In early May 1961, a group of 13 men and women, both black and white, set out from Washington, D.C., on two buses. They called themselves "freedom riders"; they wanted to demonstrate that segregation prevailed throughout much of the South despite a federal ban on segregated travel on interstate buses. The freedom riders' trip was sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group dedicated to breaking down racial barriers through nonviolent protest. Inspired by the nonviolent, direct action ideals incorporated in the philosophy of Indian Nationalist Mahatma Gandhi, the freedom riders were willing to endure jail and suffer beatings to achieve integration. "We can take anything the white man can dish out," said one black freedom rider, "but we want our rights ... and we want them now."
In Virginia and North Carolina, the freedom riders met with little trouble. Black freedom riders were able to use white restrooms and sit at white lunch counters. But in Winnsboro, South Carolina, police arrested two black freedom riders, and outside of Anniston, Alabama, a white hurled a bomb through one of the bus's windows, setting the vehicle on fire. Waiting white thugs beat the freedom riders as they tried to escape the smoke and flames. Eight other whites boarded the second bus and assaulted the freedom riders before police restrained the attackers.
In Birmingham, Alabama, another mob attacked the second bus with blackjacks and lengths of pipe. In Montgomery, a club-swinging mob of 100 whites attacked the freedom riders; and a group of white youths poured an inflammable liquid on one black man, igniting his clothing. Local police arrived ten minutes later, state police an hour later. Explained Montgomery's police commissioner: "We have no intention of standing police guard for a bunch of troublemakers coming into our city."
President Kennedy was appalled by the violence. He hastily deputized 400 federal marshals and Treasury agents and flew them to Alabama to protect the freedom riders' rights. The president publicly called for a "cooling-off period," but conflict continued. When the freedom riders arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, 27 were arrested for entering a "white-only" washroom and were sentenced to 60 days on the state prison farm.
The threat of racial violence in the South led the Kennedy administration to pressure the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate air, bus, and train terminals. In more than 300 Southern terminals, signs saying "white" and "colored" were taken down from waiting room entrances and lavatory doors.
Civil rights activists next aimed to open state universities to black students. Many Southern states opened their universities to black students without incident. Other states were stiff-backed in their opposition to integration. The depth of hostility to integration was apparent in an incident that took place in February 1956. A young woman named Autherine Lucy became the first black student ever admitted to the University of Alabama. A mob of 1,000 greeted the young woman with the chant, "Keep 'Bama White!" Two days later, rioting students threw stones and eggs at the car she was riding in to attend class. Lucy decided to withdraw from school, and for the next seven years, no black students attended the University of Alabama.
A major breakthrough occurred in September 1962, when a federal court ordered the state of Mississippi to admit James Meredith--a nine-year veteran of the Air Force--to the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Ross Barnett, the state's governor, promised on statewide television that he would "not surrender to the evil and illegal forces of tyranny" and would go to jail rather than permit Meredith to register for classes. Barnett flew into Oxford, named himself special registrar of the university, and ordered the arrest of federal officials who tried to enforce the court order.
James Meredith refused to back down. A "man with a mission and a nervous stomach," Meredith was determined to get a higher education. "I want to go to the university," he said. "This is the life I want. Just to live and breathe--that isn't life to me. There's got to be something more." He arrived at the Ole Miss campus in the company of police officers, federal marshals, and lawyers. Angry white students waited, chanting, "Two, four, six, eight--we don't want to integrate."
Four times James Meredith tried unsuccessfully to register at Ole Miss. He finally succeeded on the fifth try, escorted by several hundred federal marshals. The ensuing riot left 2 people dead and 375 injured, including 166 marshals. Ultimately, President Kennedy sent 16,000 troops to stop the violence.
Copyright 2016 Digital History