This week marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Freedom Riders campaign– white activists who were determined to strike a blow for civil rights. On May 4, 1961, they boarded buses bound for New Orleans, intent on challenging segregation laws along the way.
At the time, a federal law mandated that all interstate transportation–such as Greyhound buses–be integrated. But in Alabama, Mississippi and other Southern states, the law was not enforced.
Of course, there were African-Americans who were part of the Freedom Rider campaign as well, but the point hinged on white people. The strategy was to force police in the South to defend segregation by arresting, jailing and, in many cases, beating other white people, thus causing an embarrassing spectacle.
Freedom Rider John Raines, now professor emeritus of religion at Temple University, was not part of the initial wave of activists–he boarded a bus out of St. Louis in July, when the violence awaiting Freedom Riders was well publicized.
Raines was part of a foursome–two white, two black–that got off in Little Rock, Ark., and went into the “white only” waiting room. They were promptly arrested for disturbing the peace.
“It would be a trial by a judge–not a jury. His name was Quinn Glover. That’s his real name,” said Raines with a chuckle. “He took us into his chambers and said, ‘I’m going to find you guilty and I want you to know why. I know the Supreme Court has already decided that interstate travel facilities must be integrated. But I’m going to find you guilty because if I don’t find you guilty, I won’t get re-elected.’ “
The Kennedy Administration–which was ramping up the Cold War and dealing with the Bay of Pigs nuclear threat–criticized the Freedom Riders as disrupters of domestic peace. On May 16, a new documentary about the Riders will be broadcast on PBS.