1961 May 24

Freedom Riders Immediately Arrested in Jackson, MS – Secret Deal by AG Robert Kennedy


Members of the historic Freedom Ride on this day were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, the minute they got off the bus. The arrests were part of a secret deal arranged by Attorney General Kennedy with Mississippi Senator James Eastland, in which Eastland would guarantee no violence in Jackson and the Freedom Riders would all be immediately arrested when they arrived there.  Kennedy, in short, sold out their legal right to travel free of discrimination in a trade for peace and quiet.He and his brother, the president, were primarily concerned about violence that would embarrass the administration and the nation.

The 1961 Freedom Ride challenging race discrimination in interstate bus travel, which began on May 4, 1961, was one of the iconic moments of the civil rights movement. When the freedom riders were viciously attacked in Alabama on May 14, 1961, the planners of the Freedom Ride cancelled the rest of the bus rides and flew to New Orleans. Student veterans of the sit-in movement from Nashville, however, refused to capitulate to violence and continued the bus rides. The people arrested on this day were part of the second wave of freedom rides.

Robert Kennedy admitted to and justified the deal in a 1964 interview that was published years later (see the reference below). This was one of several instances in which the Kennedy administration, despite its reputation for supporting the civil rights movement, in fact did not support it and in some instances(this one, for example) undercut it.

President Kennedy’s lack of support for the Freedom Ride is best indicated by his remarks on May 20, 1961 in which he drew a moral equivalence between the freedom riders and the racist vigilantes who were committing violence against them, asking both sides to back off.

Read Robert Kennedy’s Admission of the Secret Deal: Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman, eds., Robert Kennedy, In His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years (1988). [NOTE: These important and revealing interviews were conducted under an agreement that they would not be published for over twenty years.]

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

Watch a documentary on the Freedom Rides: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66_kqSG6aHI

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