The original group of 13 Freedom Riders – seven African Americans and six whites – left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. Their plan was to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.
The group traveled through Virginia and North Carolina, drawing little public notice. The first violent incident occurred on May 12 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. John Lewis, an African-American seminary student, white Freedom Rider and World War II veteran Albert Bigelow, and another African-American rider were viciously attacked as they attempted to enter a whites-only waiting area.
On May 14, 1961, the Greyhound bus was the first to arrive in Anniston, Alabama. There, an angry mob of about 200 white people surrounded the bus, causing the driver to continue past the bus station. The mob followed the bus in automobiles, and when the tires on the bus blew out, someone threw a bomb into the bus. The Freedom Riders escaped the bus as it burst into flames, only to be brutally beaten by members of the surrounding mob.
Photographs of the burning Greyhound bus and the bloodied riders appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and around the world the next day, drawing international attention to the Freedom Riders’ cause and the state of race relations in the United States.
U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, began negotiating with Governor John Patterson of Alabama and the bus companies to secure a driver and state protection for the new group of Freedom Riders. The rides resumed, on a Greyhound bus departing Birmingham under police escort, on May 20.
The violence toward the Freedom Riders was not quelled -rather, the police abandoned the Greyhound bus just before it arrived at the Montgomery, Alabama, terminal, where a white mob attacked the riders with baseball bats and clubs as they disembarked. Attorney General Kennedy sent 600 federal marshals to the city to stop the violence.
The following night, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led a service at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, which was attended by more than one thousand supporters. A riot ensued outside the church, and King called Robert Kennedy to ask for protection. Kennedy summoned the federal marshals, who used teargas to disperse the white mob.
On May 24, 1961, a group of Freedom Riders departed Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi. There, several hundred supporters greeted the riders. However, those who attempted to use the whites-only facilities were arrested for trespassing and taken to the maximum-security penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.
During their hearings, the judge turned and looked at the wall rather than listen to the Freedom Riders’ defense – as had been the case when sit-in participants were arrested for protesting segregated lunch counters in Tennessee. He sentenced the riders to 30 days in jail.
The violence and arrests continued to garner national and international attention, and drew hundreds of new Freedom Riders to the cause. The rides continued over the next several months, and in the fall of 1961, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, the Interstate Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals.