Film & Theme
Equality under the Law: Freedom Riders
In 1946, the Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that no state could order segregation on interstate buses. Southern states ignored the decision and the federal government chose not to enforce it. For African Americans, separate facilities were humiliating and served as a daily reminder that white society and the law viewed them as inferior. Beginning in the spring of 1960, the Freedom Riders—black and white students—challenged the federal government’s inaction by boarding buses and traveling together into the Deep South. By the spring of 1961, the ranks of the Freedom Riders had swelled to include citizens from across the nation. Many of these new recruits were horrified by press coverage of earlier violent attacks. In May 1961, a Montgomery, Alabama mob threatened to burn down a church where Freedom Riders were meeting with civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King. King’s direct appeal to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy forced a reluctant Alabama Governor John Patterson to reverse decades of practice and provide equal protection for the protesters as they left Alabama.
This clip illustrates the complex negotiation between protesters and federal and state authorities. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, hoping to avoid further conflict, appealed to the Interstate Commerce Commission to exercise its authority to end segregation on buses, trains and stations across the nation. On September 22, 1961, the “colored only” and “whites only” signs came down in bus and train stations across the South, thus enforcing equal treatment under the law.
Freedom Riders. 1:40–1:51: Attorney Robert F. Kennedy appeals to the ICC to take down the signs; calls on Freedom Riders for “cooling off” period.
Questions for class discussion
- What motivated so many different types of people to take part in the Freedom Rides? Why did organizers believe it was important for people of different religions to join?
- How did the increasing numbers and diversity of the Freedom Riders put additional pressure on the Kennedy administration?
- According to the participants interviewed, what was the effect of the violence and mass jail sentences on the Riders?
- Why were the Freedom Rides considered the first unambiguous victory of the civil rights movement?
Background Articles for Teachers
- Freedom Riders Online Exhibit
- “People Get Ready”: Music and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
- Martin Luther King Jr. and Nonviolent Resistance
- JFK, Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights Movement
- Freedom Riders and the Popular Music of the Civil Rights Movement