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Five to leave D.C. on first Freedom Ride: 1961 | by Washington Area Spark
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Five to leave D.C. on first Freedom Ride: 1961

Five of the original Freedom Riders, who would board a Greyhound and a Trailways bus in an attempt to desegregate bus service and terminals throughout the south, are shown May 4, 1961 in Washington, D.C. just before beginning their trip.


From left to right: Edward Blankenheim of Tucson, Ariz.; Congress of Racial Equality founder James Farmer of New York; Genevieve Hughes, a Chevy Chase, Md. native then of New York; Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox of High Point North Carolina; and Henry “Hank” Thomas, a Howard University student from St. Augustine, Fl.


Before embarking on their “Freedom Ride” the participants had undergone non-violent training in Washington, D.C.


The riders were trying to enforce U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1946 Morgan v. Virginia, the 1955 Keys v. Carolina Coach and 1960 Boynton v. Virginia cases outlawing segregation on interstate transportation.


The Freedom Riders were inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, led by Bayard Rustin and George Houser and co-sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the then-fledgling Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).


Like the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Journey of Reconciliation was intended to test an earlier Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin, Igal Roodenko, Joe Felmet and Andrew Johnnson, were arrested and sentenced to serve on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating local Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation.


The first Freedom Ride began on May 4, 1961. Led by CORE Director James Farmer, 13 riders (seven black, six white, left Washington, DC, on Greyhound (from the Greyhound Terminal) and Trailways buses.


Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana, where a civil rights rally was planned. Most of the Riders were from CORE, and two were from Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Many were in their 40s and 50s. Some were as young as 18.


The Freedom Riders' tactics for their journey were to have at least one interracial pair sitting in adjoining seats, and at least one black rider sitting up front, where seats under segregation had been reserved for white customers by local custom throughout the South. The rest of the team would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would abide by the South's segregation rules in order to avoid arrest and to contact CORE and arrange bail for those who were arrested.


Only minor trouble was encountered in Virginia and North Carolina, but John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Some of the Riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Winnsboro, South Carolina.


The Birmingham, Alabama, Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, together with Police Sergeant Tom Cook (an avid Ku Klux Klan supporter), organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local Klan chapters. The pair made plans to bring the Ride to an end in Alabama.


They assured Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informer and member of Eastview Klavern 13 (the most violent Klan group in Alabama), that the mob would have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any arrests being made. The plan was to allow an initial assault in Anniston with a final assault taking place in Birmingham.


On May 14, Mother's Day, in Anniston, Alabama, a mob of Klansmen, some still in church attire, attacked the first of the two buses (the Greyhound). The driver tried to leave the station, but was blocked until KKK members slashed its tires.


The mob forced the crippled bus to stop several miles outside of town and then threw a firebomb into it. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders to death.


Sources disagree, but either an exploding fuel tank or an undercover state investigator brandishing a revolver caused the mob to retreat, and the riders escaped the bus. The mob beat the riders after they got out. Only warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched.


Some injured riders were taken to Anniston Memorial Hospital. That night, the hospitalized Freedom Riders, most of whom had been refused care, were removed from the hospital at 2 AM, because the staff feared the mob outside the hospital.


The local civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars of black citizens to rescue the injured Freedom Riders in defiance of the white supremacists. The black people were under the leadership of Colonel Stone Johnson and were openly armed as they arrived at the hospital, protecting the Freedom Riders from the mob.


When the Trailways bus reached Anniston and pulled in at the terminal an hour after the Greyhound bus was burned, it was boarded by eight Klansmen. They beat the Freedom Riders and left them semi-conscious in the back of the bus.


When the bus arrived in Birmingham, it was attacked by a mob of KKK members aided and abetted by police under the orders of Commissioner Bull Connor.


As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. Among the attacking Klansmen was Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI informant.


Despite the violence suffered and the threat of more to come, the Freedom Riders intended to continue their journey. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had arranged an escort for the Riders in order to get them to Montgomery, Alabama, safely.


However, radio reports told of a mob awaiting the riders at the bus terminal, as well as on the route to Montgomery. The Greyhound clerks told the Riders that their drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere.


Recognizing that their efforts had already called national attention to the civil rights cause and wanting to get to the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham. When they first boarded the plane, all passengers had to exit because of a bomb threat.


The nationwide news coverage spurred civil rights activists to continue the effort and numerous Freedom Rides were organized in subsequent weeks resulting in beatings and jailings throughout the south, particularly in Alabama and Mississippi.


The Kennedys, often looked upon fondly today as civil rights icons, were anything but at the time. President Kennedy sent word calling for a “cooling off period” while his brother Robert, the chief law-enforcement officer of the land, was quoted as saying that he "does not feel that the Department of Justice can side with one group or the other in disputes over Constitutional rights."


His comment angered civil rights supporters, who considered the Justice Department duty-bound to enforce Supreme Court rulings and defend citizens exercising their Constitutional rights from mob violence.


By September CORE and SNCC leaders made tentative plans for a mass demonstration known as the "Washington Project." This would mobilize hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nonviolent demonstrators to the capital city to apply pressure on the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Kennedy administration to enforce the court ruling outlawing segregation on interstate public transportation.


The idea was pre-empted when the ICC finally issued the necessary orders just before the end of the month. The new policies went into effect on November 1, 1961,


After the new ICC rule took effect, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains; "white" and "colored" signs were removed from the terminals; racially segregated drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms serving interstate customers were consolidated; and the lunch counters began serving all customers, regardless of race.


Despite widespread condemnation in the white press that the Freedom Riders were provoking racial violence and exacerbating racial tension, the victory in a hard fought, direct action protest that inspired and mobilized hundreds of activists would provide another major boost to the burgeoning civil rights movement.


Those pictured:


Edward Blankenheim


While studying chemistry at the University of Arizona and being a carpenter's apprentice, he became involved with the civil rights movement, and joined CORE. He was one of the few white people who participated in local civil rights activities.


He started out by becoming involved with NAACP Youth Council in Tucson, Arizona and later became a leader for a division of CORE known as Students for Equality.


During the first Freedom Ride and upon arriving in Anniston, a mob firebombed the bus, but the passengers managed to escape. The riders were regrouped by the mob and severely beaten.


Blankenheim was hit in the face with a tire iron and lost several teeth, however he survived the attack. As a result of the attack, he lost the use of the right side of his body. He also suffered a stroke which is believed to be a result of the injuries he suffered from the attack.


He was interviewed on National Public Radio in 2001 on the 40th anniversary of the freedom rides. That year he rode on a bus to recreate the first freedom ride, but this time was welcomed as a hero, in contrast to the beatings and bus burning of 1961.


Blankenheim died of cancer at 70 years old September 26, 2004.


James Farmer


Farmer was a founder of CORE and its national director at the time of the Freedom Rides. He set out as one of the original Freedom Riders, but before the group made it to Alabama, the most dangerous part of the Freedom Ride, Farmer had to return home because his father died.


CORE would eventually grow to 82,000 members in 114 chapters around the nation by the mid-1960s with Farmer as its executive director.


CORE employed sit-ins, picketing, and other non-violent tactics modeled after the Indian protest movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Farmer participated in the first CORE sit-ins in Chicago during World War II that ended discriminatory services practices in two restaurants.


CORE’s tactics captured the imagination of many activists who would lend their support to the civil rights movement emerging in the nation in the late 1950s. Farmer led the organization from its founding in 1942 until 1965.


He was also criticized for softening his tactics after the Freedom Rides and sought to halt direct action that would offend some of CORE’s funders.


Farmer put the Washington, D.C. chapter of CORE in receivership, ousting militant direct action leader Julius Hobson, despite Hobson’s successes desegregating department store employment and hospitals.


Hobson would go on to lead a boycott of public schools and file a successful lawsuit to end the school track system where black students were denied college preparatory courses. The D.C. chapter of CORE faded into obscurity.


In 1969, James Farmer, a lifelong Republican, was appointed by President Nixon to the post of Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He was also criticized in many activist quarters for joining with Nixon.


The former civil rights activist soon became uncomfortable with both the Washington bureaucracy — which he believed moved far too slowly on major racial problems — and with the Nixon administration which crafted policy at odds with his views.


Farmer resigned in 1970 to work on his memoir and teach at Mary Washington College in Virginia, a post he held until failing health forced his resignation in 1998.


James Farmer died on July 9, 1999 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He was 79.


Genevieve Hughes


Hughes grew up in the upper-middle-class suburban community of Chevy Chase, Maryland. She studied at Cornell University and, upon her graduation, moved to New York City to work as a stockbroker. I


in the late 1950s she became involved in the New York chapter of CORE, and she organized a boycott of dime stores that worked with chain restaurants that resisted the sit-in movements in the South. Hughes started to become ostracized from her colleagues on Wall Street, and she decided to work full time to end racism.


In fall of 1960 she took the position as CORE's field secretary and, in doing so, she was the first woman to serve on CORE's Field Staff.


When explaining her decision to join the Freedom Rides she said, "I figured Southern women should be represented so the South and the nation would realize all Southern people do not think alike."


She was among those attacked during the Freedom Ride at Anniston, Ga. She recounts her experience in the Anniston hospital:


"There was no doctor at the hospital, only a nurse. They had me breathe pure oxygen but that only burned my throat and did not relieve the coughing. I was burning hot and my clothes were a wet mess.


“After a while Ed and Bert were brought in, choking. We all lay on our beds and coughed. Finally, a woman doctor came in—she had to look up smoke poisoning before treating us. They brought in the Negro man who had been in the back of the bus with me. I pointed to him and told them to take care of him. But they did not bring him into our emergency room.”


“I understand that they did not do anything at all for Hank. Thirteen in all were brought in, and three were admitted: Ed, the Negro man and myself. They gave me a room and I slept. When I woke up the nurse asked me if I could talk with the FBI. The FBI did not care about us, but only the bombing."


She continued to be active in movements for social justice, environmental protection, and world peace. In 1972 she was a co-founder and first director of the Women's Center in Carbondale, Illinois, one of the first shelters for women victims of domestic violence in the United States.


Hughes died October 2, 2012.


Rev Benjamin Elton Cox


After his ordination in 1958, he became a pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church in High Point, North Carolina.


Cox quickly gained a reputation for being a strong supporter of the civil rights movement. He started desegregation efforts in local schools, serving as an advisor for NAACP Youth Council, and participating as an observer for the American Friends Service Committee.


After the Greensboro sit-ins in February 1960, he encouraged local students to participate in their own sit-ins, under the condition they stay non-violent.


Cox views on being non-violent were very strong. He soon caught the attention of the national NAACP leaders, including James Farmer. Farmer hired Cox to help stump the south.


Shortly after Farmer hired Cox, Farmer became executive director of CORE. Cox soon received a call from Farmer, wanting to know if Cox would be willing to join the Freedom Rides due to his background as being an ordained minister. Cox agreed and showed up in Washington wearing formal clothing, in case anyone was questioning if the Ride lacked divine guidance.


He was one of those on the bus at Anniston, Ga. When the mobs attacked, but never talked much about it according to his eldest son.


In the summer of 1961, he participated in another CORE Freedom Ride from Missouri to Louisiana on July 8-15 1961.


He defended his actions in the Freedom Ride by stating in the film Freedom Riders, "If men like Governor Patterson [of Alabama] and Governor Barnett of Mississippi... would carry out the good oath of their office, then people would be able to travel in this country. Then people in Tel Aviv and Moscow and London would not pick up their newspaper for breakfast and realize that America is not living up to the dream of liberty and justice for all."


Cox was arrested seventeen times over the course of a few decades. He died in 2011.


Henry “Hank” Thomas


Thomas attended Howard University in Washington D.C. While attending Howard,


Thomas participated in many lunch counter sit-ins, and became one of the founders of the Non-Violent Action Group (NAG), an affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC).


His commitment to civil rights increased as he heard about the sit-in movements going on in Greensboro. Inspired by these movements, Thomas became a participant and organizer of early movements in Maryland and in Virginia.


Thomas' first arrest was at a movie theater in Hyattsville, MD. He attempted to purchase movie tickets at a white movie theater, and they wouldn't let him buy any because he was black, so he waited. Eventually the police arrived came and arrested him.


"My first arrest came in the Hyattsville, MD. There's a movie theater there that, of course, we could not go in. And we went there to buy tickets, prearranging we wouldn't move out of the way for other people to buy tickets. That's when I was arrested. That was the beginning."


Thomas was the first one to make it out of the burning bus in Anniston, Ga. As he made his way out, a man asked "Are you all OK?" Before anyone could answer, the man smirked and struck Thomas in the head with a baseball bat. He fell to the ground and almost lost consciousness.


Although almost all of the Freedom Riders needed medical attention, the hospital they were taken to did not give them much help. Genevieve Hughes, another rider, made this statement about Hank Thomas' visit to the hospital after the incident: "I understand they did not do anything at all for Hank."


Although Thomas was injured, and injected with a sense of fear, he participated in a second Freedom Ride from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi ten days later.


This time, he was incarcerated and served time at the Parchman State Prison Farm. Thomas was soon after released on bail, and on August 22, 1961, he became the first rider to appeal his conviction for the breach of peace. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in 1964,[8] the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in 1965.[9]


After the Freedom Rides he was drafted into the service In 1965, and served in the Vietnam War as a medic. He was injured in battle and subsequently received a Purple Heart.


Thomas moved to Atlanta, which he thought was the best place for black middle-class at the time. Here, he became an entrepreneur, opening up a laundromat with his friend.


Afterward, he worked his way up through the franchise business. First, he became the franchisee of a Burger King and two Dairy Queens, and eventually became the franchisee of six McDonald's restaurants.[citation needed] He currently owns four Marriott Hotels, two Fairfield Inns, and two TownePlace Suites.


--partially excerpted from The Black Past and from Wikipedia


For more information and related images, see


Photo by Walter Oates. The image is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.


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Taken on May 4, 1961