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RFK, the Freedom Riders, and the struggle for racial justice in 1961

Sixty years ago, the Freedom Riders risked their lives to defend their rights. The law was on their side, but as an excerpt from a new book shows, Kennedy’s Justice Department learned the law didn’t always matter in Alabama and Mississippi.

A Freedom Rider bus went up in flames in May 1961 when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Ala. The bus, which was testing bus station segregation in the south, had stopped because of a flat tire. Passengers escaped without serious injury.(AP Photo)
A bus carrying Freedom Riders was firebombed in Alabama on May 14, 1961. No passengers were seriously injured.Associated Press / File
This story has been adapted from "Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White", by Patricia Sullivan.

This story has been adapted from “Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White,” by Patricia Sullivan.

CIVIL RIGHTS WAS A CORNERSTONE of John F. Kennedy’s presidential platform in 1960. He had promised to introduce a comprehensive civil rights bill “within the first 100 days,” but his narrow victory, coupled with significant losses by Northern Democrats — 21 seats in the House and two in the Senate went to Republicans — had amplified the power of Southern Democrats, who now held most chairmanships in the House and the Senate.

President Kennedy’s strategy was to have the Justice Department take action to enforce laws that were on the books but being ignored. For that, he needed someone he could trust as attorney general. “I don’t want somebody who is going to be fainthearted. I want somebody who is going to be strong, who will join with me in taking whatever risks or whatever downside exposure there was and who would deal with the problem honestly,” Kennedy told his brother Robert F. Kennedy and an aide during a December 1960 meeting. “We’re going to have to change the climate in this country. And if my administration does the things I want to do, I’m going to have to have someone as attorney general to carry these things out on whom I can rely completely.” That someone was his brother Bobby.

President Kennedy’s choice for attorney general was widely criticized. At 35, Robert Kennedy was the youngest attorney general since Richard Rush had served under James Madison in 1814. He was not qualified by any traditional standard. The New York Times charged that he lacked experience in the practice of law — either in the courtroom or as a legal philosopher. President Kennedy dismissed the criticism of his brother. “In planning, getting the right people to work, and seeing that the job is done,” he concluded, “he is the best person in the United States.”

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Bobby Kennedy knew he was a neophyte about civil rights, something he acknowledged in an interview with Look magazine early in his tenure. But he wasn’t a naif. There were people in the South who wished to perpetuate “a vast disparity” for white and Black people, he told Look, “and then use the same disparity to argue that” Black people aren’t “ready for full citizenship.” There were also Northerners “whose lives indicate that they would rather talk about integration than live it” — such as newspaper editors “who preach civil rights, but belong to restricted clubs and send their children to school where there are no Negroes.” Beyond that, he acknowledged that it was time for the federal government to face the racial discrimination in its own ranks — while about 13 percent of the roughly 1.8 million federal employees were Black people, most were in low-level jobs.

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Both Kennedys moved quickly to address those governmental disparities, starting on Inauguration Day, when President Kennedy noticed the US Coast Guard contingent that marched by the viewing stand was entirely white. It turned out the Coast Guard Academy had no Black cadets; he told an aide to fix it. By the summer, the first Black professor had been hired at the academy, and in the fall four Black students joined the incoming class.

Similarly, when Bobby Kennedy toured the offices of the sprawling Department of Justice at the start of his term in January 1961, he asked an aide whether anything had struck him as strange. The aide said he was impressed to see everyone working so hard. Kennedy wanted to know why there were no Black people.

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Kennedy asked the aide to report back on how many Black lawyers were working in the Department of Justice. There were 10 Black lawyers out of more than 950 working in Washington, and nine out of the 742 working in district attorneys’ offices around the country. He asked for steps to be taken immediately to open professional positions for Black people in the Justice Department. He wrote personally to the dean of every law school in the country, asking them for names “of qualified Negro attorneys of your acquaintance who might be interested in coming into the Department.”

At his first Cabinet meeting, President Kennedy discussed his impromptu order for the integration of the Coast Guard and instructed each Cabinet member to examine the situation in his own agency and take “affirmative action” in recruiting.

As for Bobby Kennedy, he wanted to build a team of lawyers at Justice who could help stop the flouting of Brown v. Board of Education, and take on voter discrimination. He did not want to pick an obvious candidate, Harris Wofford, because he was a friend and confidante of Martin Luther King Jr. Wofford recommended Burke Marshall, a corporate lawyer who had taught classes with Wofford at Howard University School of Law. Despite an awkward interview, Kennedy selected Marshall as his assistant attorney general for civil rights because he was considered “the best young lawyer in Washington.” Civil rights mattered deeply to Kennedy, Marshall said later. And the more Kennedy learned about how Black people were treated in the South, the angrier it made him. “You know, he was always talking about the hypocrisy,” Marshall said. “By the end of the year he was so mad about that kind of thing, it overrode everything else.”

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Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General and brother of President John F. Kennedy, is shown in deep thought at the Justice Department as he worked with aides considering legal measures following racial violence in Montgomery, Ala., May 21, 1961, Washington, D.C. The riot was touched off by a freedom ride  arriving from Birmingham, Ala., May 20. He ordered a task force of U.S. Marshals and Byron R. White, Deputy U.S. Attorney General, to the area to safeguard federal rights. (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy considers how to respond to white rioters in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 21, 1961.Byron Rollins / Associated Press / File

BOBBY KENNEDY’S FIRST MOVE against discrimination in voter registration and school populations was to hire five additional attorneys for the Civil Rights Division and put them to work filing suits against registrars in those counties in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama where Black voters were disproportionately underrepresented on registration rolls. In the early spring, they filed 13 suits across the region.

He made his first trip to the Deep South as attorney general in early May 1961, to give a speech at the University of Georgia. Georgia voters had given the president his highest margin of victory in the election, but when the university had been desegregated in January 1961, white students had rioted in protest. The only state official in attendance at the speech would be Griffin Bell, the governor’s chief of staff, who had managed the president’s campaign in Georgia.

“If we are to be truly a great nation,” Bobby Kennedy told the crowd, “then we must make sure nobody is denied opportunity because of race, creed, or color.”

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While Kennedy spoke, an interracial group of 13 men and women affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as well as a few reporters and photographers, mostly with Black media outlets, were on the second day of their journey south to test the enforcement of Boynton v. Virginia, the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that barred segregation in bus terminals servicing interstate travel. Simeon Booker, who in 1955 as a Washington Post reporter had covered Emmett Till’s murder, was at this point Jet magazine’s Washington bureau chief covering the Freedom Rides, and had mentioned plans for the bus trip to Kennedy during an interview in April. The journalist was surprised by Kennedy’s “buoyant response — ‘I wish I could go with you!’” When Booker advised him that the riders may need federal protection at some point, Kennedy told him to call if trouble arose.

The interracial members of the Freedom Riders planned to call attention to places where the law was not being enforced, by riding together in the front of buses, which had been legal since 1946, and then to test the Boynton v. Virginia decision by integrating bus station waiting rooms, both white and Black, and other facilities along the way. To also highlight school desegregation, they planned to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

The first significant incident happened in Rock Hill, South Carolina; young white men attacked John Lewis and a fellow rider who came to his aid, leaving Lewis, a future civil rights icon and congressman, cut up and with several bruised ribs.

Black Freedom Riders have breakfast at a lunch counter in the bus station in Montgomery, Ala., on May 24, 1961.  It is the first time the eating facilities at the station were integrated.  The group planned to travel to Jackson, Miss., and New Orleans, La., on their Freedom Ride movement to test the effectiveness of the 1960 Supreme Court ruling on integration.  (AP Photo)
Freedom Riders have breakfast at the bus station meal counter in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 24, 1961. It was the first time the dining area had been integrated.Associated Press / File

But during these early stops, the Freedom Riders mostly stirred curiosity. They made a brief stopover in Atlanta, where seven riders split off to a Trailways bus, before heading farther south. Over dinner in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. took Simeon Booker aside “and told me straight out,” as Booker recalled, “I’ve gotten word you won’t reach Birmingham. They’re going to waylay you.”

In Anniston, Alabama, a mob of more than a hundred men wielding clubs and bats attacked the first bus on May 14, Mother’s Day. A firebomb engulfed the bus in flames and the riders barely escaped alive. (Cars were sent to pick them up and drive them to Birmingham.) Riders on the second bus were also attacked, but it managed to continue to Birmingham, where some 50 white men were waiting, armed with bats, chains, and steel pipes. Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, who two years later would assault civil rights marchers with police dogs and fire hoses, had made sure that police were not present for the bus’s arrival, promising the Ku Klux Klan 15 minutes with no interference. The mob bludgeoned the riders as they entered the bus station and also attacked the journalists. Several riders had to be hospitalized. (Years later, it was revealed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew of the attack in advance but failed to notify the attorney general.)

The Mother’s Day bombing and bus station riot dominated national news. There was no bus company willing to take the Freedom Riders out of Birmingham. Kennedy called Bull Connor, who told him that he would protect the bus station but not the bus once it left the station. Bobby Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to reach Governor John Patterson to get his assurance that the state police would enforce the law. He had known Patterson since 1959, and the governor had been one of his brother’s earliest supporters. That relationship quickly soured.

This initial group of riders decided to fly the rest of the way to New Orleans, and Kennedy dispatched his administrative assistant, John Seigenthaler, to help. Three flights to New Orleans had been canceled because of bomb threats. Seigenthaler talked with an airline representative and persuaded the airline to prepare for a quick boarding and takeoff. By Monday evening, the battered band of riders was in the air, bound for New Orleans.

By the time they landed, a group affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was preparing to head to Birmingham from Nashville to continue the Freedom Ride. Diane Nash, a leader of the Nashville SNCC group and one of the most fearless and effective civil rights organizers, told an incredulous James Farmer, leader of the CORE group, “We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead.” Seigenthaler phoned Nash to warn her that some of her group might be killed. She said they realized that was a possibility. If they were killed, more would come, she insisted, and “sooner or later we’ll get somebody through.”

On May 17, the day the Freedom Riders had meant to mark the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education by getting off the bus in New Orleans, the Nashville group reached Birmingham. Bull Connor had them confined to their bus and had newspapers pasted over the windows as an angry crowd gathered outside the terminal. After a series of bomb threats, no bus driver was willing to take the group on to Montgomery, just as had happened to the CORE group members. As evening approached, Connor had the riders taken into “protective custody” in the city jail. With Governor Patterson seemingly refusing to take responsibility for the safety of the riders, it appeared that federal action would be necessary.

Bobby Kennedy, Marshall, and several other Justice Department officials discussed how they might intervene, and decided that federal marshals, a civilian force, should be dispatched to Alabama, because Kennedy was concerned using military troops would further heighten tensions and look like an occupation. They briefed President Kennedy, who agreed to call Governor Patterson. The receptionist who answered told the president that the governor was fishing.

On Thursday, Connor had the riders taken from jail in the dead of night, driven to the Tennessee border, and left stranded on the roadside at 4 a.m. They found refuge with an older couple, and John Lewis called Diane Nash, who sent activist Leo Lillard to drive them by car. By noon on Friday the 18th, they had made their way back to Birmingham and met up with a second group of riders. The group of 19 women and men arrived at the bus station to board the 3 p.m. bus to Montgomery. But the driver walked off the bus, refusing to risk certain danger. Police sealed the riders off in the bus station as a mob gathered outside.

Frustrated with Patterson’s failure to return phone calls, Kennedy called the governor’s office on Friday afternoon and told his assistant that the president was prepared to issue a public ultimatum as a prelude to federal intervention. Patterson grabbed the phone from his aide. Kennedy, who finally had the governor’s ear, told him the buses had to be protected and that it was his responsibility. Patterson responded with a political oration “against Negroes and the federal government and the Supreme Court,” as Burke Marshall later recalled, and dredged up the Civil War. Kennedy told his former ally that he did not need to make a speech; all he had to do was fulfill his responsibility to ensure that the riders could travel safely. Patterson instructed him to send a representative, and John Seigenthaler was promptly dispatched to the governor’s office.

Seigenthaler met with the governor — and his entire Cabinet — on Friday night. Patterson, after a long diatribe excoriating the “spineless people” he had supported (namely, the Kennedys) for failing to stand up to the activists, warned that if federal marshals were sent into Alabama, there would be “blood in the streets.” But in response to Seigenthaler’s questions, Patterson said Alabama would provide safe travel on the state’s highways, and that Floyd Mann, head of the state highway patrol, would take care of the details. Mann immediately assured Seigenthaler, “I’ll make sure they’ll never be out of the sight of an Alabama highway patrol.”

Early Saturday, a Greyhound bus carrying 19 Freedom Riders left the Birmingham bus station. Birmingham police cars led the bus to the city’s edge, where state highway patrol cars took up the lead. Floyd Mann, who rode on the bus, received assurances from Montgomery Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan that a large contingent of police would be waiting at the Montgomery bus station. When the bus arrived at close to 10:30 a.m., there was not a police officer in sight. Instead, there was a mob of nearly 200 men, women, and children, led by several of the Klansmen who had organized the Birmingham riot and who had been assured by Sullivan that the police would not interfere.

As the riders left the bus, a screaming mob brandishing lead pipes, bricks, chains, and tire irons swarmed over the riders, beating men and women alike. Rioters beat and kicked reporters and smashed television cameras. William Barbee, one of the riders, was being brutally assaulted when Mann waded into the horrific scene, pulled out his gun and fired two warning shots into the air, promising to shoot the next man who hit Barbee.


Civil rights leaders hold a news conference in Montgomery, Ala. and announce that the Freedom Rides will continue, May 23, 1961. In the foreground is John Lewis, one of the riders who was beaten. Others, left to right: James Farmer, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King. Lewis wears bandage on head. (AP Photo)
John Lewis (foreground, bandage on back of head), the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (partially obscured), and James Farmer announcing on May 23, 1961, that the Freedom Rides will continue.Associated Press / File

IN WASHINGTON, the attorney general held an emergency meeting, making an unsuccessful attempt to reach Governor Patterson. After updating the president and securing his approval, Bobby Kennedy and his team activated their plans to assemble the federal marshals in Montgomery and secure a federal court order injunction specifically prohibiting the Klan from interfering with interstate travel.

Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr. had flown into Montgomery for a meeting at the First Baptist Church that evening. He was met at the airport by 50 marshals, who accompanied him to a private meeting with Diane Nash, John Lewis, and several other Freedom Riders.

Tensions heightened over the course of the day as Patterson seized the platform at the state capitol to protest the federal “invasion” of Alabama. Justice Department officials proceeded cautiously, hoping that the governor would acknowledge the need to prepare for certain trouble. A dozen marshals were stationed outside the First Baptist Church as people started gathering several hours before the meeting. By the time the meeting was scheduled to begin, close to 1,500 people had crowded into the church. The mob of white people outside of the church eventually numbered more than 2,000.

Shortly after 8 p.m., as the program began, members of the mob overturned a car outside the church and set it on fire, causing the gas tank to explode and ratcheting up fears that the church would be attacked by the rock-throwing, volatile crowd. Shouts of “Let’s clean the [racial slur] out of here” and threats to burn the church down pierced the air. Confederate flags waved over the mob. There was no local or state police presence. The thin line of marshals protecting the church was on the verge of being completely overwhelmed.

As the situation outside of First Baptist Church rapidly deteriorated, Kennedy called for the deployment of the marshals temporarily stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base. A convoy of more than 400 marshals was soon en route to the church. King phoned the attorney general from the church basement, warning of impending disaster. In the course of the conversation, Kennedy asked King whether the Freedom Riders might agree to a cooling-off period, not riding the buses until federal and state officials could work out a solution. King allowed that he could not speak for the riders (he had declined to participate in the Freedom Rides), but he said he would discuss the idea with them. Before the conversation ended, the marshals arrived, much to King’s relief. But his ordeal was really only just beginning.

The marshals initially succeeded in pushing the mob back, clearing the area with a round of tear gas. But the protesters rallied and broke through, after which they tried to storm through the church door, hurling a brick through a large stained-glass window. Kennedy placed Army forces at Fort Benning on high alert, and Governor Patterson finally decided to act. At 10 p.m. he declared “qualified martial rule.” City police and Alabama National Guardsmen soon created a buffer in front of the church and dispersed the rioters. The marshals were put under the command of the National Guard, whose commander promptly ordered them to leave the scene.

With the mob subdued, the mass meeting in the church proceeded. Congregants celebrated the Freedom Riders, lifting their voices in song amid impassioned speeches by King, Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Farmer. It was close to midnight when the meeting ended. As people attempted to leave the church, they found the exits blocked by National Guardsmen with drawn bayonets. National Guard General Henry Graham told King that the situation outside the church was still unstable and said it would likely be early morning before they could leave. Packed into the hot, crowded church since early in the evening, an exasperated King called Kennedy back, arguing that this form of “protective custody” bore the cruel and punitive mark of Alabama segregationists. Still in his Washington office monitoring the situation after a long and tense day, Kennedy had little sympathy for King’s complaint.

Soon after, an angry Governor Patterson called and told Kennedy he could guarantee the safety of everyone in the church — except King. Shocked, Kennedy demanded to hear directly from the head of the National Guard that he was not able to protect King. Patterson then backed down, explaining the political pressures he faced. “John,” Kennedy responded, “it’s more important that these people in the church survive physically than for us to survive politically.”

Still, it took the threat of sending the marshals back before the National Guard allowed the church to be evacuated, which finally happened near dawn.

In a photo provided by Mississippi Department of Archives and History, in Jackson, Miss., hundreds of Freedom Riders were arrested and convicted of breach of peace, including John Lewis, upper left; Ralph Abernathy, middle row, second from right; and Stokely Carmichael, bottom row, second from left. Lewis was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, who boarded buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, encountered violence and resistance on their journey south, challenging segregation laws along the way. (Mississippi Department of Archives and History via The New York Times) -- [[permission granted from Mississippi Archives to use image in 6/6/21 magazine]]
Some of the hundreds of Freedom Riders who were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, and convicted of breaching the peace for trying to integrate bus station waiting rooms. Future congressman John Lewis is in the third row, far left. Prominent activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) is bottom row, second from left.the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

IN A SITUATION that could easily have ended with the burning of the church and untold death and devastation, Robert Kennedy had seen the precarious nature of federal power when state officials flaunted constitutional mandates, tolerated mob violence, and refused to take responsibility for maintaining public safety. “Those fellows are at war with this country,” he told one of his deputies. The FBI had proved mostly ineffectual. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover phoned Kennedy to assure him that his agents would henceforth cooperate with his efforts. But when speaking to his staff, Hoover insisted that the major threat to the social order in the South was actually King and the civil rights protesters, whom Hoover viewed as radical provocateurs.

Dismissing Kennedy’s public call for a “cooling-off” period, 12 Freedom Riders continued from Birmingham to Jackson, Mississippi. Several hundred supporters greeted the riders as they arrived at the bus terminal. But when the riders attempted to enter the “whites-only” waiting room, police arrested them for breaching the peace and failing to obey a police officer, and took them to a maximum security prison in Parchman, Mississippi. Two more buses arrived that week, bringing Freedom Riders from Nashville, New Orleans, and elsewhere. All were arrested.

By summer’s end, 324 men and women from all over the country had traveled by bus to Jackson, attempted to enter the white waiting areas, and been arrested for breaching the peace. Justice Department efforts to get federal court orders to put a stop to these arrests were unsuccessful. The City of Jackson tried each case separately, though the legal issues were the same. Each person had to hire a lawyer, put up bail, and return for trial.

Throughout the summer, Kennedy and Burke Marshall worked with William Tucker, an Interstate Commerce Commission member from Massachusetts, to convince commissioners to follow the Supreme Court and end segregation in interstate travel. On September 22, the ICC issued orders mandating the desegregation of all buses and terminals servicing interstate transportation and requiring that rules be posted on carriers and in terminals specifically stating that discrimination based on race, color, or national origin was forbidden, among other provisions. For the most part, communities and carriers across the nation complied with the new ruling. By early 1962, the Freedom Riders and Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department had secured the desegregation of interstate travel.

The Freedom Riders, through their well-publicized exposure of state-sanctioned defiance of federal law, hoped to raise national awareness as well as secure enforcement of the law. Yet most Americans were unmoved by the brutality and lawlessness that met the riders. According to opinion polls, only 1 in 4 Americans supported the Freedom Rides. That summer, James Baldwin commented that even “well-meaning white people didn’t realize that they didn’t know anything about this at all.”

“White people in New York talk about Alabama as though they had no Harlem,” Baldwin observed. “To ignore what is happening in their own backyard is a great device on the part of white people.” In the face of a rising racial crisis, Baldwin contended that white Americans “won’t be able to do anything about this until they’re willing to face their own history. If you don’t know what happened behind you, you have no idea of what’s happening around you.”


Patricia Sullivan is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina. This story has been adapted from “Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White,” copyright 2021 by Patricia Sullivan. Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Reprinted by permission of The Frances Goldin Literary Agency. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.