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The Leaders of the Freedom Rides

Posted on: September 22nd, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

See James L. Farmer and other key figures discuss the impact of the Freedom Rides and nonviolent protest in the Civil Rights movement.

 

James L. Farmer Jr.

JAMES L. FARMER, JR. (1920-1999)

Son of the first African-American to earn a doctorate in Texas, Farmer earned his divinity degree from Howard  University, where he studied of Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolent protest. Farmer co-founded The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1940s.

In 1961 he became CORE’s National Director, making him a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement.Although segregation on interstate buses was declared illegal in 1946, the practice was widely enforced in the deep south.

Farmer conceived of a way to bring national attention to this ongoing infringement. The initial plan was a single  trip on 2 buses with 13 riders—male and female, black and white—beginning in Washington, D.C. and ending in New Orleans. Over the next six months, the Freedom Ride movement would grow to 60 rides by 450 people, with over 300 arrests. As events were televised nationwide, support for the movement grew. Farmer looked upon the Freedom Rides as his proudest achievement, noting that "Bobby Kennedy had the Interstate Commerce Commission issue an order, with teeth in it, that he could enforce.”

Farmer later resigned from CORE leadership and distanced himself as the group became more militant. Under President Nixon, he accepted a position in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, but resigned in frustration. Farmer received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1998.

 

DIANE NASH (b. 1938)

Diane Nash

Raised in Chicago by a middle-class Catholic family, Nash transferred from Howard to Fisk University in 1959. The segregation she faced in Tennessee led her to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. Nash protested in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins before becoming a leader of the Freedom Rides. After the CORE Freedom Ride was stopped in Alabama, Nash believed it was crucial that the rides continue, so she coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride with the goal of finishing the original CORE itinerary, from Birmingham to New Orleans. Nash recruited and trained the riders, ensuring that all the riders had made a will before getting onto the busses. She also coordinated with national figures and the press. Nash did not actually ride on the bus, but met the group in Montgomery. Here, she helped to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak to the riders. After the Freedom Rides, Nash continued to work for desegregation and voting rights in Alabama. She returned to Chicago, where she works in education and fair housing advocacy.

 

John Lewis

JOHN LEWIS (b.1940)

The son of tenant farmers from Pike County, AL, Lewis attended American Baptist Theological Seminary in

Nashville. At 19, Lewis was arrested in protests with the Nashville Student Movement. Lewis joined the original CORE buses, and in Rock Hill South Carolina, he was the first of the riders to be assaulted for entering a whites-only waiting room. Lewis then left the ride several days before crossing into Alabama to interview for a fellowship. Back in Nashville, he learned that the bus he had been on was firebombed in Anniston. He joined the Nashville riders and convinced friends and mentors to join. Lewis stayed with the Nashville group until Jackson, Mississippi, where he was arrested and imprisoned at Parchman Farm.

After the Freedom Rides, Lewis became the chairman of SNCC and became a key leaders of the Civil Rights movement, organizing the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March. In 1986, John Lewis was elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he continues to serve today.

 

PARCHMAN PRISON

A woman in the back of a paddy wagon.

The Freedom Riders sent to Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) would likely been known of the difficult conditions ahead. Historian David Oshinsky states, “throughout the American South, Parchman farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality.” Established in 1901, Parchman occupied 28 square miles of delta valley land. Approximately 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned in Parchman in 1961. Because the government and the media were watching the situation, they were spared the worst abuses of other prisoners; nevertheless, they were confined in isolation from each other, forbidden exercise, served inedible food, and harassed by the officials. When they sang freedom songs from their cells, the guards seized their mattresses in retaliation. Despite attempts by authorities to break the spirits of the Freedom Riders, it had a reverse effect of building their resolve and solidarity. The Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman currently operates with a maximum capacity of 3,543, including  minimum, medium, close custody, and death row inmates.

 


Too Heavy For Your Pocket begins performances at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre- The Black Box Theatre on September 15, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.



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2017-2018 Season, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket


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