1961 May 14

Burning Buses in Alabama – Racists Attack Freedom Riders


The Freedom Ride, which challenged segregation in interstate travel, encountered separate violent racist attacks in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, on this day. In the first attack in Anniston, racists attacked individual freedom riders and set on fire the bus they were riding. A another violent attack against a second bus carrying Freedom Riders occurred that evening in Birmingham. The FBI, through an undercover informant, had advance knowledge about the planned attacks, and in Birmingham the attacks were abetted by Police Chief “Bull” Connor. Photographs of the burning bus were published around the country and the world, and had a dramatic effect on public opinion.

See the separate entry for the vicious beating of Freedom Rider Jim Peck on this day (May 14, 1961).

The Freedom Ride began on May 4, 1961, with an integrated group of 13 men on two commercial buses (no women were allowed). Their plan was to travel from Washington, D.C. through the Deep South to New Orleans. They planned to reach New Orleans on May 17th, the anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

Because of the violence, the leaders of the Freedom Ride decided not to continue the challenge to integrate interstate travel. African-American students at Fisk University and Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville, Tennessee, vowed not to retreat in the face of violence and continued the Freedom Ride through the fall and early winter of 1961.  The Nashville students, notably Diane Nash, were veterans of the sit-in movement in that city.

Visit the Freedom Rides Museum, in the original Greyhound Bus Station, Montgomery: http://www.preserveala.org/greyhoundstation.aspx

Read: Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)

Watch a documentary on the Freedom Ride: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T50Ym94k8Y

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