February 1, 2011

50 Years Ago in News History: The Freedom Rides

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Each week during the month of February, the Newseum will look back 50 years to the historic Freedom Rides. Like the sit-in movement that was launched in 1960, the young Freedom Riders — black and white — used civil disobedience to highlight the brutal injustice of segregation in the South. They rode together, ate together, sat in the bus terminals together and were attacked together.

On May 4, 1961, the first group of 13 Freedom Riders boarded interstate buses in Washington, D.C., and traveled through the Deep South, bound for New Orleans, to defy Jim Crow laws that enforced segregated travel. Of the 13 Freedom Riders, seven were white. In Alabama, they were attacked by an angry mob of segregationists who were aided and abetted by southern police. Their buses were firebombed.

These videos on the Freedom Rides highlight the dramatic stories of those who were part of them.

  • The Rev. Ben "Elton" Cox was a 30-year-old minister in 1961 and one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. He made out a will and left it with family before embarking on a bus ride that would prove to be more violent than most imagined.
  • Reporter Moses Newson covered the Freedom Rides for the Afro-American Newspapers. He was on the Greyhound bus that was firebombed in Anniston, Ala. He and his fellow riders escaped, but his camera was burned in the fire.
  • Simeon Booker, a reporter for Ebony and Jet magazines, was on board the Trailways bus that was attacked.
  • Rep. John Lewis, then-head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), recruited his peers to keep the rides alive after the adults feared they had been stymied by violence. He was beaten by an angry mob.
  • John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center in Nashville and a former aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brokered an agreement with the Alabama governor for safe passage for the riders. He suffered severe injuries after being beaten with a lead pipe.
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