Meet the Freedom Riders Who Survived a Deadly Attack from the KKK

Aired on 05/04/2011 | CC tv-pg
It was dangerous and daring. Some even considered it a suicide mission. In 1961, the Freedom Riders, a group of nonviolent civil rights protesters, bravely risked their lives by boarding a bus in Washington, D.C., and heading straight into the segregated south.

The plan was to take interstate buses on a two-week journey to New Orleans. Along the way, the riders would test federal laws that prohibited segregation by riding in the front of buses and sitting in waiting rooms designated for whites only. They hoped that this would force the federal government to step up and protect their Civil Rights. But they had no idea what lay ahead.

A mob of Ku Klux Klan members met one of the buses on the Alabama border and, over time, caused the fuel tank to explode. As their lungs filled with smoke, the passengers spilled out onto the grass and into the hands of the angry mob.

"Did you all think you were going to die on that bus?" Oprah asked two of the survivors. "I certainly did. I knew if I got off the bus, I knew the mob would kill me," said Hank Thomas, one of the Freedom Riders.
On September 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order taking down the Jim Crow signs from all of the bus and rail stations in the south, an historic achievement for those who put their lives on the line. In Oprah's farewell season, 178 Freedom Riders reunited on Oprah's stage, some of whom had not seen each other for more than 50 years. Watch the emotional reunion and hear from the men and women who survived the KKK's ruthless attack.

Original airdate: May 4, 2011

Watch more historical moments involving race relations and Civil Rights from The Oprah Show's 25-year run.