The 1961 Freedom Riders had a simple plan. Teams of black and white people would travel on regularly scheduled buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, sitting together on buses and in waiting rooms and eating together in bus station restaurants. The goal was to compel the U.S. government to enforce Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregated transportation seating and facilities. In the South, local laws and customs required segregated bus seating, as well as separate restaurants and waiting rooms for “colored” and “white” people. In some places there were no restrooms or restaurants for "colored” passengers. Sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), 13 Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., on May 4. Ten days later they met Ku Klux Klan–led resistance in Alabama. The vicious attacks in the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Anniston led CORE to abandon the bus ride and complete the journey from Birmingham to New Orleans by plane.
In Nashville, peaceful sit-ins by university students had just won fair treatment for African Americans in the city’s stores, restaurants, and theaters. At first the students had not been sure nonviolence would work. But it had. Their mentor, James Lawson, had trained them to turn the other cheek when they were slapped or called names for being in “whites only” places. When the sit-in veterans learned the CORE Freedom Ride had been derailed, they vowed to continue it. They had little support from the civil rights establishment and none from the U.S. government. They wrote farewell letters and wills, then made their way to Birmingham. Three days later, on May 20, they boarded a Greyhound bus to Montgomery.
At 10:23 a.m. on Saturday, May 20, the Freedom Riders stepped off a bus in Montgomery. They were male and female, black and white. All 20 were college students. Some were studying to be ministers. All were unarmed. They were trained to respond to hatred with love, to violence with forgiveness. As they walked toward the national reporters on the bus platform, the scene was eerily quiet. Suddenly, angry white men, women and children began pouring out of cars and burst from behind nearby buildings. They had weapons and meant to use them to resist this symbolic effort to end segregation. Montgomery public safety commissioner L.B. Sullivan and acting police chief Marvin Stanley had assured Alabama’s governor and the FBI that they would protect the students. Alabama Governor John Patterson had made the same promise to President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. But the police were nowhere to be found.
First the mob attacked reporters and smashed their cameras. Then they set upon the bus riders. John Lewis, the student leader, shouted, “Stand together. Don’t run. Just stand together!” In a moment the rioters were upon them. Several of the male students jumped over a retaining wall and ran into the federal building next door. Lewis, William Barbee, and Jim Zwerg were trapped on the bus station platform and beaten unconscious. Zwerg, a white man, attracted the most violent attacks. The seven women Freedom Riders managed to find a black-owned taxi. But the frightened driver would only take the five who were black. When federal representative John Seigenthaler tried to rescue the two stranded white women, a rioter knocked him unconscious with a metal pipe.
The President and U.S. Attorney General were enraged by the attack on their representative John Seigenthaler and the failure of state and local officials to keep the peace. With longtime supporter Governor John Patterson refusing to accept his calls, President Kennedy reluctantly ordered 400 federal marshals to Montgomery.
On Monday, May 22, the Freedom Riders gathered at Richard Harris’s South Jackson Street home to debate the future of the Freedom Rides. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked for a cooling-off period, while more Montgomery civic groups spoke out against mob violence and police inaction. On Wednesday, May 24, the Freedom Rides resumed, heading for Jackson, Mississippi. Federal and state officials in Alabama and Mississippi had agreed the Riders would be arrested but protected from mob violence. As the first bus left Montgomery, reports came of more Freedom Riders on the way. On Monday, May 29, Attorney General Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to “declare unequivocally by regulation that a Negro passenger is free to travel the length and breadth of this country in the same manner as any other passenger.” .
During the summer and fall, several hundred more Freedom Riders took up the cause, many spending time in Mississippi’s jails. On November 1, 1961, sweeping new Interstate Commerce Commission regulations went into effect. The Freedom Riders had won an unqualified national victory. No longer did African-Americans have to sit separately or use separate waiting rooms and restaurants. Equally significant, the Kennedy administration had forcefully sided with the protesters. Washington had sent federal marshals to protect the Riders in Montgomery and had enforced existing laws and court decisions against racial discrimination. The Freedom Rides were a watershed event, “a psychological turning point in our whole struggle,” in the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The students had become a powerful force for civil rights. They were trained, tested and ready for the voting rights struggles in Mississippi and Alabama.