In 1961, in the Deep South, black passengers were still forced to use colored-only waiting rooms and bathrooms in bus stations, even after two Supreme Court decisions had made such segregation illegal. Black customers were still barred from whites-only lunch counters and shoeshine stands. Black passengers traveling from outside the South were forced to change seats once when they entered the region.

On May 4, 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization founded in 1942, launched the Freedom Rides to challenge illegal segregation. As an interracial group, the Freedom Riders intended to travel through the South and sit wherever they wanted. They resolved to enter waiting rooms, bathrooms, and restaurants without regard to their racial designations. Many Riders were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), another civil rights group. They were also teachers, pastors, soldiers, and activists; men and women; blacks and whites; Jews and Christians. They had learned the tactics of nonviolent protest, and they meant to create a crisis that would draw media attention and force the federal government to enforce its laws. 

Above: A sign for the colored waiting room in Durham, North Carolina. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

On May 4, the first group of Freedom Riders, bound for New Orleans, boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., intending to challenge racial barriers along the way. On May 8, in Charlotte, NC, the first Rider was arrested. On May 9, the first Rider was assaulted in Rockville, SC: a 21-year-old man named John Lewis.

On May 14, which was also Mother’s Day, the Riders left Atlanta for Birmingham. There were rumors of mobs waiting for them in Alabama. The night before, Martin Luther King Jr. had told them they would never reach Birmingham. Wary but resolved, the Riders prepared to continue their journey.

In Atlanta, the Riders boarded two different buses. A Greyhound carrying some of the Riders, regular passengers (including two undercover police), and two reporters left first. A Trailways bus left an hour later, carrying regular passengers (some of whom turned out to be members of the Klan) and the remaining Freedom Riders, including Walter Bergman (A.M. 1924) and his wife Frances.

Walter Bergman was a retired schoolteacher who had taught high school classes in the Detroit Public Schools while working toward graduate degrees in psychology and education. He’d been drafted into the Army in World War I before becoming a pacifist. But Bergman had a change of heart that led him to enlist in World War II because he believed fighting Hitler was a just war.

Bergman was a steadfast activist who was not afraid to take unpopular positions, such as asserting the New Deal did not do enough to fight poverty. He joined CORE in 1958 to fight the deeply ingrained racial discrimination he saw in the United States. When he volunteered for the first group of Freedom Riders, he was 61 years old.

Left: Walter Bergman, in the back row, second from the right, attended a CORE conference in Kentucky in 1961. Courtesy of Grand Rapids People's History Project. Right: John Lewis speaks at a meeting of American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1964. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When the Greyhound entered the city limits of Anniston, Alabama, the sidewalks were full of people, which seemed strange for a Sunday afternoon in the South. The bus station was closed when the bus arrived. Everything was quiet for a moment. Then a crowd roared toward the bus, striking its sides with crowbars and baseball bats, slashing its tires, and smashing its windows as the mob tried to climb inside.

The siege lasted 20 minutes before the Anniston police arrived. They made no arrests, but they escorted the bus to the Anniston city limits and then turned back, leaving the bus to the mob that had followed them in trucks and cars–some of the people still wearing their church clothes. When the bus’s flat tires forced it to stop, the mob again rushed the bus and rocked it, trying to push it over. They continued to yell and batter the bus. Then a bundle of burning rags sailed through a broken window.

The passengers thought it was a smoke bomb until the seats burst into flames. Some Riders escaped through bus windows and were spared because the mob, fearing the bus’s gas tank would explode, stayed back. Passengers who escaped through the bus’s door were beaten with iron rods and baseball bats. Two highway patrolmen arrived and watched for a time before firing a few warning shots to break up the crowd. The injured Riders finally made their way to the hospital, which barely treated them and forced them to leave.

Above: James Peck (left) and Charles Persons (right) aboard the Tralways bus. Together, they approached the whites-only lunch counter in the Birmingham bus station where they were both attacked. Courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities

When the bus carrying the Bergmans left Atlanta, the Klansmen aboard began to taunt the Riders about the welcome they could expect to receive in Alabama. When the bus pulled up to the empty Anniston bus station, the driver learned what had happened to the Greyhound, and he refused to drive the bus unless the black passengers moved to the back. When the passengers reminded the driver the law let them sit wherever they wanted, the Klansmen brutally attacked them.

When Bergman ran forward to protest the attack, the Klansmen turned on him, pummeling him and stomping repeatedly on his chest. The Klansmen dragged the battered Riders to the back of the bus, and the bus rode on toward Birmingham.

In Birmingham, Bull Connor, the President of the Alabama Public Service Commission, had struck a deal with the Klan. He’d give them 15 minutes before the police would arrive. Agents in the Birmingham FBI office knew of the arrangement and didn’t warn their bosses in Washington.

At the Birmingham bus station, the beaten Riders stepped off the bus and waited to see what would happen next. Nothing happened, so two Riders continued to enact their protest and walked into a whites-only waiting room, where a group of Klansmen were waiting for them with chains, clubs, and iron pipes. Bergman followed them in.

A newspaper photographer caught some of the melee on film, and Howard K. Smith, a CBS broadcaster who happened to be in Birmingham, gave a series of reports from his hotel room because the local station claimed broadcasts could not be sent from the bus station due to signal problems. “The riots have not been spontaneous outbursts of anger,” Smith said. “One passenger was knocked down at my feet by 12 of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp.” Photographs from the Birmingham station and of the burning bus appeared in newspapers across the country. Millions of Americans saw the brutality unleashed on the Riders, including politicians in Washington, D.C.

Above: A mob beats Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama. This picture was reclaimed by the FBI from a local journalist. The journalist was also beaten and his camera was smashed.

“The Freedom Riders were essential for broadening the appeal of the civil rights effort,” says Christian Davenport, political science professor and co-director of the International Institute’s Conflict and Peace Initiative, which is co-presenting the Marching Forward event series that brings Congressman John Lewis to Ann Arbor. “They clearly made a statement that this was not just a cause for African Americans, but for all Americans.”

The Freedom Riders wanted to continue on to New Orleans from Birmingham, but they could not find any drivers who would take them. The federal government could not reach an agreement with Alabama to protect them, and the Riders, whose numbers had dwindled due to injuries, agreed to fly to New Orleans instead.

But back in Nashville, the SNCC, who had worked to help train and organize the Freedom Riders, was determined to continue what CORE had started. They recruited and trained new Riders, and on May 17 the Rides resumed. It would take more than 400 Freedom Riders making more than 60 trips across the South, but by November of 1961 the federal government finally began to enforce the law.

A week after the attack in Birmingham, Bergman suffered a stroke. He used a wheelchair until he died at the age of 100. In 1977, he filed a lawsuit maintaining that the FBI had known about the coordinated attacks against the Freedom Riders and still allowed them to happen–a case that was ultimately decided in Bergman’s favor.

“When we went on the Freedom Ride, it was love in action,” says Lewis. “The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action. That we love a country, we love a democratic society, and so we have to move our feet.”