It is a very different nation that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides this month. The "colored" and "white" waiting room signs are gone, along with the insistence that blacks be treated as second-class citizens, unworthy of equal rights. That fact is not lost on John Lewis, now a U.S. congressman from Georgia. Fifty years ago, he faced mob fury, brutal beatings and the threat of death just to use the same services and public facilities as his white peers throughout the South.
In May 1961, Lewis was a 22-year-old student at Nashville's American Baptist Theological Seminary when he and other college students decided to take a stand that would make history. In a bold move, the Congress of Racial Equality — the civil-rights organization founded two decades earlier to fight segregation with nonviolent resistance — sent small teams of black and white Americans, Jews and Christians, young and old, via Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington, D.C., into the Deep South. Their mission: to test the enforcement of federal desegregation laws.
"An education is important and I hope to get one," wrote Lewis in his application for the Freedom Rides. "But right now, freedom is the most important thing in my life. That justice and freedom might come to the Deep South."
A year earlier, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling had made it illegal to discriminate against passengers in interstate travel. But segregated conditions remained in Southern cities, from Nashville all the way to the Gulf. When state and local governments made it clear they had no interest in enforcing integration, black college students and adult activists, and the whites who stood with them, made their move to challenge the status quo.
Their effect was inestimable. By the time the Freedom Rides ended in December 1961, more than 400 people had joined the protest that started with 13 people, including Lewis. A ruling that September by the Interstate Commerce Commission — a direct result of the rides — put a stop to long-held practices that kept blacks and whites separate. The Freedom Rides marked the first time black and white Americans joined forces en masse to protest racist conditions.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the widely reported violence that rained down on the peace-abiding Freedom Riders — vicious, vehement, and hostile beyond reason — pricked the conscience of the nation. For the first time, the Kennedy administration fully recognized the extremity of the South's entrenched institutional bigotry.
"This is a movement that depended on the moral courage of the individual Freedom Riders," says Ray Arsenault, the historian whose book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice has become required reading on the era. "They had the discipline of nonviolence and they were willing to die. The more the judicial system tried to intimidate them and make them abandon the rides, the more it solidified their commitment."
As a result, Arsenault says, "They became the shock troops of the movement. They were among the leaders in all the demonstrations and campaigns for the rest of the decade."
Nashville's Freedom Riders were no strangers to challenging business owners and city leaders. A year earlier, they had begun a successful campaign to protest segregated stores and businesses, starting with the lunch counters in what was then the city's booming downtown shopping district on Church Street.
Ernest "Rip" Patton Jr., now 71, was one of those protesters. In 1960, he was a student at Tennessee State University (then called Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial University), eager to make a change in his hometown.
"Nashville was one of the most Jim Crow cities in the South," the longtime Nashville resident recalls today. "I can't think of anything that wasn't segregated. There were signs even on the buses and in the downtown areas. You couldn't sit down at the lunch counter and eat. You couldn't even go in and order takeout in some of the places. The places that did have takeout, you had to eat it outside. At Harvey's department store, you had to take it outside."
Led by the Rev. James Lawson (whose activism ironically got him drummed out of divinity school at Vanderbilt) and ministers such as Kelly Miller Smith at First Baptist Church, Nashville residents held sit-ins, stand-ins and boycotts designed to hit merchants in their pocketbooks.One year, no one bought Easter outfits.
These were stepping stones toward larger actions — such as a campaign against segregated movie theaters, whose owners forced black patrons to walk in alleys to rear entrances and take seats in the balcony. "Alleys are for rats" was the protesters' slogan, recalls Pauline Knight-Ofosu, a Freedom Rider from Nashville now living in suburban Atlanta.
But with the increased organization and visibility of the protests came greater risks, and more direct confrontation with racist hostility. During one of those stand-ins, Knight-Ofosu remembers, a young white man spat on her.
"I asked him if he had a handkerchief," she says. "He looked at me kind of crazy, but it took away the hostility of the moment."