Thirteen men and women made history when they courageously defied the segregation norms of the United States in 1961, during the Civil Rights Movement. Their efforts would pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which were crucial acts passed to end legal segregation in the United States. 

This post tells their story through newspaper content written about the Freedom Riders, showing how publications at the time reported on the movement. The reports reveal the racial attitudes of the American South at the time and provide fascinating first-hand accounts from those who saw the rides taking place. 

the freedom riders

Mug shots of a group of Freedom Riders
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Who Were The Freedom Riders?

The Freedom Riders were a group of thirteen young people who rode buses across the Southern states to challenge segregation laws surrounding public transport. The origins of the Freedom Rides came from the 1947 “Journey of Reconciliation” created by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which attempted to focus attention on the way in which transport in Southern cities and states was racially segregated. 

At the time the Freedom Rides took place, the renowned Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was gathering momentum, and African American citizens were still subject to racial hatred and discrimination in the Jim Crow Southern states. Starting in May 1961, and led by the director of CORE James Farmer, the main aim of the Freedom Riders was to test the compliance with two Supreme Court Rulings:

  • Boynton v. Virginia, which claimed that the segregation of lunch counters, waiting rooms and bathrooms was unconstitutional
  • Morgan v. Virginia, which stated that it was unconstitutional to implement and enforce segregation on interstate trains and buses.

Among the riders was representative John Lewis, then aged 21, who would become a crucial figure in the civil rights movement and American politics. In total, there were seven black and six white riders, with the defiant act crossing racial boundaries. While the original group of riders was small, the group expanded dramatically as the movement took off. Some of the other riders included, but were not limited to: 

  • CORE Director James Farmer – leader of the Freedom Riders
  • Raymond Arsenault
  • Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox
  • Genevieve Hughes
  • Mae Frances Moultrie
  • Joseph Perkins
  • Charles Person
  • Ivor Moore
  • William E. Harbour
  • Joan Trumpauer Mullholland
  • Ed Blankenheim

Before the riders took off, they engaged in some training in the form of role-playing so they could prepare for some of the harassment they would face. Racial segregation and discrimination was still in full force during this time, particularly in the American South, so the group were completely aware of the backlash they would face as a result of their actions. 

Racial violence was common in the states they were travelling across and their efforts would be strongly disapproved of by white southerners. The Freedom Riders journey became an iconic part of the civil rights movement and was a memorable attempt to challenge the racial norms of the American South.

Freedom Rider Mobbing

On Sunday, May 21, 1961, The Washington Post reported on the violent mobbing of the Freedom Riders, 17 days after their traveling first began. The front page headline on this day was: 

freedom riders story

The Washington Post headline, Sunday, May 21, 1961

Immediately, we can interpret that the violence was extreme, since marshals had been ordered by the President to offer back up support due to the eruption of mobbing. The subheading also stated “U.S. Official Is Knocked Unconscious,” showing the public the seriousness of the situation. According to the newspaper: 

“James Zwerg, the only white youth among the freedom riders, apparently was the most seriously hurt.” 

This  reveals to us that the violent mobs were infuriated by the whole group and their efforts, and were not afraid to attack whoever was involved, no matter the color of their skin. 

The newspaper includes a quote from screaming women, giving us an insight into the racial attitudes of the time: 

“Kill the n*****-loving……,” several women screamed when the Appleton, Wis., youth stepped from the bus.” 

This quote allows us to feel the strength of racial hatred among some white Southerners who were at the station where the participants got off. 

This Washington Post issue also pays a lot of attention to James Zwerg, writing that:

 “Several bearded youths immediately pounced on Zwerg, a tall youth dressed in an olive green business suit. He was knocked to the pavement with a rain of blows to the face and shoulders and lay bleeding profusely in the street.” 

Since Zwerg was the only white person on the bus at this time, did the newspaper focus on him for this reason, or was it purely because he was badly hurt?

In terms of the official knocked unconscious, the newspaper writes that:

 “The Kennedy aide who was beaten was John Seigenthaler, 32, an administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.” 

At the time, Seigenthaler was in the South to have discussions about the best way to protect the Freedom Riders. While trying to help one girl escape the mob, he was knocked unconscious. Interestingly, the newspaper reported:

 “A reporter asked Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan why an ambulance wasn’t called for Zewrg and Seigenthaler.” 

Sullivan allegedly replied that every white ambulance in town had reported that their vehicles had broken down. 

The Violence Continues

The same newspaper issue continues discussing the mobbing on the following page, claiming that:

“The actual violence was carried out by only 25 or 30 of the estimated 300 persons that gathered at the bus terminals for the freedom riders arrival.”

 This shows that the Freedom Riders had gained significant attention from the public, allowing their cause to spread further, especially when the Washington Post goes on to say that the crowds got up to an estimated 1500 to 2000 people. 

Details of the violence were included in the reports, stating that:

“Suitcases were ripped from the hands of the students and smashed on the pavement. Later, onlookers gathered the scattered clothing that was in the street, piled it together along with an English composition textbook, and set it afire.” 

The burning of their belongings was definitely a symbolic act of violence that showed strong hatred for the cause of the Freedom Riders. As well as this:

“Teargas was used to break up several scuffles that erupted in the vicinity of the bus station. One youth was taken into custody after beating a Negro man to the sidewalk with his fists.”

freedom riders story

 The Washington Post headline, Sunday, May 21, 1961

The Freedom Riders were already being written into the history books with the Time-Life Bureau manager, Norman Ritter, present, along with this photographer, Don Urbock. The newspaper stated that:

“The two were collaborating on a story about the freedom riders, who had the avowed purpose of breaking down racial barriers at bus stations and terminals and in the vehicles themselves,” aiming to share the genuine intentions of the riders.

Lack of Police Protection

The aforementioned commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, claimed that there would be no special police measures taken to ensure the safety of the Freedom Riders. At this point, they were hiding in secret locations. L. B. Sullivan stated that:

”We responded to a call here (at the bus station) just like we would any place else,”  he said. “But we have no intention of standing police guard for a bunch of trouble makers coming into our city and making trouble.”

This statement shows that the police were unwilling to protect the Freedom Riders, with a “bunch of trouble makers” suggesting they are responsible. Rather than criticizing the white mobs for the trouble caused by their violent reactions, the commissioner blames the Freedom Riders who were peacefully protesting on public transport. The commissioner essentially claims that the rioting is their fault, since they prompted violent responses from the public. 

“Eyewitness Tells Story of Rioting”

A fascinating aspect of the reporting on the Freedom Riders was the inclusion of an eyewitness account in The Washington Post. This story was printed in the issue on May 21, regarding the violence that had taken place the day before. The eyewitness claims that: 

“Finally the short white man knocked the camera out of the TV photographer’s hands and hit the photographer in the mouth. Several other white men ran up and stomped the camera to bits.”

Could this reaction from the white man be a fear of the story spreading further? Did the mobs not want the event to be reported? The eyewitness continues: 

“Two other photographers – with still cameras – were beaten and one of their cameras was smashed.” 

The eyewitness then claims they were shouted at by the white man, then attacked themselves. 

the freedom riders

The Washington Post headline, Sunday, May 21, 1961

Armed Officers Dispatched

The racial violence had become so extreme in Alabama that:

 “The Justice Department ordered several hundred armed Federal law officers into Alabama last night,” last night being May 20. 

This suggests that the police in the area were not coping with the extent of the violence and needed back up. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy:

“…instructed the Justice Department to take “all necessary steps” to deal with the racial strife which the “Freedom Ride” has left in its wake across Alabama.”

As well as this, Robert F. Kennedy:

 “…directed an “extra team” of FBI agents to investigate the week’s riots in Montgomery and Birmingham,” which also shows that the Freedom Riders were still getting significant government and media attention, a positive outcome from their efforts. 

The Governor of Alabama then stated: 

“If the Federal Government really wants to help in this unfortunate situation, they will encourage these outside agitators to go home. We have the means and the ability to keep the peace in Alabama without any outside help.” 

Once again, the blame for violence is being placed on the peaceful Freedom Riders as “outside agitators,” as opposed to the white mobs who reacted violently and started the rioting. The Governor continues with: 

“We cannot escore busloads or carloads of rabble rousers about our State… for the avowed purpose of disobeying our laws, flaunting our customs and traditions and creating racial incidents.”

freedom riders journey

The Washington Post, Sunday, May 21, 1961

As previously mentioned, Commissioner L. B. Sullivan had claimed that there was going to be no special protection given to the Freedom Riders. However, this seems to go against what had been advised by Robert F. Kennedy: 

“Prior to their arrival we took the additional precautionary step of having the FBI notify the Police Department that these students were coming and ask the police to take all necessary steps for their protection.” 

Was their lack of sympathy and frustration that their actions had caused violence stopping the police from going ahead with extra protection steps?

Arrests Made

On Tuesday, May 23, 1961, The Washington Post reported that some arrests had been made following the Freedom Riders actions and the violence incited by the mobs. The headline read: 

freedom riders

The Washington Post, Tuesday, May 23, 1961 

It seems that the violence had increased again, this time with one of the buses being burned by an angry mob. Allegedly:

 “During the first of these rides on May 14, an incendiary bomb was thrown through the window of the Greyhound bus which had stopped just outside Anniston for repairs. The bus was burned and several riders suffered from smoke inhalation.” 

Following the incident, the newspaper writes that the mobbers were:

“charged with the federal offense of destroying an interstate bus during the first of the mob actions there a week ago last Sunday.” 

Ultimately, it appears that they were charged with destroying the bus, rather than for the intent of hurting the Freedom Riders or causing harm to others, which says a lot about race relations of the time.

freedom riders arrested

A mugshot of Miller G. Green when he was arrested in Jackson, MS for being a part of The Freedom Rides
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Discipline for Students

The student Freedom Riders were also about to face trouble at their universities for their involvement in the protest. The newspaper claimed that:

 “State officials are studying possible disciplinary action against the Tennessee A&I University students involved in “Freedom Rider” riots in Alabama, Gov. Buford Ellington said today.” 

While they were testing compliance of the Supreme Court decisions, and were riding peacefully against customary rules, the students could have had their education impacted by their role.

The Ku Klux Klan Intervene

The Washington Post on May 23 also reported on the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan. The newspaper stated that:

 “The grand wizard of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan said here today the Klans of the Nation would amalgamate in an effort to prevent further integration attempts in the South” 

This statement is written in a way that suggests their actions are heroically preventing desegregation, which also gives us an insight into racial attitudes of the time. 

The wizard, Bobby Shelton, claimed that while the Ku Klux Klan did not condone violence, the organization would “take all measures necessary” to preserve Alabama customs. This shows that there was significant backlash against the Freedom Riders motivations, with the hate group attempting to prevent any racial change to Alabama. We can see that there were many white Southerners fearful of racial integration and wanted to do all they could to stop the Freedom Riders actions having any impact on the longstanding, racist customs in Alabama. 

From Montgomery to Mississippi

On Thursday, May 25, 1961, The Washington Post reported: 

freedom riders

The Washington Post, Thursday, May 25, 1961

The Freedom Riders had traveled from Montgomery into Mississippi and were met with immediate arrests in an attempt to prevent violence comparable to the rioting in Alabama on previous days. The newspaper wrote:

 “Two busloads of white and Negro “Freedom Riders” entered race-conscious Mississippi from the riot-scarred capital of Alabama today and were promptly arrested by waiting police.” 

With Freedom Riders arrested immediately, there was hopefully less of a chance that they would create violent reactions from mobs.

The second bus of Freedom Riders would also face quick arrests, and The Washington Post reveals to the public what they did specifically to be arrested so soon. The newspaper claims they were taken to jail when they “tried to enter the white cafeteria at the bus station.” With cafeterias still segregated, their actions went against the racial norms of the state. They also began to sing hymns in the police wagon, which creates a fearless atmosphere about being put behind bars.

A further act of defiance was described when the newspaper claimed:

 “The men walked into the white rest room after reading a sign saying that the Negro area was closed. They laughed at that.” 

The Washington Post then goes on to report that:

 “All were first held in lieu of $1500 bond on three charges each of inciting to riot, breach of the peace and refusing to obey an officer. The inciting-to-riot charge – the most serious of the three – later was dropped…” 

Here, the law proves that blame was being put on the Freedom Riders for the inciting of violence, not the white mob who acted violently. The Freedom Riders had peaceful intentions to break segregation laws, and did not engage in violent protesting themselves. 

Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy announced that the Justice Department did not have the power to prevent people from traveling, but asked people to “use their restraint and weigh their actions carefully.” One of the factors that caused this was that “a constant stream of incidents in the South might bring disastrous international consequences.” While the motivations of the Freedom Riders were internal, it seems the government were concerned about international relations and the reputation of the United States. 

Corruption Among The Police

The Washington Post claimed:

 “The complaint filed in Federal Court in Alabama asserts that Connor, Moore and other officers in Birmingham deliberately withheld police protection when a mob attacked the Freedom Riders there on May 14.” 

Apparently, the police were aware of when the bus was arriving in town, and knew that the bus riders’ safety would be threatened, but they failed to give them police protection. The report goes on to say:

 “The complaint also asserted that Sullivan and the Montgomery police took no measures to  protect the bus load of students there last Saturday.”

This shows that the police were not committed to protecting the Freedom Riders, which could be due to a belief that the Freedom Riders were evoking violence themselves. This gives an insight into how the Freedom Riders were treated by the forces.

As we can see from these Washington Post newspaper reports, the coverage about the Freedom Riders in the publication was mainly negative, revealing details of the violent outbreaks in the South as a result of their peaceful protesting. Looking back on these reports is a fantastic way to gain an insight into the tense race relations in the South during the 1960s and understand the racially-motivated reactions that affected the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement.

Take a look at a Freedom Riders newspaper article for yourself in our Civil Rights book, filled with original newspaper reports spanning 1954-1968.

As expected, the newspaper coverage was not very positive about the group’s intentions, despite their efforts later bringing about positive change for minorities in the United States. The Freedom Riders had expected violence, and that is very much what they received. It wouldn’t be until a few years later that the efforts of the Riders would form a very crucial stepping stone towards the landmark acts of the 1960s that would make discrimination illegal.