The Freedom Riders at 50
Published on August 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders - the civil rights activists who rode buses throughout the Jim Crow south in an effort to demonstrate that terminals, restaurants and other facilities serving buses remained segregated despite a Supreme Court ruling outlawing the doctrine of "separate but equal" in interstate bus travel.

Last night I finally got around to reading an interesting July New Yorker piece by Calvin Trillin reflecting upon his experiences covering the civil rights movement, and riding with the Freedom Riders. The article is behind a paywall (though you can visit the abstract here), but it's worth a look; what makes it especially compelling is Trillin's vivid recall of details. We learn that reporters covering the non-violent protests and controversy over segregation referred to their work as the Seg Beat, and that incarcerated protestors singing freedom songs could make a jailhouse sound like a full church choir. If there's one criticism I have of the piece, it's that it belongs to that tired genre of white people explaining how the life-and-death struggles of black people affected them.

The Freedom Riders marked their 50th anniversary with commemorations in Chicago and Mississippi, though a handful of Freedom Riders declined to attend the Mississippi event. They said that the struggle for racial equality continues in Mississippi, and also accused the state of "stealing the legacy of the civil rights movement so they can profit from tourism."

The civil rights era might seem like ancient history, but its wounds are still raw. When I worked at the newspaper the Birmingham Post-Herald, I interviewed foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, as well as leaders; and I was part of a team of reporters that covered the aftermath of the guilty verdict in the trial of the man accused of planting the bomb that killed four little girls in a Birmingham church.

Decades later, reminders of the civil rights movement were everywhere. The first thing I saw when I entered the newsroom every morning was a photograph taken by Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston in 1961. The picture depicts Klansmen viciously beating Freedom Riders upon their arrival at the Birmingham Trailways station; moments after the picture was shot, Langston himself was beaten. You can see the photo over on the Birmingham View, which refers to it as "the picture that changed Birmingham."

And Birmingham has changed, as has the entire south. But it's still important to remember the Freedom Riders, their courage and conviction, and the sacrifices that they made. 

In this interview with On the Media (which isn't behind a paywall), Trillin talks a little bit about covering segregation in the south.



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