This 2004 NBC documentary recounts the groundbreaking journey of the Freedom Riders from Washington, D.C. to Montgomery, Alabama in 1961.
The Freedom Riders
LESTER HOLT reporting: In 1961, the Civil Rights Movement took another strategic turn. A small group of activists, both black and white, calling themselves the Freedom Riders, decided to travel by bus through the Deep South, where segregation in bus facilities wasn’t just the custom, it was the law, and where the simple act of boarding a bus was enough to put one’s life on the line.
Announcer: NBC News presents another special report. Tonight, Alabama, USA, the story of continued racial violence in the Deep South.
FRANK McGEE: This current Negro effort, which has been joined by some whites, is directed against segregated waiting rooms maintained at most bus stations in the South. Federal law says they may not segregate passengers who are going from one state to another, but many still do.
Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): There was thirteen of us, seven whites and six blacks. All along the way we saw these signs that said white waiting, colored waiting, white men, colored men, white women, colored women. Segregation was the order of the day.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I would like to ask John Lewis, who stands with me…
HOLT: John Lewis was a founder of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
LEWIS: The Freedom Rides, it’s the untold story of the movement. It’s dangerous, very, very dangerous.
HOLT: On May 4, 1961, the thirteen Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., bound for Montgomery. Days later, as the buses crossed into Alabama, the group encountered its first violent reception.
McGEE: On May 15th, the group, now split into two buses, entered Alabama. Passengers on one bus were attacked at the bus station in Anniston. Another bus, halted outside town by a flat tire, was set afire, and the first bus continued on to Birmingham, where some of its riders were again attacked in a brief, but bloody episode. That night, this group, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality, abandoned its effort.
HOLT: But student leaders like Diane Nash were not about to give up.
DIANE NASH, student protestor: If the Freedom Rides stopped at that point, the message would’ve been sent that all you have to do to stop a project of the movement was to inflict massive violence.
HOLT: Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent one of his aides, John Seigenthaler, to Alabama to monitor the situation. Once there, Seigenthaler told Diane Nash of his fears.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER, Justice Department Observer: I called her and told her that she was sending these young people to their certain danger and possible death, and would you please call this off. And she said, “You know, we all signed our wills last night.”
HOLT: After the attack on the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama’s governor, John Patterson, assured Robert Kennedy he would protect the group as they continued onto Montgomery. NBC Correspondent Herbert Kaplow reported on the next leg of their trip.
HERBERT KAPLOW: I joined an NBC camera crew in Birmingham Saturday morning, and immediately, we went to the bus terminal in Birmingham, where the Freedom Riders had been since the previous afternoon. They had not been able to get to Montgomery because the bus drivers would not drive them, fearing attack by segregationists along the way. Finally, an arrangement was worked out, where the company and a Driver’s Union representative aboard a bus did load and head out, protected along the way by a state car following with other state cars posted along the way. It took about two hours to make the 95-mile trip.
HOLT: When the group arrived in Montgomery, they were met by an angry mob, a mob that was violent and unrestrained by police. John Lewis and his white seatmate were among those attacked and left bloody and staggering.
LEWIS: I was beaten and left lying unconscious in a pool of blood. And my seatmate was beaten so severely on his face, his limbs, teeth knocked out, and he had to be hospitalized for several days. But because of the Freedom Rides, that day in Montgomery, it stirred the nation.
HOLT: Even John Seigenthaler, Robert Kennedy’s eyes and ears in Montgomery that day, took his lumps.
SEIGENTHALER: As I am trying to help two young women, I was hit with a pipe, and hurt and hospitalized.
MARTIN AGRONSKY: You were badly beaten in the streets of Montgomery by anti-integrationists, hoodlums, who attacked you without any interference from state or local police. You’re not inclined to blame that on Governor Patterson?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, I don’t know why the police were not there. I think the important thing is they were not there and that mob rule was the result.
HOLT: Alabama Governor John Patterson told NBC that the federal government was to blame for the violence.
Governor JOHN PATTERSON: These people who came in to Alabama were law violators, they sought to violate our laws and provoke the people into instance. And it’s a--it's a very bad situation, particularly when the federal government, by its actions, encouraged these people to invade Alabama.
McGEE: The Governor of Alabama John Patterson had said, “Citizens of the state are so enraged, I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble rousers.”
HOLT: Alabama was once again the flashpoint in a civil rights battle. The Freedom Riders were forced to take refuge in a church.
LEWIS: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went down into the basement of the church, made a call to Robert Kennedy and told him what was happening. Attorney General Robert Kennedy spoke to President Kennedy. President Kennedy was so disturbed about what was happening in Montgomery, he placed the city of Montgomery under martial law, federalized the Alabama National Guard.
SEIGENTHALER: Montgomery, for about three or four days, was a city under federal siege because the state of Alabama had gone back on its word.
Attorney General ROBERT KENNEDY: But the U.S. Marshals were in the area, there’s no question that there would’ve been major and very bloody violence in Montgomery, Alabama.
HOLT: The marshals held off the crowd outside the church while the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke inside.
KING: We are not giving in for what we are standing for, and maybe it takes something like this for the federal government to see that Alabama is not gonna place any limit upon itself, it must be imposed from without. I hope that we will remain calm as we have done in so many touchy, difficult moments and I know we’re gonna do it. God bless you.
HOLT: The Freedom Riders, and about 2,000 activists spent the night in the church.
LEWIS: And we were forced to stay in that church all night. People sang, they would pray, and they would speak, and at daybreak, we were all placed in jeeps and taken to different parts of the city.
HOLT: With such a strong show of force in the streets of Montgomery that morning, the city was calm.
McGEE: Montgomery remained tense, but quiet today under the eyes of nearly 500 Federal Marshals and about 800 National Guardsmen. This report on the city as it appeared today was filmed on the scene with NBC’s Bill Ryan.
BILL RYAN: It’s impossible to classify Montgomery, Alabama, as one kind of a city or another. There are people in the city who are tense, some with hatred still burning within them, some who burn with shame at what happened in and to their city. There are those who despair at what has taken place in Montgomery, there are those who hope things will remain quiet now, but the extremists of both sides will allow the moderates to seek a solution.
HOLT: A few days later, under the protection of U.S. Marshals, the Freedom Riders continued on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested as soon as they arrived. They were put on trial for trespassing, immediately found guilty, and sentenced to 60 days in a maximum-security prison.
LEWIS: We get to the State Penitentiary of Parchmont, this jailer with his rifle drawn, he says something like, “Sing your [censored] freedom songs now. We have [censored] here. They will beat you up, or they will eat you up.
HOLT: But the Freedom Riders had grown strong in their resolve as well as strong in numbers.
LEWIS: And Dr. King was so proud. He was so happy. He was so gratified to see the movement in motion, that these young people and people not so young, was taking the Freedom Rides, taking the movement into other parts of the Deep South.
HOLT: Late in the summer of ’61, the bus-traveling activists won a decisive victory, when the federal government issued a ruling banning segregation and racial discrimination in all public facilities.
LEWIS: Buses, trains, airports, waiting rooms, that any place there were signs said, “White waiting, colored waiting, white men, colored men, white women, colored women,” those signs would come tumbling down.
HOLT: And from that summer forward, there was a new name given to these civil rights workers, one born of the blood of students who were proud to be called the Freedom Riders.
LEWIS: The term Freedom Riders did become a badge of honor. People started calling all civil rights workers Freedom Riders, that we were riding to freedom.
On May 4, 1961, a group of 13 African-American and white civil rights activists launched the Freedom Rides, a series of bus trips through the American South to protest segregation in interstate bus terminals. The Freedom Riders, who were recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a U.S. civil rights group, departed from Washington, D.C., and attempted to integrate facilities at bus terminals along the way into the Deep South.