The first Freedom Ride began May 4, 1961 when thirteen civil rights activists set out from Washington, D.C. on a public bus bound for the Deep South. Seven black and six white riders sponsored by the Congress on Racial Equality set out to defy state segregation laws. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the previous year that segregation of interstate bus and rail facilities was unconstitutional, but Southern authorities ignored the ruling and continued to enforce state laws while the federal government looked the other way.
Ten days into the journey, a white mob in Birmingham attacked one of the Freedom Riders’ buses. Their other bus was firebombed in nearby Anniston. A few days later, students from the Nashville branch of the sit-in movement, energized by their successful campaign to desegregate their city’s lunch counters, travelled to Birmingham to pick up where CORE left off. In all, about 400 men and women took part in the protest.
In this week’s New Yorker, Calvin Trillin recalls his yearlong stint as a young white reporter covering what was known as “the Seg Beat” for the Atlanta bureau of Time from the fall of 1960 through the fall of 1961. Trillin completed various assignments, including an early story about the eponymous founder of the John Birch Society, who believed that Dwight. D. Eisenhower was a secret Communist agent. “Mostly, though, I’d be at the airport early in the week for a flight to someplace where Jim Crow was being challenged,” he writes. During Trillin’s time on the “Seg Beat,” the New Orleans school system desegregated, sit-ins integrated lunch counters in Nashville and Atlanta, and the Freedom Riders passed through the Deep South. Trillin reported from the bus as the Freedom Ride passed through Alabama and Mississippi. Trillin discusses his essay in this free New Yorker Out Loud podcast.
Trillin almost didn’t get on the bus in the first place. He wasn’t sure whether getting on board would be crossing the line from reporting to activism. In the end, he decided it was a public bus and the press had as much right to be there as anyone else.
Besides, his goal as a reporter was to be fair, not to act as if the segretationists had an equally valid point of view, despite all historical, legal, and moral evidence to the contrary. “I didn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides–the side that thought, for instance, that all Americans had the right to vote and the side that thought that people who acted on such a belief should have their houses burned down–had an equally compelling case to make,” Trillin writes.
Trillin recalls how controversial the Freedom Ride campaign was, even within the civil rights movement. In retrospect, the campaign seems like a natural outgrowth of the successful sit-in movement. However, Trillin notes that many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, didn’t initially see it that way.
The central lie of the pro-segregationist movement was that Southerners of all races were happy with their region’s segregated “way of life.” Actually, Jim Crow wasn’t an ancient way of life, it was a post-Reconstruction-era backlash, but the segretationists weren’t counting. In an astonishing feat of rhetorical jiu jitsu, they claimed the real cause of racial conflict wasn’t black southerners chafing against their second-class citizenship, but rather, outside agitators bent on causing trouble where none existed.
Many civil rights leaders were concerned that Freedom Rides would validate the oppressors’ narrative by pitting outsiders against locals. The Freedom Ride organizers countered that no one was an outsider because they were all Americans.
The tactical dispute fell by the wayside once the Freedom Riders got bogged down in the Deep South under assault. The larger movement and the Kennedy Administration were forced to defend them. The audacity of the Riders ultimately carried the day. After nearly five months of riding, the Interstate Commerce Commission formally banned segregation in interstate bus and rail facilities.
The Freedom Rides are now remembered as an early and important victory in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.
To learn more about the Freedom Rides, check out this free full-length documentary: Freedom Riders, produced by WGBH American Experience, and directed by Stanley Nelson.