On this dayMay 20, 1961

White Mob Attacks Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama

Image | Associated Press

On May 20, 1961, nineteen Freedom Riders traveling by bus through the South to challenge segregation laws were brutally attacked by a white mob at the Montgomery, Alabama, downtown Greyhound Station.

Several days before, on May 16th, the Riders faced mob violence in Birmingham so serious that it threatened to prematurely end their campaign. The Freedom Riders were initially organized by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), but after the Birmingham attacks, an interracial group of twenty-two Tennessee college students, known as the Nashville Student Movement, volunteered to take over and continue the ride through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans.

These new Freedom Riders reached Birmingham on May 17th, but were immediately arrested and returned to Tennessee by Birmingham police. Undeterred, the riders and additional reinforcements from Tennessee returned to Birmingham on May 18th. Under pressure from the federal government, Alabama Governor John Patterson agreed to authorize state and city police to protect the riders during their journey from Birmingham to Montgomery.

At Montgomery city limits, state police abandoned the Riders' bus; the Riders continued to the bus station unescorted and found no police protection waiting when they arrived. Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, had promised the Ku Klux Klan several minutes to attack the riders without police interference, and the Riders arrival was met by a mob of several hundred angry white people armed with baseball bats, hammers, and pipes.

Montgomery police watched as the mob first attacked reporters and then turned on the Riders. Several were seriously injured, including a white college student named Jim Zwerg, and future United States Congressman John Lewis. John Seigenthaler, an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was knocked unconscious. Ignored by ambulances, two injured Riders were saved by good samaritans who transported them to nearby hospitals.

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