A group of American heroes got their proper salute and recognition — 50 years later — on a Public Broadcasting System two-hour documentary called “Freedom Riders.”
In May of 1961, a group of black and white Americans departed Washington, D.C., and headed south.
One group was on a Trailways bus; the other took a Greyhound bus. Their goal was to see if Southern bus terminals were desegregated, as they should have been if the Supreme Court’s 1946 Morgan v. Virginia ruling were being enforced.
The Morgan ruling outlawed segregation in interstate travel facilities, but almost all Southern states
pretended the ruling didn’t exist.
When the people who would become known as Freedom Riders started their journey, it wasn’t a case of civil rights activists engaging in civil disobedience to make their point.
What the Freedom Riders did was perfectly legal. What some state and local officials did — think Alabama and Mississippi governors John Patterson and Ross Barnett, and Birmingham, Ala., public safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor — was either illegal or malfeasance in office.
Things went peacefully for the Freedom Riders as their buses traveled through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
Then the Greyhound bus stopped in Anniston, Ala., where a mob burned the bus and beat some of the Freedom Riders.
What happened when the Trailways bus arrived in Birmingham was even more despicable. Connor had cut a deal with Ku Klux Klan leaders: their ruffians were given 15 minutes to attack the Freedom Riders before police intervened. Photographers from several newspapers caught the KKK thugs on camera savagely beating the activists.
The Freedom Riders were fully cognizant of the dangers that awaited them. They knew they risked injury or even death.
But they went on their journey because they firmly believed in a principle, one the Supreme Court reaffirmed in the Morgan decision: that Americans had a right to travel from state to state while being treated with the common dignity all of us deserve.
Several bona fide heroes emerged from the Freedom Rides. There was James Peck, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, who was severely beaten in the Birmingham attack.
Days later, emerging from the hospital with his face covered in bandages, Peck said the Freedom Riders wouldn’t be deterred, that they would proceed on the Freedom Ride from Birmingham.
That never happened; no bus driver in Birmingham would risk driving the Freedom Riders any farther. Enter Diane Nash, a Fisk University student who decided that a group of Freedom Riders from Nashville would continue the journey.
“It was critical that the Freedom Ride not stop and that it be continued immediately,” Nash said in the documentary.
President John F. Kennedy didn’t agree. Talking to John Seigenthaler, then an aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president demanded to know, “Who the hell is Diane Nash?”
Kennedy urged Seigenthaler to prevail upon Nash to stop the Freedom Ride from Nashville. Nash didn’t go for it.
Eventually, Kennedy and Patterson were forced to give the Freedom Riders the protection they were entitled to as American citizens, although it came several beaten bodies and one burned bus too late.
Examiner columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to Sudan.