Bus trip to mark anniversary of Freedom Rides

The Associated Press
Thursday May 10, 2001


WASHINGTON — Forty years ago, John Lewis and other civil rights activists boarded a bus for Montgomery, Ala., and prepared for the worst. Before leaving they called their families and said goodbye, worried they might never see them again. 

When they arrived to protest segregation they were attacked by a mob of whites. Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate and his friend Jim Zwerg was knocked unconscious, all of his teeth fractured and three vertebrae cracked. 

This weekend Lewis and other survivors will embark on another bus trip to mark the 40th anniversary of the “Freedom Rides,” a seminal event in the civil rights movement that helped focus the nation’s attention on discrimination and violence against blacks in the South. 

This time, the bus riders will be welcomed in Montgomery and other stops. 

“To go down those roads, to get on a Greyhound bus, just to relive this whole thing for a weekend is going to be very moving,” said Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia. 

Events marking the anniversary begin Thursday with a news conference by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta in Washington. They conclude Saturday with a re-enactment of the Atlanta-to-Montgomery bus trip. 

Unlike other chapters in the struggle for civil rights, the Freedom Rides weren’t about changing laws. They were about getting a region to acknowledge that laws already had changed. 

In 1960 the Supreme Court ruled in Boynton vs. Virginia that segregation in interstate bus and rail travel was unconstitutional.  

Despite that, blacks in many Southern areas still faced discrimination when they traveled. 

To draw attention to the situation, 13 freedom riders – blacks and whites – left Washington on May 4, 1961, aboard a Greyhound bus. Their 13-day itinerary of stops through the South included nonviolent protests at bus stations. By the end of the three weeks of rides, some 300 protesters had joined the crusade. 

The riders were not subjected to violence as they traveled through the Carolinas and Georgia. But upon entering Alabama, the trip became bloody. 

A mob of 200 whites set the bus on fire when it arrived in Anniston. The trip continued in another bus to Birmingham, where the riders were met by a mob that assaulted them with stones, baseball bats, lead pipes and chains. 

Birmingham police arrested the riders, including Lewis, then dropped them off late at night across the Tennessee border. 

The riders reorganized themselves and continued on to Montgomery, where they were met by the most violent opposition. 

“I was kicked in the spine, thrown forward and felt a foot come down on my face,” said Zwerg, a retired white minister for United Church of Christ.  

“That’s basically the last thing I remember until I woke up in a vehicle. I thought I was getting taken out to get lynched.” 

The riders continued on to Mississippi where they were sentenced to 60 days in jail. The never reached their destination of New Orleans, but they achieved their objective. Later that year, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the Supreme Court ruling. 

Catherine Burks Brooks, one of the riders who now is a teacher in Birmingham, is proud of the result but concerned the message of the Freedom Rides has been lost on today’s young people. 

“I think we all thought that by now everything would just be going smoothly, that this would be over,” Brooks said. “By now, I didn’t think there would be a need for any type of movement, that we all could just be people. But that’s not true.” 

Saturday’s bus trip will start at Clark Atlanta University and include stops at the Greyhound terminal in Birmingham and the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the freedom riders. 

Greyhound Lines Inc. is sponsoring the festivities, and during the Atlanta events a replica of the 1954 bus from the original Freedom Rides will be on display. 

On the Net: 

Lewis: www.house.gov/johnlewis 

The Congress of Racial Equality: www.core-online.org/History/history.htm