Photo: Getty Images
Spirit of the Times
Midway between the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision and the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Rides captured the zeitgeist of the decade to come.
The emergence of 1960s counterculture and opposition to the Vietnam War were still several years away, but the seeds for these changes—and for the success of the Freedom Rides—were already present. When Americans saw the images of the burning bus in Anniston, Alabama, on television it brought the conflict into their living rooms and forced them to choose a side. The Freedom Rides were an early example of the way in which television could amplify the effects of social protest, just as images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 or battle scenes from the 1968 Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War would shift public opinion in the years to come.
The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 introduced a new brand of patriotic rhetoric, a challenge to all Americans to do more for their country and its stated ideals. In 1961, Cold War politics still reigned supreme on the national and international stage. Civil rights were not initially a major concern for Kennedy, but activists hoped that the new President might be more sympathetic to their cause than the Eisenhower administration. While the Kennedy administration's support was grudging and qualified, it nevertheless yielded concrete results, such as the ICC September 22, 1961, ruling to outlaw racial discrimination in interstate bus transit and remove "whites only" signs from interstate bus terminals, and the Kennedy-endorsed Voter Education Project that prefigured the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, and ultimately, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Most important of all, the Freedom Riders were able to build on the momentum of previous legal victories and mass movements for civil rights and social justice.