Freedom Riders

Created By

Joel Breakstone, Stanford History Education Group

  • Post-WWII Domestic Confidence and Unrest, 1945–1968: The Rise of Civil Rights, 1945–1965

Introduction & Context

In the spring of 1961, civil rights activists rode on buses into southern states to challenge the segregation of interstate buses and bus stations. In 1960, the Supreme Court had ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation of bus stations was illegal. This followed the Court’s 1946 ruling in Morgan v. Virginia that prohibited segregation on interstate buses. However, the federal government had not enforced these rulings. In response, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized a Freedom Ride to draw attention to the issue. An interracial group of Freedom Riders departed from Washington, D.C., in two buses on May 4, 1961. Their ultimate destination was New Orleans. However, the ride took a violent turn in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where future Congressman John Lewis and another rider were attacked. The Riders continued on to Anniston, Alabama, where one of the buses was set on fire on May 14, 1961. The attackers in Anniston included members of the Ku Klux Klan. The violence attracted widespread attention and ultimately led the federal government to intervene to end segregation on interstate buses. The Freedom Rides helped to shape future activism in the Civil Rights Movement.

Read More +

Teaching Tips Download PDF

This source set features a series of interviews about the Freedom Rides of 1961. Freedom Riders describe their motivations for participating and their experiences during the rides. Several of the interviews feature participants’ recollections of the attack on their bus in Anniston, Alabama, in 1961. These suggested activities provide opportunities to consider similarities and differences across sources and to identify the goals of the Freedom Riders.

Background Information

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • Jim Crow laws
  • The African American Civil Rights Movement
  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Student sit-in movement

Essential Question

What motivated the Freedom Riders?

General Discussion Questions

  • What were the goals of the Freedom Rides?
  • What happened to the Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama? How were the accounts of the events in Anniston similar? How did they differ?
  • What were reactions to the attack in Anniston?

Classroom Activities

1) Topic: The role of the press

Ask students to watch the following sources:

According to these sources, how did civil rights organizers support the Freedom Rides? What role did the press play in the Freedom Rides?

2) Comparing accounts of the attack

Ask students to watch the following sources:

All of these sources address the attack on the Freedom Riders’ bus in Anniston, Alabama. How are the accounts similar? How are they different? How might the backgrounds of the speakers have influenced what they said about the attack?

3) Topic: Goals of the Freedom Riders

Ask students to watch the following sources:

What motivated these Freedom Riders to participate? How did they hope to enact change? How did these goals connect to the broader Civil Rights Movement?

Additional Resources

  • Freedom Rides, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress
  • Freedom Riders, American Experience
  • Freedom Riders Resources, PBS Learning Media
  • Freedom Rides, King Encyclopedia
  • Who Were the Freedom Riders?, New York Times
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, Library of Congress
  • Citation

    Breakstone, Joel. "Freedom Riders" WGBH and the Library of Congress.