Representative John Lewis, who died on Friday at 80, was an imposing figure in American politics and the civil rights movement. But his legacy of confronting racism directly, while never swaying from his commitment to nonviolence, started long before he became a national figure.
Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, was among the original 13 Freedom Riders who rode buses across the South in 1961 to challenge segregation in public transportation. The riders were attacked and beaten, and one of their buses was firebombed, but the rides changed the way people traveled and set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
How did the Freedom Rides start?
In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE, created a “Journey of Reconciliation” to draw attention to racial segregation in public transportation in Southern cities and states across the United States. That movement was only moderately successful, but it led to the Freedom Rides of 1961, which forever changed the way Americans traveled between states.
The Freedom Rides, which began in May 1961 and ended late that year, were organized by CORE’s national director, James Farmer. The mission of the rides was to test compliance with two Supreme Court rulings: Boynton v. Virginia, which declared that segregated bathrooms, waiting rooms and lunch counters were unconstitutional, and Morgan vs. Virginia, in which the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to implement and enforce segregation on interstate buses and trains. The Freedom Rides took place as the Civil Rights movement was gathering momentum, and during a period in which African-Americans were routinely harassed and subjected to segregation in the Jim Crow South.
Who were the first 13 Freedom Riders?
The original Freedom Riders were 13 Black and white men and women of various ages from across the United States.
Raymond Arsenault, a Civil Rights historian and the author “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” said CORE had advertised for participants and asked for applications. “They wanted a geographic distribution and age distribution,” he said.
Among those chosen were the Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, a minister from High Point, N.C., and Charles Person of Atlanta, then a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who was the youngest of the group at 18. “They had antinuclear activists; they had a husband-and-wife team from Michigan,” Mr. Arsenault said of the diverse group of participants.
Mr. Lewis, then 21, represented the Nashville movement, which staged demonstrations at department stores and sit-ins at lunch counters. But Mr. Lewis nearly missed his opportunity, according to his 1998 autobiography, “Walking With the Wind.” After receiving his bus ticket to Washington, D.C., from CORE, Mr. Lewis was driven to the bus station by two friends, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette. He arrived to find that his scheduled bus had already departed. “We threw my bag back in Bevel’s car, floored it east and caught up in Murfreesboro,” Mr. Lewis said.
The original group completed a few days of training in Washington, Mr. Arsenault said, preparing by role-playing to respond in nonviolent ways to the harassment that they would endure.
As the movement grew, so did the number of participants. Later in May, in Jackson, Miss., Mr. Lewis and hundreds of other protesters were arrested and hastily convicted of breach of peace. Many of the Freedom Riders spent six weeks in prison, sweltering in filthy, vermin-infested cells.
What was the first ride like?
On May 4, 1961, the first crew of 13 Freedom Riders left Washington for New Orleans in two buses. The group encountered some resistance in Virginia, but they didn’t encounter violence until they arrived in Rock Hill, S.C. At the bus station there, Mr. Lewis and another rider were beaten, and a third person was arrested after using a whites-only restroom.
When they reached Anniston, Ala., on May 14, Mother’s Day, they were met by an angry mob. Local officials had given the Ku Klux Klan permission to attack the riders without consequences. The first bus was firebombed outside Anniston while the mob held the door closed. The passengers were beaten as they fled the burning bus.
When the second bus reached Anniston, eight Klansmen boarded it and attacked and beat the Freedom Riders. The bus managed to continue on to Birmingham, Ala., where the passengers were again attacked at a bus terminal, this time with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains.
At one point during the rides, Mr. Lewis and others were attacked by a mob of white people in Montgomery, Ala., and he was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal. He was jailed several times and spent a month in Mississippi’s notoriously notorious Parchman Penitentiary.
The attacks received widespread attention in the news media, but they pushed Mr. Farmer to end the initial campaign. The Freedom Riders finished their journey to New Orleans by plane.
Many more Freedom Rides followed over the next several months. Ultimately, 436 riders participated in more than 60 Freedom Rides, Mr. Arsenault said.
Were the rides a success?
On May 29, 1961, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban to segregation in interstate bus travel, according to PBS. The order, which was issued on Sept. 22 and went into effect on Nov. 1, led to the removal of Jim Crow signs from stations, waiting rooms, water fountains and restrooms in bus terminals.
Three years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public spaces across the United States.
How did the Freedom Rides influence Mr. Lewis’s career?
Mr. Lewis attained a particular status as a civil rights activist because he had been arrested and beaten so many times, Mr. Arsenault said.
“He was absolutely fearless and courageous, totally committed,” he said. “People knew that he always had their back and that they could count on him. He had an incorruptible commitment to nonviolence.”
In 1963, Mr. Lewis became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped to organize the March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“That whole experience and in his role with the Freedom Riders really consolidated his reputation as this fearless civil rights activist who really had a strategic sense of the power of nonviolence,” said Kevin Gaines, the Julian Bond professor of civil rights and social justice at the University of Virginia. “Lewis really emerged among a group of impressive and very effective civil rights leaders.”