KKK Mob Ambushes Buses, Beats Freedom Riders
Some of the most disturbing attacks in America’s long, troubled history of racism occurred in Alabama on May 14, 1961, when civil rights demonstrators riding buses to challenge segregationist policies in the South were viciously attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The attacks, at bus stations in Anniston and Birmingham, were against “Freedom Riders”: courageous activists—men and women, African American and white—upset that the federal government was not enforcing laws requiring desegregated facilities for interstate public transportation. These activists were willing to risk their lives for their beliefs.
In 1955 the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ruled against “separate but equal” facilities for interstate bus travel. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its 1960 Boynton v. Virginia decision that the ICC ruling was the law of the land: interstate bus stations could not have segregated waiting rooms, bathrooms, or restaurants. Nonetheless, “Jim Crow” policies throughout the South remained in effect, with “whites only” and “colored” signs for drinking fountains, waiting rooms, etc., keeping the races separate.
Because the Kennedy administration was not enforcing the law, the Freedom Riders decided to ride buses throughout the South to publicize how the bus stations—and the buses themselves—remained segregated. The effort was organized primarily by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). On May 4, 1961, the first 13 Freedom Riders departed Washington, D.C., on Greyhound and Trailways buses, hoping to reach New Orleans on May 17 to attend a civil rights rally.
Racists in Alabama were determined to stop the Freedom Riders, led by Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor and other law enforcement officers. A plan was hatched whereby the police would look the other way for about 15 minutes while members of the Ku Klux Klan ambushed the buses in Anniston and Birmingham without fear of arrest.
And so the stage was set for the frightful violence on May 14, 1961, reported in the following two newspaper articles. The most traumatic was the attack on the Greyhound bus that first pulled into Anniston. The mob surrounded the bus, beating on its sides and windows while slashing its tires, which forced the fleeing bus to come to a stop a few miles outside of town. The mob caught up to the crippled bus, hurled a firebomb through a window, then held the doors shut to burn the passengers. When the victims managed to finally stagger out of the inferno, their attackers beat them mercilessly with weapons including baseball bats, bicycle chains, and iron bars. The Trailways bus was also attacked in Anniston, and other attacks followed in Birmingham.
The KKK mob may have felt it won this initial battle, but it lost the war. Hundreds more Freedom Riders kept coming all that long summer and into the fall, and the Southern jails overflowed with arrested demonstrators. Their plight—and the nauseating images of riders being beaten—upset the American public. Finally, Attorney General Robert Kennedy pressured the ICC to begin enforcing its own rulings, and federal law as clarified by the Supreme Court, and new policies against segregation—enforced this time—went into effect on Nov. 1, 1961, affecting interstate trains as well as buses.
This copyrighted article was published by the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on the front page of its May 15, 1961, issue:
Alabama Group Attacks Buses
CORE “Freedom Riders” Receive Beating
Anniston, Ala. (AP)—A group of angry white persons Sunday attacked two buses carrying Negro and white “Freedom Riders” who are seeking to knock down bus station racial barriers.
A little later, 60 miles to the west, one of the buses ran into another angry crowd of white men at a Birmingham bus station. The integrated group took a brief but bloody beating and fled. No serious injuries were reported.
Both buses were carrying members of the Congress of Racial Equality—CORE—on a swing through Dixie testing segregated facilities in bus stations. They call themselves “Freedom Riders.”
Shots Fired in Air
State investigator Ell M. Cowling, acting on a tip of possible trouble, was aboard a Greyhound bus attacked near Anniston. He barred the bus door with his body when the crowd of white men tried to board the bus. Two highway patrolmen fired their pistols into the air to quiet the crowd of about 200 which had followed the bus from Anniston.
Somebody threw a fire bomb through a bus window. Twelve persons were hospitalized, mostly for smoke inhalation. Ten of them later were released.
The bus, stalled about six miles out of Anniston by a flat tire, was destroyed by the blaze.
FBI agent Thomas J. Jenkins of Birmingham said his agents were making an inquiry into the bus burning to determine if there had been any violation of federal law.
He declined to comment further.
Those who weren’t hospitalized were taken back to Anniston and placed on another bus. They completed their ride to Birmingham and arrived at Birmingham’s Greyhound station without incident.
Split into 2 Groups
The CORE members left Washington 10 days ago with six white and seven Negro “Freedom Riders.” The number has fluctuated at various stops. On the Anniston bus the CORE group included five Negroes and four white persons. The number on the Trailways bus which reached Birmingham was not known.
They split into two groups in Atlanta and took separate buses into Alabama. The trouble started when the Greyhound, carrying the nine “Freedom Riders” and five other passengers, reached this northeast Alabama city of about 30,000.
The Trailways bus which later ran into difficulty at Birmingham had its first trouble at Anniston also.
Dr. Walter Bergman, 61, a former Michigan State University professor and a member of the CORE group, said a fight had broken out on the bus.
The Trailways station was closed, but Bergman said he got off, got sandwiches nearby and was getting back on the bus when a policeman came up.
“The driver said he wasn’t going to move until the Negroes moved to the back of the bus,” Bergman said. “At that time, about 10 white men attacked Charles Person, a student at Morehouse University, Atlanta.
“And then James Peck stepped forward, then they turned on us. Peck was beaten about the face and got a deep cut on his scalp.
“Then they beat me and were kicking me. And then they threw the Negroes and others over me. There was no other violence until we got to Birmingham.”
Bergman said three policemen stood outside the bus at Anniston while this took place.
The bus continued to Birmingham where Peck was admitted to a hospital in fair condition.
When the bus arrived at Birmingham it met more trouble.
Several white men attacked the group inside the Birmingham station, beating a Negro youth and a white man apparently accompanying them.
The white men, obviously waiting for the arrival of the bus, covered telephone booths and exits. They refused to permit a newsman to use a telephone.
The fighting broke out in several areas around the station in downtown Birmingham.
No police were in evidence until several minutes after the outbreak.
A white man left the bus, and shook hands with one of the Negro passengers at the Birmingham station.
The Negroes hesitated momentarily, and then walked into a passageway leading into the waiting rooms.
To the left was a sign which designated the Negro waiting room. The other Negroes followed a few feet behind him.
Is Pushed Back
Several white men stopped the young Negro man, and one of them told him: “The Negro waiting room is back that way.” They turned him around forcefully, and pushed him.
The Negro group turned back into the passageway, but were met by another group of white men entering from the opposite end of the hall.
The Negro man tried to walk through the men, but a husky white man knocked him against the wall.
Several white men entered the passageway from the white waiting room. They stood behind the young Negro.
“Hit him,” one of them said.
A man slammed his fist into the young Negro’s face. He fell to the floor, blood spurting from his nose.
As he got up, the white man hit him again. This time, the Negro fell backward into the arms of the white men. They pushed him up again. The white man slammed the Negro in the face again.
A white man who had been riding the bus with the Negroes attempted to interfere. He was beaten in the face until he lay on his back, blood streaming from his nose.
The injured Negro youth and the white man staggered outside, through the entrance, and into the bus parking area outside.
Forced to Flee
The group followed them. The Negroes and white men who accompanied them ran from the bus station with the white attackers behind them.
It was all over in about three minutes.
There was no way to determine the number of attackers. Some apparently had been waiting in the bus station before the incident.
An aged Negro woman who was on the bus stood among the milling crowd, crying: “It started on the bus. It started on the bus.”
The “Freedom Riders” group and the attackers had disappeared within 15 minutes after the first outbreak.
Two newsmen were attacked by the crowd outside the bus station. One, Tom Langston of the Birmingham Post-Herald, was hurt painfully, but was not hospitalized.
Clancy Lake, a radio newsman, was attacked as he sat in his closed automobile broadcasting an account of the violence. He escaped serious injury.
In an alley behind the bus station, a group of photographers had leaped into their automobile, but were blocked by another group of white men. They seized several cameras, smashed some of them and made off with the others.
Police made no arrests immediately.
This copyrighted article was published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on the front page of its May 15, 1961, issue:
‘Bus Test’ Stirs Row in South
Racial Trouble Flares over ‘Freedom Ride’
(Chicago Tribune Press Service)
Birmingham, Ala.—Violence broke out Sunday here and in Anniston, Ala., 50 miles east, when mobs of white men in each city attacked biracial groups riding buses to test segregation laws.
In Anniston a white mob, armed with clubs, knives, and an incendiary bomb, damaged a Greyhound bus carrying nine of the self-styled freedom riders and trailed the bus out of town until it was forced to halt by slashed tires.
The mob thereupon burned the bus to a mass of blackened metal while police watched without making arrests. Nine bus passengers were treated in an Anniston hospital for smoke inhalation and glass cuts.
In Birmingham white hoodlums attacked with swinging fists when disembarking passengers, both white and colored, led by a Negro, walked into a white waiting room at the bus depot. Reports were that this Negro was beaten and that others in the party were struck and roughed up.
Street Fights Erupt
Street fighting broke out in the vicinity of the depot in downtown Birmingham. Police finally restored order.
The “freedom riders” in each instance were members of the Congress of Racial Equality who had set out from Washington, D.C., 10 days ago for travels in the South by regularly-scheduled buses to investigate segregation practices affecting bus riders.
Nine members of the group were reportedly aboard the bus burned near Anniston. No count was available on the number of members on the bus which reached Birmingham. All had arrived at Atlanta earlier in the day, it was said, and had split into two groups for the trip from Atlanta to Birmingham.
Only one of these buses was scheduled to stop at Anniston [correction: the Trailways bus arrived at Anniston one hour after the Greyhound bus, and was also attacked—ed.], a city of 35,000 in northeast Alabama. A mob of 150 white persons awaited the bus’s arrival there, hurling stones through windows and slashing tires.
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