Fifty years ago today, on May 4, 1961, the first group of black and white students, calling themselves the Freedom Riders, got on two public buses in Washington D.C. and headed south to challenge the continued de facto segregation of public transportation, which had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court only six months prior.
This small group of 12 people, despite being beaten so badly that they were forced to stop, inspired hundreds of others to join the campaign that eventually led to the desegregation of bus and train stations throughout the country.
On Democracy Now! there is a wonderful segment today about the Freedom Riders, that includes clips from a new documentary called Freedom Riders, which will air on PBS at 9/8C on May 16, and interviews with Bernard Lafayette and Jim Zwerg, who both took part in the Freedom Rides.
While Martin Luther King didn’t take part in the Freedom Rides, Lafayette explains why and recounts an amazing story from that period that shows his remarkable commitment to nonviolence:
…there was some taxi drivers there in Montgomery, black cab taxi drivers. And we had received word that they were mobilizing and arming themselves to come and rescue us. And there were a large number of cab drivers and taxi companies in Montgomery, because during the boycott a lot of people started driving their cars. They had 27 black cab companies in Montgomery, and some of them only had two cabs.
But the thing that really struck me, and I’ll never forget, is that Martin Luther King stood in the pulpit of the church, the First Baptist Church, when a mob was surrounding the church, and he said, “I want some—I want a few people who really are sure about their nonviolence, because we’ve got a special mission.” And everybody did not volunteer, including a lot of the ministers, but he got a little group together, maybe about eight or 10 maybe. He walked out of that church, through the mob, to dissuade those cab drivers from coming with arms to rescue us. This was before the marshals show up. And then he walked back through the mob. Now that is one mystery in the whole thing that I have never been able to fathom.
Last week, NPR ran a wonderful segment about the Freedom Riders that included excerpts from an interview that Terry Gross did in 1985 with civil rights leader James Farmer Jr., who helped organize the campaign, that is really worth listening to. Farmer tells some wonderful stories about their time in prison during the Freedom Rides and how they sang to keep the spirits up.
The complete interview with Farmer can be heard on NPR by clicking here.