Why Were Freedom Riders Beaten and Arrested?

The actions of the Freedom Riders over the course of 6 months in 1961 forever changed the way race was viewed in America.  More than 400 black and white Americans put their lives on the line, endured beatings and were imprisoned as they protested segregation by traveling together on buses and trains through the Deep South.  The actions were a direct result of black Americans continuing to endure Jim Crow laws and hostility in the South despite the Supreme Courts ruling that mandated desegregation of interstate travel.

At a time when the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy was focused on the Cold War, many Americans felt that equality at home was not living up to their expectations.  Inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized a group that represented all members of American society who were fed up with segregation and racial inequality, including men and women, black, and white, young and old.  The first Freedom Ride set out on May 4, 1961 with CORE Director James Farmer and 13 riders who traveled from Washington D.C.  to Birmingham, Alabama before being forced to abandon their ride after multiple attacks, beatings, and even a bombing.

As the groups traveled through the country, they were met with violent reactions that served to bolster the credibility of the Civil Rights Movement and bring the nation and the world’s attention to the violence used to enforce segregation in the South.  Police also arrested participants for violating such laws as trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating local Jim Crow laws.

The following is a riveting film by Stanley Nelson, Freedom Riders, which is the first feature-length film about the Freedom Riders and their movement that caused the federal government to force local municipalities to remove “whites only” and “colored only” signs and allow all Americans to travel freely.  The film has won three Primetime Emmy Awards.


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