Congressman John Lewis recalls May 4 in 1961, when seven whites and six blacks traveled south to test a decision of the U. S. Supreme Court to outlaw segregation in public transportation. Attorney General Robert Kennedy intervenes on behalf of these Freedom Riders.
Robert Kennedy Responds to Attacks on Freedom Riders
Congressman JOHN LEWIS: Thirteen of us: seven whites and six blacks, traveling through the South, to test a decision of the United States Supreme Court outlawing segregation in public transportation.
Mr. JOHN SEIGENTHALER: They came to be known from the outset as the Freedom Riders. The first wave of Freedom Riders left Baltimore and traveled through the South and got as far as Anniston, Alabama, where on a tragic Sunday afternoon, the buses they were riding were stopped in the middle of the highway. The buses were bombed and burned. The Freedom Riders were mauled and beaten, some of them maimed, and sent back to Birmingham. It was a terrible tragedy. It was a trauma.
Congressman LEWIS: We arrived outside of the Birmingham city limits, and Bull Connor, the police commissioner of the city of Birmingham, met the bus. They were arrested and taken to jail.
Mr. EDWIN GUTHMAN: Other Freedom Riders came in, and the buses went into Birmingham and arrived on Mother's Day, and there were no police there because, according to the police commissioner, they were all home with their mothers. And the mob beat the Freedom Riders.
Mr. MARSHALL: What Bob Kennedy wanted to know was what could the federal government do. We concocted a lawsuit against the Birmingham police and the Klan.
Mr. SEIGENTHALER: So Robert Kennedy asked me if I would go down and work it out so that we could get them out of Birmingham. Fortunately, Delta Airlines cooperated, and we got them out of there on the first flight. Three o'clock in the morning, the attorney general called me and said, “Another wave of Freedom Riders has started into Alabama.” By the time I got there, Bull Connor had them in jail.
Congressman LEWIS: Robert Kennedy got involved in negotiating with the officials of Greyhound and the officials of the state of Alabama to get us out of Birmingham to Montgomery.
Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Bull Connor protected them to the city limits of
Birmingham. When they peeled off there was no police protection. They had set a trap.
Congressman LEWIS: A mob came out of nowhere, with baseball bats and lead pipes and chains. And then they turned on all of us. Later that evening, those of us that was not still hospitalized met and decided that we were going to have a mass meeting the next day in Montgomery. We disguised ourselves as members of the choir. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others came to the church.
Mrs. KING: Martin was inside with the people. The white mob had surrounded the church, and they were not able to--didn't feel it was safe to get out to go home.
Congressman LEWIS: And it was at that time that Dr. King went into the basement of the church and made a call to Robert Kennedy, and said it was a dangerous mob here. Hundreds of people could be killed that night.
Mr. MARSHALL: He sent somebody over to the White House with a presidential order for the president to sign that legitimated the role of the marshals in--in Montgomery.
Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: (From file footage) Troops are on the way into Montgomery now and will be here very soon. They have requested that all of us stay in here...
Mrs. KING: They did eventually send in the troops during that night, and they got the people home before day in the morning, but that was a very scary night. But...
Congressman LEWIS: It was a testing moment for the movement, for the South, but for this young administration, really, for this young president, and for this young attorney general.
The first time John Lewis staged a sit-in, he was a young leader in the civil rights movement.
Lewis learned from Martin Luther King Jr. and was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In Alabama, he marched from Selma to Montgomery.
Lewis is now a congressman from Georgia.