During the week of May 22-26, hundreds of Americans are expected to converge in Jackson, Miss., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Between May and December of 1961, the nonviolent protest against segregation in the Deep South — which continued despite the Supreme Court’s outlawing of such practices — saw 436 black and white young people riding interstate buses together through the South, testing segregation laws.
For flouting rules on who could ride in the front of a bus or use waiting rooms designated “Whites Only” and “Colored,” the Freedom Riders faced vicious mob attacks, slashed tires, firebombs and jail cells. Yet after persevering through more than 60 rides, they helped to hasten desegregation and ignite a nationwide movement for civil rights.
Among the Freedom Riders was a 21-year-old seminary student named John Lewis. He went on to chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speak at the 1963 March on Washington, lead the voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery and represent Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. Congress, where he continues to serve today.
The civil rights icon shared his Freedom Ride experience with The Root, his anticipation about the 50th-anniversary reunion and the issue he wishes that more young people would mobilize around today.
The Root: Many people don’t realize just how unpopular it was to join the civil rights movement at first. Most people at the time thought it was too risky or not worth the headache. What made you willing to join the Freedom Riders and face violent mobs for the cause?
John Lewis: As a student, and as someone who had grown up in rural Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery, I had been deeply influenced by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t like seeing signs that said “White” and “Colored,” and I wanted to do something about it.
A year earlier I’d participated in the sit-ins, and from that point forward I made a commitment to do whatever I could to end segregation and racial discrimination in America. I studied the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, and I came to a point where I lost all sense of fear. I was prepared to put my body on the line, and I was prepared to die for what I believed in.