The trip, one of the first “Freedom Rides” organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was planned to test individual states’ compliance with the 1960 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia that prohibited segregation in bus terminals and restaurants serving interstate passengers.
For its test ride in 1961, CORE staff chose volunteers representing different races, ages, genders, regions, and backgrounds. The volunteers, committed to non-violence, were trained to handle racial situations that could arise during the trip through the Deep South. They were to dress well, behave as teachers and role models, and mingle with other passengers. On May 4, 1961, six of them boarded a bus at the Greyhound station at 1100 New York Avenue NW, while another six boarded a bus at the nearby Trailways station. Among the riders were James Farmer, CORE’s executive director, and James Peck, a white journalist who acted as CORE’s chief publicist. The trip was destined for New Orleans, with stops in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
For the first five days, the trip went smoothly. On the fifth day, however, as black riders attempted to use a “whites only” restroom at the bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the troubles began. In Anniston, Alabama, the Greyhound bus was firebombed while in nearby Birmingham, the Trailways bus was ambushed by an angry mob. Riders encountered intense violence and some were hospitalized. As reported by James Farmer, Alabama law officials “stood idly by while mobs overruled the law of the land and desecrated the face of our Nation before the world.” When an Alabama State Police escort was cancelled by the Governor, and bus drivers refused to continue the journey, the test ride ended. But efforts at upholding the law were just beginning.
The Freedom Ride movement lasted through 1961. Many participants spent weeks in jail. The rides, and the international attention they garnered, impelled U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to petition the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the prohibition against discrimination in interstate travel. An ICC order imposing penalties for ignoring the prohibition went into effect November 1, 1961.