April 28, 2011

50 Years Ago in News History: Freedom Riders Seek Equality

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On May 4, 1961, 13 activists boarded two buses and left Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans and a place in civil rights history.

The Freedom Riders, both blacks and whites, wanted to force the federal government to enforce Supreme Court rulings that outlawed segregation in interstate travel. Their cause clashed with local laws that kept blacks and whites separated in bus station restrooms, waiting rooms and lunch counters throughout the South.

The riders practiced nonviolent resistance, despite brutal attacks against them. Some journalists who went along to cover the story were also beaten.

Moses Newson, reporting for the Afro-American newspapers, was on the bus when it was firebombed outside Anniston, Ala. He escaped, but his camera was burned. The camera is currently on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery. "The Press and the Civil Rights Movement," a Newseum-produced video that details the role of the press during the struggle for civil rights, can also be seen in the News History Gallery.

In Birmingham, Ala., Ku Klux Klan members beat the riders and reporters. In Montgomery, Ala., the arrival of one of the buses sparked a riot. Federal marshals were called in to keep the peace as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived to show his support. Undaunted by the attacks, more than 400 riders joined their cause.

On Sept. 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission declared an end to segregation in interstate travel. The Freedom Riders had won.

The Newseum is a partner with PBS's "American Experience" on a series of events, beginning May 6 at the Newseum, to launch the 2011 Student Freedom Ride. Forty college students from across the United States will spend 10 days on a bus retracing the original route from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.

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