Again, paragraphing and citations are messed up. Some of the quotations were long block quotes, so helpfully you can tell where those should be. I also included the bibliography at the end because I worked hard to include a lot of different types of sources in this paper.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a series of all-out assaults on a system of discrimination, segregation, and racism that had persisted since the end of the Civil War. The leaders of the movement and the foot-soldier activists targeted the old system of Jim Crow wherever they could find it, but they placed special emphasis on large, visible institutions, such as the public school systems and the nation’s expanding interstate commerce networks. The methods most closely associated with the movement included non-violent forms of protest, propounded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and multitudes of student activists, such as sit-ins, marches and boycotts. However, just as important were the battles waged in the nation’s courts.
Strategically-devised and carefully-considered, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s court cases laid a legal framework for the end of segregation, although some major cases came about randomly and quite by accident. But, as African Americans usually found, rulings by the Supreme Court were useless because they were not routinely enforced. Those who celebrated the monumental Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, for instance, would wait for years in vain for the desegregation of public schools, even after such public and divisive incidents as the integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. What was needed was some sort of incident to dramatize the problem and galvanize the nation’s leaders. Martin Luther King became a master of this tactic, frequently allowing himself to be arrested to draw national attention to a racial problem. This national attention brought pressure to bear on leaders from the lowliest mayor all the way to the president, who often found himself forced to act, intervening in the states with federal forces, issuing decrees or emotional pleas on television, or bringing new acts before congress.
We thus see a cyclical process involving the public and all the branches of government, with the ultimate outcome of changed laws. Long-suffering individuals brought their cases to court, and occasionally all the way to the Supreme Court; the Supreme Court, at that time under Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled against segregationist or discriminatory measures in state or federal law; to make good on the Court’s decision, individuals and organizations staged acts of defiance, knowingly placing themselves in positions in which their rights would be stripped and their persons assaulted; concerned at the flouting of federal power and the injustice committed against American citizens, the president or attorney general would become involved and try to rectify the problem by working to create new laws, thus setting the stage for the next round of the cycle.
The Freedom Rides of May, 1961, present a vivid and dramatic example of this process. In the spring and summer of that year, dozens of African Americans and whites rode buses throughout the South, trying to force the integration of interstate commerce facilities. But though these riders and their leaders were celebrated or decried throughout the country, this particular struggle actually began years earlier, when a single African American man named Bruce Boynton tried to get service at a bus stop in Virginia.
Bruce Boynton , a senior at Howard Law School in Washington D.C., boarded a Trailways bus on December 20, 1958, heading home by way of Montgomery, Alabama, for the Christmas holidays. When the bus stopped at a terminal in Richmond, Virginia, for about forty minutes, Boynton went into the terminal restaurant to grab something to eat. Ignoring the signs delineating the “white” from the “colored” sections, Boynton went into the white section and ordered a meal. When asked to leave the white section, Boynton explained that the area for blacks was crowded, and mentioned that as an interstate passenger, he had a right to eat in the white section. He was then quickly arrested on the charge of trespassing, and at the trial in January, 1959, he was fined $16.25. The court of appeals and the Virginia Supreme Court both upheld the lower court’s ruling, but Boynton, believing that his constitutional rights had been violated on several counts, filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court in September. Boynton would be represented by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in his last NAACP oral argument before the Supreme Court.
In the lower courts, Boynton had raised issues relating to the commerce and due process clauses of the Constitution, and also regarding the Interstate Commerce Act. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices chose to decide the case based on the Interstate Commerce Act, by way of the precedent-setting case of Henderson v. United States (1950). In that case, Elmer Henderson rode a train that had a table partitioned off with a curtain, and this table was reserved for the exclusive use of blacks. Blacks attempting to be served elsewhere were refused. The court ruled that this practice violated the Interstate Commerce Act, which stated that no carrier could give “any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person . . .” The Henderson case rested on precedent set by Mitchell v. United States (1941). The Court in Mitchell said that, while railroads were not obligated to provide dining facilities, if they did, equality of treatment was required. Quoting from an earlier case, the Court ruled that,
If a railroad provides certain facilities and accommodations for first class passengers of the white race, it is commanded by the law that like accommodations shall be provided for colored passengers of the same class. The principle that must govern is that carriers must serve equally well all passengers, whether white or colored, paying the same fare. Failure to do this is discrimination, and subjects the passenger to “undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage.”
Finally, the Court required uniform seating in the case of Morgan v. Virginia (1946). In his opinion in Morgan, Justice Stanley Reed stated that “a state statute which requires interstate passengers to order their movements on the vehicle in accordance with local, rather than national, requirements” places an undue burden on interstate commerce, which is properly legislated by the congress and not state legislatures. Reed also stated that states could not rely upon the police powers doctrine (Virginia had claimed that segregating the races on buses would prevent racial friction) or the Tenth Amendment as protection when it came to interstate commerce.
Although Mitchell and Henderson both dealt with railroads, it followed in Boynton “as a matter of course that, should buses in transit decide to supply dining service, discrimination of the kind shown here would violate” passengers’ rights. There was also a similar clause in the Interstate Commerce Act that applied to motor carriers. However, when Boynton was arrested, he was not aboard the bus, but rather in a terminal. Another provision of the Interstate Commerce Act prohibited segregation in facilities owned or operated by the carrier or bus line. The terminal in Boynton’s case, however, was not directly owned by Trailways, and this eventually became the basis of the dissenting opinion.
That Trailways did not own or operate the restaurant directly did not trouble the majority of the Court. Even though the bus company did not own the restaurant at which Boynton was arrested, the company had a duty “not to discriminate should they choose to provide their interstate passengers with services that are an integral part of transportation through the use of facilities they neither own, control nor operate.” The court essentially extended the responsibility that bus companies had to follow the Interstate Commerce Act to restaurants and facilities at which the buses stopped, stating,
if the bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations prohibited by the [Interstate Commerce] Act. In the performance of these services under such conditions, the terminal and restaurant stand in the place of the bus company in the performance of its transportation obligations.
Restaurants and other facilities, being an integral part of interstate transportation, fall under the purview of the Interstate Commerce Act, regardless of whom they are owned or operated by, and therefore Boynton had a lawful right to expect non-discriminatory service in any such restaurant or facility.
Justice Hugo Black, an old New Dealer from Alabama, delivered the opinion of the Court, which reversed the lower court’s decision by a vote of 7 to 2. The Supreme Court ruled that, under the Interstate Commerce Act, “which forbids any interstate common carrier by motor vehicle to subject any person to unjust discrimination, petitioner had a federal right to remain in the white portion of the restaurant, he was there ‘under authority of law,’ and it was error to affirm his conviction.” The implications of this decision were clear and applied nationwide—discrimination on the basis of race at any facilities integral to interstate commerce or travel was illegal under the Interstate Commerce Act, although Black was careful to point out that the ruling did not apply to all restaurants or places at which buses might stop, only those that were “integral.”
Justices Charles Evans Whittaker, a conservative Eisenhower appointee, and Tom Clark, a Truman appointee who typically argued in favor of civil rights, briefly dissented on a couple of grounds. Firstly, they disagreed with the Court’s findings regarding the Interstate Commerce Act because Boynton, in his appeal to the Supreme Court, did not use the Act in his grounds for appeal, although he had used it in the lower courts. But, proceeding from the Interstate Commerce Act, the dissenting justices also argued that Trailways did not own or directly operate the terminal in question. Trailways, as an interstate carrier, could not discriminate, but a private proprietor could, so, as Whittaker stated, “the decisive question in this case is whether petitioner had a legal right to remain in the restaurant involved after being ordered to leave it by the proprietor.” To the dissenters, the question was one of trespassing, not anything constitutional. Nevertheless, this was enough of a landmark decision for those who were fresh from Little Rock, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the sit-ins of Nashville.
The method devised by civil rights groups to test the Court’s opinion came to be known as Freedom Rides. The Freedom Rides of 1961 were inspired by the 1947 “Journey of Reconciliation” put on by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The 1946 case Morgan v. Virginia had established that segregated seating arrangements on interstate buses placed “undue burdens” upon interstate commerce, which was prohibited by the Interstate Commerce Act. The 1947 riders included Bayard Rustin, later an important organizer for the movement in the 50s and 60s, and James Peck, who also took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides. Despite the Court’s decision in Morgan, the desegregated riders were repeatedly arrested under local segregation laws.
Armed with the new ruling from Boynton, Freedom Riders from CORE and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) set out to test the decision. The plan was to go in two buses from Washington, D.C., through the South to New Orleans. They were scheduled to arrive in New Orleans in time for the seventh anniversary of the still largely-unenforced Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. The thirteen riders would sit in various combinations in the buses—some in the front, middle, and back, with some in interracial pairs. At the major stops and terminals, they would exit the buses and try to get service at white lunch counters and use white waiting rooms. The riders had gone through training courses in non-violent techniques and included movement veterans. As James Farmer of CORE explained the purpose of the Freedom Rides, “We travel peaceably to persuade all Americans that Jim Crow betrays democracy at home and abroad.” As the buses left Washington on May 4, 1961, a reporter from Jet magazine who tagged along told Attorney General Robert Kennedy to expect trouble.
The Kennedy Administration had been making inroads in the civil rights struggle. Shortly before the rides began, Robert Kennedy had given a speech at the University of Georgia in which he pledged the administration’s support for civil rights. The speech was lauded in the black community: Jet magazine ran a short piece saying that Jackie Robinson, who had broken the color barrier in baseball and who had recently campaigned for Nixon, had changed his mind about the Kennedys. “I find it a pleasure to be proven wrong,” Robison said after Robert Kennedy’s speech. Nevertheless, the Kennedys had a full plate in May, 1961, especially because the Bay of Pigs fiasco was still fresh in the public mind, and therefore had not carried through to the extent expected by civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. During the campaign, for instance, John Kennedy had famously promised to end segregation in public housing “with the stroke of a pen,” but had yet to act. He was still receiving pens in the mail as a caustic comment on his failure to act.
For the first several days through Virginia and the upper South, the Freedom Rides proceeded with “nothing more illegal than icy looks.” In some locations, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s opinion and in anticipation of the Freedom Rides, the Jim Crow “white” and “colored” signs had been removed; in other locations the signs persisted but the riders received service. As they traveled further south they were refused service, and discontent among local whites grew. They first met with violence in South Carolina. The first bus to arrive found whites blocking the bus terminal door. When Freedom Rider and future congressman John Lewis was pushed back from the entrance, he informed his assailants, “I have a right to go in here on grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case.” In response, whites beat Lewis and several others, but the buses continued on.
In Alabama, the situation grew out of control. In the town of Anniston, the first bus was attacked at the terminal and the tires were slashed. Further down the road, flat tires forced it off the road, where an angry mob that had followed from the terminal broke all the windows and set the bus on fire. “As Negro passengers got off, coughing from the effects of smoke, they were pounced upon and beaten,” Jet reported. The second bus was attacked a short time later at the Anniston station, where whites boarded the bus and forced the blacks to the back.
As the buses approached Birmingham, the situation went from bad to worse. Birmingham police had evidently agreed to give the Ku Klux Klan fifteen minutes alone with the Freedom Riders. When the first bus arrived at the Birmingham terminal, the waiting Klansmen, appearing in plain clothes, were enraged at the racially-mixed group and brutally attacked them. A number of uninvolved bystanders, including whites, were hurt. After the designated fifteen minutes, police arrived to disperse the mob. Other riders who had remained in the hospital at Anniston were besieged there until Birmingham churchmen arrived to pick them up. After the beating at the bus station by the Klan, the Freedom Riders felt trapped in Birmingham.
Feeling that opposition to the Freedom Rides had reached an unacceptable level, Kennedy’s Justice Department became involved at this time. The next morning Robert Kennedy called the leader of the Riders and said he would organize security for those who felt trapped in the city. As national and international pressure mounted (Birmingham officials on a visit to Japan found themselves ostracized), notorious Birmingham police official Eugene “Bull” Connor agreed to escort the buses to the city line, but the Riders declined. At the same time, a second group of student riders was heading south from Nashville, while John Seigenthaler, an aide to Robert Kennedy, worked to help the first group depart from Birmingham airport for New Orleans.
The ten new riders, eight of them black (including John Lewis, who had been forced to depart from the first group), arrived in Alabama and Bull Connor promptly placed them under “protective custody.” The Freedom Rides were now achieving the status of national crisis and the question was beginning to arise of state versus federal power. Robert and John Kennedy were trying to persuade John Patterson, the governor of Alabama, to provide protection, but Patterson, for political reasons, did not want to buckle under federal pressure. Patterson and the Kennedys were at an impasse: if Patterson refused to provide protection, Kennedy would be forced to send in federal forces, whereas if he did provide protection he would be accused by his racist electorate of folding under the national government and supplying support for hated interloping blacks. For his part, Kennedy did not want to use federal forces because he had criticized Eisenhower during the campaign for the “Little Rock method,” and he was also soon scheduled to meet with Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev. Troubled race relations would make the U.S. and Kennedy look bad in that meeting. Preparing for any eventuality, Robert Kennedy’s office began assembling a force of marshals, border patrol and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms personnel, to be equipped by the army.
President Kennedy was wary of using federal forces for the aforementioned political reasons, but also because use of such of force would require him to issue a legal proclamation announcing the breakdown of public order. Robert Kennedy’s amalgamated force, falling under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department, would only require a written notice sent to the attorney general, which need not be made public. With these considerations in mind, the Justice Department force of marshals prepared, while the president tried to increase pressure on Governor Patterson.
By this point, Alabama officials wanted only to be rid of the Freedom Riders. Bull Connor came up with of plan of simply loading up the Riders in police cars and dropping them off in Tennessee under cover of dark. After the violence they had already experienced, the Freedom Riders themselves were willing to go along with this plan, and found themselves alone at the Tennessee border in the middle of the night. They called Diane Nash in Nashville, one of the pioneers of the sit-in movement, who told them that another group of eleven Riders was on its way down from Tennessee. The group of Riders that had just left Birmingham decided then to return, and in a few hours they piled into a car that Nash sent down from Nashville and drove through the night the hundred miles back to Birmingham.
When both groups of Freedom Riders reunited at the Birmingham bus station, they again found themselves stranded. No willing bus drivers could be found, despite Robert Kennedy’s calls to the president of Greyhound. Possibly 3,000 agitated whites milled around the bus station. President Kennedy phoned Governor Patterson and threatened him with government intervention. Patterson agreed to a face-to-face discussion, so Justice Department aide Seigenthaler was sent on to Montgomery. Finally, Patterson agreed to protect the riders, and the convoy made up of the bus and highway patrol escorts headed toward Montgomery from Birmingham on May 20.
As the bus approached Montgomery, the Alabama highway patrol units peeled off, as the city was outside of their jurisdiction. The Riders expected city police to meet them on the outskirts of Montgomery, or at the very least protect them at the bus terminal. But as the bus drew near, Montgomery police that had been waiting at the station began melting away. As soon as the bus arrived at the station, Riders and reporters were attacked indiscriminately. Even Seigenthaler was beaten unconscious as he raced to the scene and tried to help some female Riders. Violence spread from the station to the surrounding area and many innocpent bystanders became victims. “Several young white boys,” the New York Times reported the next day, “waylaid four Negroes walking along a street near the bus station, poured an inflammable liquid on one of the Negro’s clothes and set it afire.” Police finally arrived to disperse the mob, but the Kennedys’ fears had been confirmed and the decision was made to use the Justice Department’s force of marshals and assorted personnel.
The next night, May 21, a mass meeting was held at Ralph Abernathy’s church. Abernathy was one of King’s right-hand men, and King himself was flying in for the meeting. As 1,500 people crowded into the church, a crowd of several thousand whites surrounded the building. About fifty of Kennedy’s marshals were sent in with Martin Luther King, who had arrived at Montgomery airport; Governor Patterson took the opportunity to call them foreign interlopers, raise the specter of state versus federal power, and play the underdog against the federal government. Bricks and rocks were thrown, a car was overturned and set on fire, and the marshals used tear gas on the crowd, which also blew back through the broken windows of Abernathy’s church. Robert Kennedy, fielding frantic phone calls from the church, was on the verge of sending in the regular army when Governor Patterson declared martial law and a “phalanx” of long-absent Montgomery policemen appeared at the church, followed by the Alabama National Guard. The commander of the U.S. marshals at the church turned his force over to the state guard, thus avoiding a possible dispute over state and federal authority. The churchgoers were saved for the moment.
The Freedom Rides would continue throughout the summer, with many more arrests and beatings, but the first groups that had been beaten and harassed in Alabama effectively busted the issue wide open. The conclusion that movement leader Fred Shuttlesworth drew from the tense evening “was that Alabama had been forced to protect Negroes in the very act of fighting Alabama segregation.” Many more such struggles would take place in the years ahead, complete with deaths, beatings, bombings, dog attacks, riots, and assassinations. But at the penultimate moment in most of the crises, the state government stepped forward to protect the rights guaranteed by the federal government—usually not for particularly altruistic reasons, to be sure, but when the specters of nullification, secession, the Civil War, and Little Rock loomed, state governors stepped down.
On May 29, the Attorney General filed a petition with the Interstate Commerce Commission to end segregation on buses. The first of the new regulations stated that “No motor common carrier of passengers . . . shall operate a motor vehicle in interstate or foreign commerce on which the seating of passengers is based upon race, color, creed, or national origin.” Then, to avoid any confusion such as that which appeared in the dissent’s opinion in the Boynton case which stated that, since Trailways did not own or operate the facility in question, it did not have to be integrated according to statutes on interstate commerce, another new regulation stated that no interstate bus companies may “provide, maintain arrangements for, utilize, make available, adhere to any understanding for the availability of, or follow any practice which includes the availability of, any terminal facilities which are so operated, arranged, or maintained as to involve any separation of any portion thereof, or in the use thereof on the basis of race, color, creed, or national origin.” So that there could be no mistake about it, each bus ticket would read, “Seating aboard vehicles operated in interstate or foreign commerce is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin.”
The new desegregation orders went into effect on November 1, 1961. On that day, Charles Sherrod, part of an activist group in Georgia, went to the bus terminal to test the order. Sherrod found a line of police waiting to meet him, and he retreated when they asked him to leave; demonstrations had been expected. Nevertheless, Sherrod declared that “from that moment on, segregation was dead.” What followed, evidently, were its death throes. James Farmer, the leader of CORE, later stated that
when the order actually was issued, we had test teams go throughout the South testing the enforcement. We found by and large it was enforced. And in those few cases where it was not enforced, our test teams kept records of who had denied them their constitutional rights and under what authority. . . . And our records show that that information was followed up on and enforcement followed. So we were pleased and considered this a great victory.
When Governor Patterson was interviewed in 1986 for the documentary Eyes on the Prize, he was questioned about the Freedom Rides, and what they ultimately meant. He responded:
Well, I think the Freedom Riders did accomplish what they probably set out to do, and that was to bring attention to the segregated policies and segregated laws dealing with waiting rooms and bus stations and restaurants and things of that kind, public accommodations. And I think it had a tremendous affect, and I think it set in motion nationally efforts to, to end that. And so I think that probably the end result of the freedom ride, was the ending of segregation in public accommodations.
What Patterson failed to mention was that the Supreme Court already had ended segregation in certain public accommodations the year before, at least legally. The Freedom Riders, in putting their bodies and lives on the line to go through the South, were fulfilling their part of the cycle, forcing the country to recognize that rights affirmed by the Supreme Court were not being respected.
The Freedom Rides brought many questions tightly into focus in May, 1961. There is, firstly, the moral question of segregation. But there are also questions of government and politics: whose will is supreme: the national government, the states, the people of a particular state, or citizens of other states who believe that the federal government is on their side? The Constitution is not ambiguous when it states, in Article VI, paragraph 2, that the Constitution and by extension federal laws and Supreme Court rulings “shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
Yet any person in 1960, whether they agreed with the ruling or not, could plainly tell that the Brown v. Board ruling was not the supreme law of the land, six years after it had been handed down, and the Freedom Riders bore scars proving that Boynton v. Virginia was not everywhere respected as the law. The next question that arises, then, is what can the federal government do when the supreme law is not respected? Eisenhower presented one example in the case of Little Rock, Arkansas, an example which, for political reasons, the Kennedys did not want to emulate. But, when catastrophe loomed at the church in Montgomery, they sprang into action with marshals and other federal forces. Following the immediate crisis, the Attorney General codified the Supreme Court’s Boynton ruling by way of a federal agency, and tasked that agency with enforcing the law. What began with a young law student’s attempt to get a meal on the bus ride home for Christmas ended up in the law books of the United States, and though Kennedy and his brother, and Martin Luther King, and four little girls in Birmingham, and three Civil Rights workers trying to get blacks registered to vote, and many others, all died in the process, those laws would eventually be respected by Americans, white and black.
Books and Journal Articles
Branch, Taylor. Parting the waters: America in the King years, 1954-1963. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Dallek, Robert. An unfinished life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. New York: Back Bay
Horwitz, Morton J. The Warren Court and the pursuit of justice. New York: Hill and
Irons, Peter. A people’s history of the Supreme Court. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
Pollak, Louis H. “The Supreme Court and the States: Reflections on Boynton v. Virginia.”
California Law Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Mar., 1961): 15-55.
Williams, Juan. Thurgood Marshall: American revolutionary. New York: Three Rivers Press,
James Farmer interview by John F. Stewart, March 10, 1967, for John F. Kennedy Library Oral
Gov. John Patterson interview by Blackside, Inc., February 17, 1986, for Eyes on the Prize:
America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and
Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Supreme Court Cases and Federal Regulations
Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960).
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Part 374: Passenger Carrier Regulations, Subpart
A, 374.101, 374.103, 374.105. http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/administration/fmcsr/fmcsrguidedetails.aspx?menukey=374.
Henderson v. United States, 339 U.S. 816 (1950).
Mitchell v. United States, 313 U.S. 80, (1941).
Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946).
Magazine and Newspaper Articles
“Alabama Mob Ambush Bus, Beat Biracial Group and Burn Bus,” May 25, 1961.
“Jackie Robinson Changes Mind About Kennedys,” May 25, 1961.
“Integrated Group Starts,” May 18, 1961.
New York Times
“Freedom Riders Attacked By Whites in Montgomery,” May 21, 1961.
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