Freedom Riders were groups of Civil Rights activists who participated in Freedom Rides, bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals.
Freedom Riders tried to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations in Alabama, South Carolina and other Southern states. The groups were confronted by arresting police officers — as well as horrific violence from white protestors – along their routes, but also drew international attention to their cause.
The original group of 13 Freedom Riders, comprised of seven African Americans and six whites, left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. Their plan was to reach New Orleans, Louisiana on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.
The group traveled through Virginia and North Carolina, drawing little public notice. The first violent incident occurred on May 12 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
John Lewis, an African-American seminary student and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (current U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving in his 17th term in the House), white Freedom Rider and World War II veteran Albert Bigelow, and another African-American rider were viciously attacked as they attempted to enter a whites-only waiting area.
The Freedom Riders as a group eventually numbered in the hundreds.
One of them, self-described as a rarity, was Joan Browning.
Browning grew up on a farm in rural Georgia, where at 11 years old she picked 100 pounds of cotton a day. By the time she was 16, she was picking 200 pounds a day. She attended a small, country Methodist church with about 30 members.
“Out of the 436 Freedom Riders, only four of us were southern white females,” Browning said during a visit to Morristown Tennessee on January 31, 2020.
Browning’s foray into civil disobedience was brought about by 1) her devout Methodist faith and 2) Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union.
Sputnik’s success spurred the need for competition and led to college scholarships for American youth who were good in math and science; Browning’s scholarship enabled her to attend Georgia State College for Women.
While there, she felt the call to worship and was invited to attend services at the Wesley Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Milledgeville. The larger Methodist church, with a white congregation that numbered 1,000 members, did not draw her interest. And, as Browning would tell a Morristown audience in 2020, neither church had a sign posted to indicate that any specific race was not allowed to attend.
The word got out and the college’s president, Robert E. Lee, told Browning he was receiving threats to harm the college, himself and Browning because of her attendance at the black church. As a result, she was allowed to finish out the quarter and then transfer to Atlanta, where she got a job at Emory University’s Candler Library and found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Before she transferred, however, Browning snuck away from Georgia State College for Women, by signing out that she was visiting a family friend, to participate in a sit-in.
Sit-ins were the “happening thing” according to Browning. The sit-in was held on a Sunday afternoon at a drugstore in Augusta, Georgia.
“As we were leaving the drugstore, a white Klansman took out a pocket knife and tried to stab one of the white students,” Browning said.
An African-American student jumped in front of the targeted white student and was stabbed in the chest. He was the one who told them to run, Browning said.
“We ran down the street and ducked into a women’s dress shop,” Browning said. “We were going to hide there for a few moments and then the people with cars were going to pick us up. I remember thinking in that dressing room: ‘What if my mother could see me, not only sitting in at a drugstore, but being in a women’s dressing room with men. How scandalous!’ So that was my introduction to direct action.”
After joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta, Browning met Julian Bond, a student at Moorhouse College, who became an American social activist and leader of the civil rights movement, politician, professor and writer.
Bond’s press releases, which Browning typed and mailed out (borrowing stamps from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization across the street), ended up in publications like The New York Times or The Atlanta Consitution.
“Julian had such credibility. He never exaggerated or put out anything that wasn’t correct,” Browning said. “He had a slant, but his slant was toward telling the reader what was happening: who was doing things and where they were doing them. He saved our lives. We couldn’t vanish into those little Southern jails because he was shining a spotlight on us. He was telling people we were there and what was up and who was doing it. So, although it took him a long time to become a jailbird — many years — he was doing a really valuable part of it.”
The 13 original Freedom Riders on the two buses leaving Washington in May 1961, a Trailways and a Greyhound, mingled with regular passengers, sitting together, black and white, women with women, men with men.
“A white women could not sit beside a black man,” Browning said. “There was some trouble in South Carolina, but it wasn’t until they got to Alabama that the really bad stuff happened.”
The one bus was fire-bombed and the passengers — even those who were just traveling — were not allowed to get off, and they all suffered greatly. The second bus arrived in Birmingham on Mother’s Day, and the police were all off for the holiday. The white supremacists surrounded the passengers, beating them badly.
“Some of them bore the scars for the rest of their lives,” Browning said.
“Organizers said, ‘This is too dangerous; we’ll call it off.’ But, Darlene Nash at Frist University in Nashville, said ‘We can not let violence win, we have to keep going,’” Browning said.
Eventually, there were 62 different rides.
Browning was the very last passenger chosen for the final ride. The destination was Albany, Georgia. Organizers wanted an even number of blacks and whites. She was dating a Georgia Tech student who wanted to be on that last ride, but his ROTC scholarship kept him off. If he lost it, he would have been shipped off to Southeast Asia, according to Browning.
The Albany ride was planned for a Sunday afternoon. The group was to spend the night in Albany, then take the train home the next day. There were no round tickets given out.
“They didn’t think we would be going back and there was no money,” Browning said.
The sat together in the white waiting room. A crowd was there, outside, to cheer them on, which angered the local police. They were arrested, first for “conspiracy to overthrow the government of the state of Georgia,” then “disturbing the peace.”
“While we in jail – we were young, skinny, and beautiful, innocent-looking,” Browning said, “the Albany organizers began marching down to the jail.”
By the end of the week, more than 1,000 citizens had been arrested, many of whom gave false names. Most were thumbprinted, harassed for a bit, released and then would return the next day. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was set to speak only, just to encourage people — “He had places to be, he said,” according to Browning.
He was eventually convinced to march and was subsequently arrested.
Reporters asked the Freedom Riders if they had followed MLK.
“I put on my 18-year-old impertinence and said, ‘Well, actually Dr. King followed me to jail,’” Browning said.
During her visit to the Morristown Senior Citizens Center, Browning said to her luncheon audience, “I don’t know what I can tell you, because you lived through the same times I did. Every time you went out in public, there were signs: who could drink the water or who could use the bathroom or who had to sit in the back of the bus. And the Freedom Riders were simply about taking down those signs.
“And we we waited until the Supreme Court said it was illegal to have those signs. So we were not actually breaking the federal law. But in many places, including Tennessee and Georgia, people said, basically, ‘You and who’s army’s gonna make me?’ So we had a non-violent army that set out to force the issue.”
“Non violence, per Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a goal not to defeat someone, but to change their mind, to change their heart.
“It was not in what you did, but how you did it that characterized our sit-in and Freedom Rider movements,” Browning said.
In 2015, Browning visited Morristown schools and civic orginizations, along with fellow Freedom Riders Joan Mulholland, the Rev. Reginald Green and Dion Diamond.
The more than 50-year bond between the four had been strengthened by sharing their stories, especially with young people at or nearing the ages of Freedom Riders when they boarded the buses and trains that led to the emotional, mental and physical challenges that shaped their lives.
Green said the bus that in May 1961 drove through Knoxville, Tennessee was delayed near the city, due to a large brown bear that refused to leave the middle of the road.
“We felt everyone deserved to enjoy the full benefits of this nation,” Green said. He said several schools in Virginia closed their doors rather than teach African-American children in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. The signs of “Whites Only” on restaurants and public bathrooms were considered examples of unwarranted hatred by the Freedom Riders.
“We wanted those signs to come down,” Green said.
He added that a photograph taken of injured Freedom Riders sitting on a hill near the Greyhound bus after the Mother’s Day attack in Anniston, Alabama was a personal inspiration for what became a lifetime of supporting individual rights.
“That image of that bus is what impacted so many lives, including mine,” Green said.
For the more than 400 blacks and whites who participated in the Freedom Rides, it was a common practice to prepare a last will and testament prior to boarding the buses or trains.
Instead, Browning chose a last dinner with her boyfriend. She described the ceremonial choosing of a formal black dress, four-inch heels and fake pearls for the occasion. Her date bought her a drink, a Benedictine and Brandy, although she wasn’t old enough to legally drink.
“I had already broken the law before I started,” Browning said. “We were really children.”
The steely resolve necessary to board a bus or train in 1961 that was headed south toward potential injury or death forged a sameness of mind between the Freedom Riders, despite the fact each was unaware of all the struggles occurring at the time.
“Most of us didn’t know each other,” Green said.They are still learning details of the time spent near each other in local jails; the situations were equally humiliating and dangerous for both females and males.
Diamond’s description of Saturday tours conducted while he served one jail sentence included young Boy Scouts troops being brought in front of cell.
“Do you want to see what a real Commie looks like?” Diamond said the young boys would be asked. “They would stretch themselves up to look into that small window to look at me; their eyes would so big,” he said.
“We still have a challenge before us,” Green said.
The Freedom Rides, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, were modeled after the organization’s 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. During the 1947 action, African-American and white bus riders tested the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Virginia that found segregated bus seating was unconstitutional.
The 1961 Freedom Rides sought to test a 1960 decision by the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, was unconstitutional as well. A big difference between the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and the 1961 Freedom Rides was the inclusion of women in the later initiative.
In both actions, black riders traveled to the American South — where segregation continued to occur — and attempted to use whites-only restrooms, lunch counters and waiting rooms.