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Freedom Riders

About the Freedom Riders

In 1961, civil rights activists organized by the Congress of Racial Equality rode interstate buses into the segregated Southern United States to test the U.S. Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which outlawed racial segregation in restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines.

The Freedom Riders set out to ride various forms of public transportation in the South to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation. From May until November 1961, more than 400 Americans traveled together on the Freedom Rides. The Riders were young and old, male and female, black, white and Asian, religious and secular, and from the south, north, east and west of the nation. Unlike many protests in the Civil Rights Movement, the Riders were not practicing civil disobedience. The Freedom Riders were doing exactly what the Supreme Court said they had a right to do: buy tickets on buses and trains, sitting wherever they pleased.

They knew, however, that segregationists would likely force a conflict between the states and the federal government—and force the nation to consider the inequality exposed. The Freedom Riders also knew that this simple act of riding on a bus or train, in violation of a long-held and violently enforced tradition of white supremacy, might very well cost them their lives. Undeterred, the Freedom Riders endured beatings, bombings, harassment and even imprisonment—but they changed the Civil Rights Movement and demonstrated the power of individual actions to transform the nation.