A Reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders

In May of 1961, racial tensions in the United States were reaching their boiling point. The U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark case that established the legality of separate but equal facilities for different races, back in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education case. However, several Southern states went to great lengths to avoid integration of the races. One way was with buses. In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation could not be enforced on interstate buses. This did not deter some Southern states from requiring segregation.

To show that some states were not abiding by the ruling, a group of people known as the Freedom Riders began a long bus journey starting in Washington, D.C., and ending in New Orleans, La. They never reached their destination. There were minor troubles and arrests, as the group expected, in the northernmost Southern states. It was in Alabama and Mississippi that they met with violence that destroyed the buses, physical violence and jail time.

The immediate aftermath of the original Freedom Riders journey, and those journeys in the subsequent months, was to make desegregation of interstate transportation and businesses a priority. The Kennedy administration saw that the best way to end the violence was to end segregation. Although it took many years to fully end the policy, this marked the first step of a difficult journey. Ten years later, the Supreme Court determined that one viable way to achieve integration was through busing. This means that some Caucasian children would be bussed to predominantly African American school districts and some African American children would be bussed to predominantly Caucasian school districts.

It was in 1967 that prohibitions on interracial marriage were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Before this point, many people did not like the idea of African American people marrying Caucasian people. The Freedom Riders had also challenged people’s feelings on interracial relationships by having two people on the buses acting as an interracial couple. Beginning in 1967, marriage licenses could no longer be denied to the interracial couples who sought them.

In 1988, after overcoming a potentially fatal veto by then President Ronald Regan, the Civil Rights Restoration Act became law. Three years later, the civil right movement received another boost when the Civil Rights Act of 1991 became law. Both of these laws expanded protections against discrimination either in private institutions or in employment, respectively.

On the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, it is important to remember what those brave men and women did. They helped bring an end to segregation and paved the way for others to voice their discontent, which led to many more civil rights victories over the years.