Freedom Riders: Rebels with a Cause
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when? Will there be a better day for it tomorrow or next year? Will it be less dangerous then? Will someone else’s children have to risk their lives instead of us risking ours?”
-- John Lewis
May 16, 1961, to other Nashville students
considering joining the Freedom Rides
John Lewis, a young black man who was born in the South, participated in the Freedom Rides. His statement rang true when Nashville students were faced with the decision of joining the Freedom Rides in their fight for civil rights. This historical event paved the way for racial equality throughout the United States. The Freedom Rides were a vital part of history because it set the foundation for racial equality throughout the South, whether it be public restrooms, dining rooms or transportation.
The Freedom Rides was a landmark event in the civil rights movement. The 1961 Freedom Rides were a series of organized interstate bus rides to the South, meant to challenge the discriminatory Jim Crow Laws. Although the Rides were a form of civil disobedience, technically, they were protesting peacefully to maintain the federal laws against discrimination.
The event began when the Fellowship of Reconciliation founded the Congress of Racial Equality with the vision of a nonviolent, interracial civil rights organization in mind. Once the CORE expanded to 50 members, it engaged in discussion to end racial segregation. Over the next few years, CORE spread across the United States, battering down discriminatory barriers. The Freedom Rides were inspired by the Journey of Reconciliation -- an action taken by the members of CORE. Sixteen CORE members, black and white, challenged a 1946 Supreme Court ruling by travelling in interstate buses together to the South. Unfortunately, the Journey of Reconciliation did not receive as much publicity as expected, and it resulted in minor jail sentences for the participants.
A decade following the Journey of Reconciliation, the civil rights movement expanded enormously. Once a 1956 Supreme court decision rendered the Montgomery’s segregated bus system illegal, CORE, now associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), decided it was time to force the Southern states to uphold the federal law the Journey of Reconciliation had attempted to highlight. The Rider’s cause was fortified by two recent Supreme Court rulings. In Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, the Supreme Court declared that racial segregation was contrary to the purpose of the Interstate Commerce Act. Going even further, in a 1960 Supreme Court ruling, the case Boynton v. Virginia declared that segregation within interstate transportation violated the Interstate Commerce Act and was thereby illegal under federal law. The Court’s ruling deemed segregation in other public areas such as bus terminals, restaurant, and restrooms to be a violation of the Interstate Commerce Act as well.