Key Moments in the Fight for Civil Rights

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1961 – The Freedom Rides

After the 1960 presidential election, civil rights activists pressure the Kennedy administration to support their cause and existing laws. The Supreme Court has banned segregation in interstate travel twice, but Southern states widely ignore the rulings. In May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sends mixed-race groups of non-violent volunteers, known as Freedom Riders, on bus trips into Dixie. They meet minor resistance in the upper South, but when they get to Alabama, trouble erupts. Segregationists firebomb a bus in Anniston, Alabama, and Klan members attack the passengers as they disembark in Birmingham.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy tries to protect the Riders, telling Governor John Patterson he will send federal troops if the state can’t maintain law and order. On the next leg of the trip, from Birmingham to Montgomery, the promised state police escorts evaporate. The Riders are assaulted and bloodied when they arrive in Martin Luther King’s home town. As the violence rages, Kennedy calls in U.S. marshals, and ultimately Patterson is forced to dispatch the Alabama National Guard as well.

When the riders continue into Mississippi under protection, they encounter heavy police presence and no violence — but they are arrested in Jackson and sentenced to the maximum-security Parchman Penitentiary for trespassing. CORE sends more riders to the South to keep the protest going. Over the course of the next few months, 300 riders are arrested and sentenced in Mississippi. The activists find camaraderie in Parchman, singing freedom songs and providing mutual support. Ultimately, the Freedom Riders win their battle when Kennedy gets the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in interstate travel.

Much of this text is excerpted, with permission, from the website for the American Experience series Eyes on the Prize. Read more about these events and others on that site.

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