Monday, May 16, 2011

The Freedom Rides 50th Anniversary

This was something that got past me on the day it happened (and it shouldn't have) but thanks to the upcoming PBS special being broadcast later tonight, it bears mentioning in light of the fact that some overprivileged people in the trans community think they (or the trans community in general) don't need public accommodations language in any trans civil rights laws.  

That thought is repugnant to me since the 50th anniversary of the start of the Freedom Rides was on my just passed May 4 birthday.  I also remember what people had to go through just to get that coverage for African Americans. 

The Freedom Rides were CORE's (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC's (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) tactic for desegregating public transportation in the South modeled on Bayard Rustin and George Houser's 1947 Journey of Reconciliation.  

On May 4, 1961 in order to test the Boynton v Virgina Supreme Court ruling that declared discrimination in interstate bus and rail transportation unconstitutional, a group of seven Blacks and six Whites departed on a Greyhound and a Trailways bus from Washington DC bound for the Deep South.   One of the members of that initial group was Fisk University student and future congressman John Lewis.   

It was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans for a planned May 17 rally and in the first few days of travel through Virginia and North Carolina the group encountered mild hostility.   But at the Rock Hill, South Carolina Greyhound station a mob of twenty people attacked John Lewis and the other riders as they approached the White waiting room.   The police intervened and the group was allowed to continue their trip to Atlanta

The violence got ramped up as they crossed the border into Alabama no thanks to as we later discovered Birmingham's infamous Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene 'Bull' Connor and the Ku Klux Klan.   The Axis of Civil Rights Evil conspired to ensure that this Freedom Ride ended in Alabama.  

Just after crossing the Georgia-Alabama border outside Anniston, AL on May 14 (Mother's Day) the Greyhound bus was surrounded by a mob, had its tires slashed and was attacked and burned.  

The Trailways bus arrived in Anniston an hour later, but the driver refused to move until everyone sat in a segregated manner.   The bus was then boarded by a group of Klan thugs who beat the Riders and left them semi conscious in the back rows. 

When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham they were violently attacked by several dozen Klansmen  brandishing pipes at the bus terminal.   Connor had already cut a deal with the Klan in which they would be allowed 15 minutes of mayhem before the police arrived and attrbuted the slow response of his offices as 'them vising their mothers on Mother's Day'.   When the bloodied and battered group gamely showed up the next day to continue the journey to Montgomery, no Greyhound bus showed up at the Birmingham terminal because drivers refused to to take them.    With reports of protesters massing in Montgomery and the May 17 rally date looming, the group reluctantly flew to New Orleans.

SNCC leader Diane Nash did not want the Freedom Rides to be ended on that violent note because she felt it would send a negative message to the country and set back the cause so she quickly assembled another group of Freedom Riders to continue the mission.  .

The group assembled by Nash was composed of eight African Americans (John Lewis was on this one as well) and two Whites departed Nashville on May 17.   They were arrested by Birmingham police upon their arrival and after spending the night in jail were driven back to the Tennessee border by Bull Connor and left there, ostensibly because Connor was tired of hearing them sing freedom songs.   The Riders returned to the Birmingham terminal anyway and sang those freedom songs that got on Connor's last nerves.  

The brutality of the assaults on the Freedom Riders combined with police indifference and glacial reaction to the attacks caused a public opinion firestorm that compelled the nascent Kennedy Administration to take action to end the violence.  

A bus was sent to Birmingham with a state police and helicopter escort that rode from Birmingham to Montgomery, AL without incident.    When they arrived in Montgomery the state police escort vanished and the Riders were greeted by a mob of 300  people.   Twenty five Whites armed with clubs and sticks began beating the cameramen and photographers in attendance, then turned their attention the the Riders.  The mob swelled to 1000 people before it was broken up with tear gas  

The Riders then continued to Jackson, MS where they were met by more hostility, arrests and jail terms for using the white waiting areas.  

But far from the events in Alabama and Mississippi killing the movement as the Axis of Intolerance had hoped, the summer of 1961 would see more Freedom Rides occur, and the protests were expanded to include airports and train stations across the Southern United States. 

In the meantime Attorney General Robert Kennedy bowed to demands from Dr. King, other civil rights leaders, and public and international condemnation of the violence.  On May 29 he sent a petition to the Interstate Commerce Commission ordering it to comply with a 1955 bus desegregation ruling it had issued in the Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company case but was ignoring due to being chaired by South Carolina Dixiecrat  J. Monroe Johnson.

The Freedom Rides successfully ended when on November 1, 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission  rules that banned segregated transportation facilities took effect.   Passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains, "white" and "colored" signs came down in the terminals, separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated, and the lunch counters began serving people regardless of race.. 

The surviving Freedom Riders were on a recent May 4 Oprah broadcast, and other memorials and commemorations are taking place as we hit anniversaries of these key dates in the various cities involved in the campaigns .

The Freedom Riders struck mighty blows for public accommodations coverage in federal law and also showed that non violent direct action campaigns could be successful.  

I'm damned sure not going to let anyone forget what it cost us in blood 50 years ago just to get our public accommodations rights affirmed.   

I'm sure Christy Polis and other transpeople who are increasingly being denied our public accomodations rights would agree.  .

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