Issues Facing America: The '60s
Since the institution of Jim Crow laws at the close of the 19th century, African-Americans in the South were forced to sit in the back of the bus and use separate waiting rooms, drinking fountains and rest rooms. In addition to these humiliations, the threat of violence was always present for black travelers.
On June 3, 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation on interstate buses as a violation of the interstate commerce clause. In December 1960, Boynton v. Virginia expanded that decision, outlawing segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters and restroom facilities for interstate passengers. However, both rulings were largely ignored in the Deep South.
On May 4, 1961, CORE began a racially integrated Freedom Ride on buses through the South to test whether buses and station facilities were compliant with the Supreme Court rulings. The ride was met with unprecedented violence, including the burning of a bus in Anniston, Alabama, and riots in Birmingham, Alabama, and Montgomery, Alabama. Further Rides followed as a way to draw national attention to the reality of segregation and put pressure on the federal government to enforce the law.
On September 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) outlawed discriminatory seating practices on interstate bus transit and ordered the removal of "whites only" signs from interstate bus terminals by November 1, 1961. While pockets or racist resistance persisted for several years, eventually the signs came down.
More than simply a moral victory or a public relations coup, the victory won by the Freedom Riders changed the everyday lives of black travelers throughout the South, through the remainder of the 1960s and beyond.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, A WGBH PRODUCTION FOR PBS