☞ Buy the new improved expanded paperback edition!

An EZ Guide to sounding smart when talking about the Freedom Rides

Today nearly half of the 400-plus 1961 Freedom Riders are in Chicago taping Oprah. It airs next Wednesday, May 4, the 50th anniversary of the day the Rides began. The classic WGBH/PBS two-hour documentary airs on Monday, May 16.

If you’re a bit hazy on the details, here’s an EZ-FAQ to help you sound like you know what you’re talking about when all the hubub kicks into high gear.

Wow, Oprah?
Damn straight.

Wait, the Freedom Rides were . . .
In 1961, 400+ people were arrested for integrating bus and train stations and airports in the South.

I remember Freedom Summer, is that . . .
Freedom Summer came three years later, in 1964, when hundreds of college students went to Mississippi to work with local organizers on voter registration.

Is that when . . .
Yes, Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodmen were murdered outside Philadelphia, on June 21, 1964.

Were any Riders . . .
No Riders were killed.

Is there a cheap, easy irony here?
Yes, while the Rides were still going on, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with several leaders of the Rides and the Movement and offered support of various kinds if they would focus on voter registration instead of nonviolent direction action. The administration considered voter registration a safer alternative.

But weren’t the Riders attacked . . .
Yes, Klan mobs came very close to killing Riders in three vicious attacks in Alabama. In Anniston, they firebombed a bus, but the Riders managed to escape. At the stations In Birmingham and Montgomery, the police made themselves scarce and let the mobs attack the Riders on their arrival. Several Riders were severely wounded.

Were there any famous people on the Rides?
James Farmer, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Bernard LaFayette, James Lawson, Percy Sutton, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, Rev. C. T. Vivian . . .

Uh, were there any famous . . .
Time magazine cub reporter Calvin Trillin rode on the first bus of Riders into Jackson.

Who started the Rides?
James Farmer and his colleagues at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) created the Rides.

What was CORE’s elevator pitch?
A demonstration bus ride through the Deep South — Washington, DC, to New Orleans — integrating stations along the way in an attempt to draw some attention to the fact these stations were segregating in defiance of federal law.

Law? What law?
In December 1960, the Supreme Court had ruled that stations serving cross-country buses (more formally, interstate transportation) could not segregate.

How did it get started?
On May 4, 13 riders — blacks and whites, men and women — left Washington. They made it mostly OK until they got to Alabama. Reinforcements from the Nashville Student Movement arrived to keep the Rides going into Montgomery on May 20 and then into Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24. Where for the first time they were all arrested.

This is getting too detailed, can you just bottom-line it for me?
Wait, this part is important: Once arrested in Jackson, the Riders deftly abandoned their goal of New Orleans and opted to employ “jail — no bail.” They refused to bail out and instead invited new Riders to join them and fill Jackson’s jails to overflowing. Across the country, people responded and within three weeks Jackson’s jails were full.

Mississippi then found room for the Riders in the state prison, Parchman. The Riders were locked up pretty much 24/7 in Unit 17, the maximum-security building that also housed death row and the gas chamber.

And then?
The Freedom Riders won. In September 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission mandated an end to segregation in all bus and train stations and airports.

Can I sound clever by saying the Rides basically break down into three phases?

Yes, you can. Phase one: May 4 – May 14: The original Riders from Washington, DC, to Birmingham.

Phase two: May 14 – May 24: After the attacks in Anniston and Birmingham, the Nashville Student Movement sends reinforcements to keep the Rides going, on into Montgomery, on May 20, and then into Jackson, Mississippi on May 24, where they are all arrested.

Phase three: May 24 – September 13: Jackson takes center stage, as Riders fill the jails to overflowing.

What’s my response if someone says that before I can?

A three-stage view overlooks two other very important stages. First, Rides elsewhere around the south — in Albany, Georgia; Houston, Texas; and St. Augustine, Florida, among other places. Second, Rides in Jackson and McComb late in the year, to test the state’s compliance with the new ICC regulations.

Anything else I can say to try to sound clever?

The Rides showed the movement that nonviolent direct action offered a way forward, and provide a vital template for future campaigns.

That it?
For much of the summer of 1961, Parchman became Movement University. New recruits were locked up with movement leaders. Pretty much all they could do was talk. Many of the future leaders of the Mississippi movement were schooled here.

Weren’t the Freedom Riders mostly . . .

Overall, half of all the Riders in 1961 were black, half white. The same is true of the 330 Mississippi Riders as well. Also: Three-quarters of the Mississippi Riders were men, a quarter women. Three-quarters were between the ages of 18 and 30.

And weren’t they mostly from . . .
The Mississippi Riders came from all over: 39 states and 10 other countries. Roughly a third came from the Deep South, a third from the Northeast and Midwest, and a third from the West Coast.

Hey, this is all great but I want to know more . . .

1. Read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_riders

2. Read Ray Arsenault’s excellent narrative history: Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Pivotal Moments in American History)

3. Read my book Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders

4. Look inside my book

5. Watch Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders, airing nationally on PBS on May 16

6. Read around this blog blog

7. Read John Lewis’s autobiography: Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

8. Read James Farmer’s autobiography: Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement

9. Read Stokely Carmichael’s autobiography: Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)