remained there until discovered by a reporter twenty-five minutes later."
Harris Wofford, the president's Special Assistant for Civil Rights, pointed out: "Seigenthaler went to the defense of a girl being beaten and was clubbed to the ground; he was kicked while he lay there unconscious for nearly half an hour. Again FBI agents present did nothing, except take notes." Robert F. Kennedy later reported: "I talked to John Seigenthaler in the hospital and said that I thought it was very helpful for the Negro vote, and that I appreciated what he had done."
James Zwerg, who was badly beaten-up claimed from his hospital bed: "Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us on the Freedom Ride will continue. No matter what happens we are dedicated to this. We will take the beatings. We are willing to accept death. We are going to keep coming until we can ride anywhere in the South."
The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months over a thousand people took part in freedom rides. With the local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job.
Robert Kennedy was a close friend of Governor John Patterson of Alabama. Kennedy explained in his interview with Anthony Lewis: “I had this long relationship with John Patterson (the governor of Alabama). He was our great pal in the South. So he was doubly exercised at me – who was his friend and pal – to have involved him with suddenly surrounding this church with marshals and having marshals descend with no authority, he felt, on his cities… He couldn’t understand why the Kennedys were doing this to him.”
During the summer of 1961 freedom riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together, in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. This was especially effective when it concerned large companies who, fearing boycotts in the North, began to desegregate their businesses. Norman Thomas described these young people as "secular saints" I. F. Stone has argued: They and a few white sympathizers as youthful and devoted as themselves have begun a social revolution in the South with their sit-ins and their Freedom Rides. Never has a tinier minority done more for the liberation of a whole people than these few youngsters of C.O.R.E. (Congress for Racial Equality) and S.N.C.C. (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee)."
Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The ICC was reluctant but in September 1961 it issued the necessary orders and it went into effect on 1st November. However, James Lawson, one of the Freedom Riders, argued: "We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change."
As with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the conflict at Little Rock, the Freedom Riders gave world publicity to the racial discrimination suffered by African Americans, and in doing so, helped to bring about change.