In 1961, a dozen or so friends decided to test a new Supreme Court ruling in the case Boynton v. Virginia that banned the forced separation of whites and blacks in interstate travel. The friends became known as the Freedom Riders, a mix of African-Americans and whites riding various forms of public transportation in the South to challenge the era of segregation. Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, one of the original Freedom Riders, discusses the original goals of the Freedom Riders.
John Lewis Discusses Reenacting Historic Bus Rides of 1961
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, co-host:
Forty years ago, a dozen or so friends decided to test a new ruling that banned the forced separation of whites and blacks in interstate travel. They became known as Freedom Riders, and they paved the way for the civil rights struggle. John Lewis joined the original rides. He is now a Congressman from Georgia. Well, today they're retracing their steps from the spring of '61.
Congressman Lewis, good morning to you. Thanks for joining us.
Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): Good morning. I'm delighted to be with you this morning.
O'BRIEN: Well, thank you very much, and we are delighted to have you. The Freedom Rides were a critical event, not only in American history but, of course, in the struggle for racial equality. But when you set out on that--those days back in '61, what were your goals?
Rep. LEWIS: Our goals was not just to end segregation and racial discrimination in areas of public transportation, but it was also to take the civil rights movement into the heart of the Deep South. Back in 1961, all across the South, when you attempted to board a bus, you saw those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting. Segregation was the order of the day. There was a tremendous amount of fear when someone would board a bus in Washington, DC, and try to travel through Virginia, through North Carolina and into South Carolina. And we were met by violence in Anniston, Alabama, in Birmingham, in Montgomery, and we were jailed in Mississippi. It was very dangerous, back in 1961, to get on a bus and travel in an interracial group through the South.
O'BRIEN: I want to talk about that violence in just a moment. But first, here you are, 1961, a young man, early 20s. Did you have any concept of the history that you were creating at the time? Were you nervous? Were you excited?
Rep. LEWIS: Well, in 1961, you're right, I was only 21 years old, I had all of my hair and I was a few pounds lighter. And we wanted to desegregate places of public transportation. I had been involved in the sit-ins, I studied the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. But I was not concerned about making history. I just wanted to change things. Like so many other young people, we didn't like what we saw.
O'BRIEN: Did you expect violence along the way? And tell me about some of the violence you did experience.
Rep. LEWIS: Well, we were prepared for the violence. Some had suggested that there was a possibility that we could even face death in some parts of the South back in 1961. Some of us, as young people, wrote out wills, last statements. I remember so well the night of May 3rd, 1961. We went downtown, Washington, DC, and had dinner together, and some people suggested that we should eat well because this may be like the Last Supper.
O'BRIEN: In fact, your group was firebombed; they were beaten in some cases. As you stand in front of a replica of the original bus, what are the goals now, 40 years later?
Rep. LEWIS: The goal now is to complete the effort that was started in 1961, and even before 1961. To move America toward a truly interracial democracy. To build the beloved community. To build, what I like to call, one house, one family, the American house, the American family. We all must live in this house together. And it doesn't matter whether we are black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American, we all live in this house.
O'BRIEN: We wish you the best of luck in your travels in your re-enactment today and the next several days. Congressman John Lewis...
Rep. LEWIS: Well, thanks--thank you very much.
O'BRIEN: ...and also the rest of the Freedom Riders.
On May 4, 1961, a group of African-American and white civil rights activists started the Freedom Rides. These were a series of bus trips through the South to protest segregation. The Freedom Riders departed from Washington, D.C., and tried to integrate bus stations along the way.
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