So who were the Freedom Riders?

PlayMakers Repertory’s upcoming show, The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders, focuses on the story of a brave and determined group of men and women who had a significant impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Here’s some inspirational historical context to get you ready to see the show.

It started with the Nashville Student Group. Upon successfully desegregating lunch counters and movie theaters in their city, the band of college students decided to challenge the Jim Crow laws throughout the South by traveling the country on public buses.

A group of Freedom Riders ready to depart. Source: www.forusa.org

On May 5th, 1961, the group of students, black and white, sat together on their first bus and ignored “white” and “colored” designations at their stops. Though the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public facilities three years earlier, these acts were still considered criminal in the Deep South and the Freedom Riders became the victims of beatings by angry mobs along their route.

On Mother’s Day, 1961, a mob in Anniston, Alabama, slashed their bus’s tires and threw a firebomb inside. When the Riders tried to escape, they encountered the mob waiting outside the bus weilding lead pipes and baseball bats. Though an undercover agent intervened to precent imminent lynchings, the group was beaten a second time that day when they arrived in Birmingham. Soon afterward members from to CORE (the Committee of Racial Equality), SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference)joined the Freedom Rides.

The bombing of a Freedom Riders bus. Source: www.birminghamarchives.org

Police soon arrested 350 participants, filling Mississippi jails. Many of the Freedom Riders were transferred to the maximum-security prison at Parchman Farm near Jackson, Mississippi and endured humiliating and torturous conditions.

Upon their release the Riders continued their efforts, inspiring other movements to spring up to challenge segregation laws. Five months after the first ride, the Interstate Commerce Commission enacted a tougher law banning segregation in public facilities.

For more information, check out the Freedom Riders Foundation’s website.