Traveling the Freedom Riders' Route

Charlie Brand works on the Freedom Rides Museum before the 50th anniversary of the 1961 freedom rides. (The Washington Post)
Charlie Brand works on the Freedom Rides Museum before the 50th anniversary of the 1961 freedom rides. (The Washington Post)

(The Root) — The Greyhound Bus Station on South Court Street in downtown Montgomery, Ala., was supposed to be an ordinary stop for freedom riders in May 1961 traveling through the Deep South to challenge segregation. But for the riders, and even their federal-appointed escort, mob violence altered their course, marking an important touchstone in the history of the nation's civil rights movement.

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The 400 or so blacks and whites who over a period of about eight months set out to change a region separated by race on public transportation, traveled together on buses, blurring the color lines in a way not accepted at that time by the white majority. For that, they faced great resistance, violence and threats to their lives.

It takes more than 17 hours today to drive the 1,000 miles that stretch between the original freedom rides' starting point in Washington, D.C., and its final destination, New Orleans.

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Today, more than 50 years after that spirited challenge, road trippers can visit museums, some historical markers and even digital exhibits that help retell the story for new generations.

The bus station in Montgomery where a mob used baseball bats, iron pipes and other objects to ambush the freedom riders while a white police force literally turned its head, is now a museum. The doors of the restored terminal opened to everyone in May 2011 to coincide with the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the rides, said Christy Carl, acting site director.

Located at 210 South Court Street, the Freedom Rides Museum is just a few blocks away from another museum related to transportation and civil rights — the Rosa Parks Museum.

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 "Until they visit, many people don't realize while the Montgomery Bus Boycott cleared the way for blacks to ride on any seat on local transportation after 1955, blacks didn't have that same access on interstate transportation," Carl said. The federal courts in Boynton v. Virginia desegregated interstate transportation in 1960, but in the Deep South, it didn't matter. Blacks were relegated to the rear of the bus and were subjected to segregated restrooms and restaurants at bus and train terminals.

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At the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, blacks would have to go around to a door just off of the loading dock to enter. A sign with 6-foot letters marked the Colored Entrance of the facility built in 1951, Carl said.

Greyhound relocated its station in 1996 and the building was acquired by the General Services Administration. But even before Greyhound left the building, the door of the Colored Entrance was bricked in, Carl said.

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The story of the freedom riders in Montgomery is told inside and outside of the museum. Outside, a huge panel exhibit with photos and text captures the highlights of the attack at the bus station and the rally at the First Baptist Church where the Rev. Ralph Abernathy was pastor. Inside, art exhibits inspired by the freedom riders is on display.

Several freedom riders have visited the museum and recorded their stories. Visitors can listen to those stories, or they can record their own.

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Carl estimates it takes 45 minutes to complete the visit to the museum, open only two days week — Friday and Saturday — from noon to 4 p.m. CST. Groups of 10 or more can request tours on other days.

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 The museum is operated by the state of Alabama, but the state has faced financial struggles in recent years, and while the museum was able to open its doors in 2011, it is limited in the hours it can be staffed, Carl said.

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She is hoping that interest among visitors will increase and the museum can add to its hours of operation. About 2,000 people have visited since May 2011, she said.

While the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery is the only one specifically dedicated to the rides, the trail of the riders can be traced with the help of maps and historic markers.

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One of most significant points along the route for many freedom riders was the Parchman Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Miss.

Once freedom riders were arrested at the Greyhound Bus Station and charged in Jackson, Miss., they were sent to Parchman, packed in small cells and stripped of necessities as basic as toothbrushes. But while serving their time, the riders sang in the cells.

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In 2011, then Gov. Haley Barbour unveiled a historic marker on the site of the former bus station commemorating the freedom rides. The ceremony was part of events in that state commemorating the 50th anniversary of the rides.

Every stop along the road did not bring violence for the riders.

In Villa Rica, Ga., a town just off Interstate 20 in West Georgia, the Villa Rica Historic Preservation Commission erected a marker in 2011, designating the peaceful passage through the station near the intersection of South Carroll Road and Montgomery Street. Freedom riders passed through that city's bus terminal in 1961 in the initial trip that started in Washington, D.C.

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About 60 miles from Villa Rica, in Anniston, Ala., the freedom riders faced a brutal attack. Tires on the bus were slashed and windows were broken. When the bus driver got off to change a flat, the mob attacked the bus and set it on fire. The riders were beaten.

In 2007, the Alabama Historical Association erected a marker, sponsored by the Theta Tau chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, honoring the freedom riders at the site of the violence, which is now Albert P. Brewer Highway.

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Freedom riders were also beaten in Birmingham at the Trailways Bus Station. Police were nearby, but they didn't stop the violence.

In 1995, the Alabama Historical Commission erected a marker sponsored by Kenneth Mullinax Jr. at 19th Street and Fourth Avenue North to honor the freedom riders. Mullinax, a native of Anniston who currently serves as director of media relations and public information at Alabama State University, is white. As a child, he witnessed the burning of the freedom riders' bus in Anniston.

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"We were leaving Forsythe's grocery — me, my mom and dad," Mullinax told The Root. "Dad told me and Mom to lie on the floor of the car when he saw what was happening. I raised my head up anyway."

Years later, Mullinax started a personal mission to fund some of Alabama's historic markers, including several commemorating key moments in civil rights history.

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"We must never forget the struggle, the toil and the turmoil ordinary citizens had to do to turn around the hearts of hard-hearted segregationists as well as the government which supported their actions, which was nothing less than state-sponsored terrorism," Mullinax said. "Thank goodness they wouldn't let anybody turn them around."

Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama.

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