Feedom riders

A man wearing a gas mask stands on the hood of a car after a riot protesting the Freedom Riders’ arrival in Montgomery. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History.

This is the fifth story in a 6-part series on the 60th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders

“You could see baseball bats; you could see ropes; you could see pieces of chain. You knew why they were there . . . I asked God to forgive them for whatever they might do.” — Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg, as told to the Freedom Riders Museum.

In May 1961 the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) set out across the South to test enforcement the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated interstate travel was unconstitutional. Two rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court - the first in 1943 - had said forcing separation of the races on planes, trains, buses and their facilities violated the United States Constitution; however, as the Freedom Riders discovered, segregation was still largely the rule of the land.

They experienced a few skirmishes on their way from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans on two buses, but when they reached Alabama on May 14, the non-violent demonstrators experienced extreme violence by white mobs. After being bombed and beaten in Anniston and then in Birmingham, the CORE Freedom Riders flew from Birmingham to New Orleans at the behest of the Kennedy Administration. The Nashville Student Movement, however, wasn’t going to let the Freedom Rides end there. 

Dorothy Walker, site director of the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, said the students were concerned that the message quitting represented: inflict enough violence and they’ll stop.

The students arrived in Birmingham on May 17 and were promptly arrested and taken to back to the Tennessee state line by Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. The students were determined, however, and made their way back to Birmingham the next morning.

Walker said state and federal officials realized at this point that the Freedom Riders weren’t going away. “They decide to put them in their own bus, zoom them through the state and give them a police escort,” said Walker. While it is not how the Riders wanted to do it, they agreed, she said.

On May 20, 20 Black and white students boarded a Greyhound bus to Montgomery. Despite promises from Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan and Governor John Patterson that the Riders would be protected, the police escort disappeared at the city limits, leaving the bus and its riders to make it to the station alone.

There, a white mob consisting of hundreds of people was waiting with bats, pipes and hammers. They’d been told they had 30 minutes to do their worst. “They inflicted horrific violence on this group of students,” said Walker. “It’s a miracle they survived.” 

Among the students were Troy, Ala., native John Lewis, Catherine Burks-Brooks, then a 21-year-old senior at Tennessee State University, and Jim Zwerg, a white student at Fisk University.  

“I thought all hell was going to break loose,” said Burks-Brooks. “We had to see our way out of there someway without fighting.”

One of the students found a cab driven by a Black man who would take the Black female students. From her vantage point inside the cab, Burks-Brooks said, “I could see [the mob] running from different spots. Out of the cab window I could see Lewis and Jim Zwerg. I could see blood just running down their faces.”

She instructed the cab driver to take them to a Black community, where they got out. “This lady, she was standing on the porch, sweeping the porch, and she saw us and she just opened the screen door and we ran in,” said Burks-Brooks. 

The male Freedom Riders weren’t so fortunate. They were badly beaten and ambulances refused to assist them. Again, good Samaritans came to the rescue and drove them to the hospital. 

Also caught up in the mob violence was John Seigenthaler, an aide to President John F. Kennedy, who was beaten unconscious while trying to come to the aide of two white female Freedom Riders. 

“It changes the way the Kennedys understand the movement,” said Walker.

The following night, some 1,500 attended Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church to honor the Freedom Riders and hear speakers including Martin Luther King, Jr. Outside the church, a white mob gathered and violence erupted again with only a handful of U.S. Marshals there to protect the Black congregants. Eventually, the National Guard was called in to restore order.

The Kennedy Administration had had enough of the violence. Behind the scenes, they were working on an arrangement with Alabama and Mississippi leaders to allow the buses to continue their journey without mob violence.

For Burks-Brooks, Montgomery was the end of the ride for her, at least temporarily. She returned to Nashville to finish college, but, she, along with more than 400 additional Freedom Riders would make their way to Mississippi - and Parchman Prison - to continue the cause.

Amy Henderson can be reached at 256-734-2131 Ext. 216.

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