Paving the way: Meet the 13 original Freedom Riders who changed travel in the South
In May 1961, 13 men and women boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision desegregating public schools.
Their mission was twofold, with the second goal being to challenge the laws regarding segregated interstate travel in the South.
They did so, but not without fear in the face of violence. The buses they rode on were bombed. They were beaten and jailed but their spirits were not broken.
More than 400 people would eventually participate in the movement known as the Freedom Rides. These are the stories of the 13 people — students, a pastor and retired educators among them — who started it all.
James L. Farmer Jr. (1920-1999)
Raised by a professor who taught divinity at Howard University, James Farmer Jr. was a pacifist who sought to achieve racial justice through nonviolent activism. Often a target of racial violence, Farmer helped to shape the Civil Rights Movement when he launched The Freedom Rides to challenge the efforts to block the desegregation of interstate busing.
The national director and co-founder of the first Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter in 1942, Farmer set the foundation for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in the mid-1960s.
He spent 41 days in Mississippi jails. One of the most memorable moments of that time, he said, was when those jailed alongside him in steel and concrete cells with straw-filled mattresses sang freedom songs together, despite being threatened by guards.
"We were told that the racists, the segregationists, would go to any extent to hold the line on segregation in interstate travel. So when we began the ride I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us. We were prepared for the possibility of death," Farmer said in a 1985 interview.
He would go on to serve as assistant secretary of health, education and welfare under President Nixon. In 1998, Farmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
James Peck (1914-1993)
James Peck was born into a wealthy family in New York City. He dropped out of Harvard University to become a full-time activist and was the only person to participate in both the Freedom Rides and Journey of Reconciliation.
“By encouraging and supporting actions such as that in Montgomery, we who adhere to the principles of nonviolence hope to hasten complete abolition of segregation within our social system,” Peck wrote in CORE’s introduction to Martin Luther King’s 1957 article, “Our Struggle: The Journey of Montgomery.”
Peck would later go on to protest against the Vietnam War.
Genevieve Hughes (1932-2012)
One of the three women to participate in the early days of the Freedom Rides, Genevieve Hughes quit her job as a stockbroker to become the field secretary of CORE and civil rights activist.
"I figured Southern women should be represented to the South and the nation would realize all Southern people don't think alike," she said of her reason to join CORE.
She, along with John Lewis and Al Bigelow sustained injuries when several white men attacked them at a bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on May 10, 1961.
Joe Perkins (1933-1976)
Joe Perkins was the first Freedom Rider arrested for sitting at a whites-only shoeshine stand in Charlotte, North Carolina, according to PBS. After spending two days in jail, he caught up with the group and led the Freedom Riders on the Greyhound bus, which was burned in Anniston, Alabama.
Perkins was recruited by CORE in August 1960 and became known as a masterful organizer.
Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, Perkins was educated at Kentucky State University and served in the Army for two years. He later pursued a graduate degree at the University of Michigan.
Walter Bergman (1899-1999)
Walter Bergman graduated high school when he was only 15 and was drafted into the Army during World War I. When he saw the devastation in Germany, he became a pacifist.
A former union activist and college professor, Bergman became a victim of McCarthyism in 1953 when the state department seized his passport while he was teachingin Denmark. He retired from teaching and became a Freedom Rider when he was 61 years old.
The oldest of the original 13 members, Bergman suffered a stroke after being savagely beaten by the Ku Klux Klan in Anniston, Alabama. He would never walk again. Bergman was awarded $35,000 of the $2 million he sought in lawsuit against the federal government in 1983.
Frances Bergman (1904-1979)
A civil rights activist alongside her husband Walter Bergman, Frances Bergman was a school teacher and member of the American Civil Liberties Union and Socialist Party of America. After she and her husband retired from education, they volunteered to ride on the first bus that left Washington on May 4, 1961. At 57, she was the oldest of the female Freedom Riders.
Albert Bigelow (1906–1993)
A Boston native, Bigelow studied at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked as an architect before heading off to World War II with the Navy.
Bigelow was an activist prior to his time as a Freedom Rider. He opposed the use of nuclear weapons after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and opened up his home to survivors of Hiroshima who were seeking reconstructive surgery. Following the war, he and a small crew set out for the South Pacific to disrupt and protest atomic testing. They were jailed for 60 days in Hawaii.
He was 55 when he joined the Freedom Riders. Bigelow and former U.S. Rep. John Lewis were the first to face violence after attempting to integrate a whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Lewis was struck first as Bigelow stepped in between Lewis and his attackers.
“It had to look strange to these guys to see a big, strong white man putting himself in the middle of a fistfight like this, not looking at all as if he was ready to throw a punch, but not looking frightened either,” Lewis wrote in his memoir “Walking with the Wind.”
Jimmy McDonald (1933–2000)
McDonald was 29 years old when he joined the Freedom Riders and was considered the least disciplined of the group when it came to adhering to its non-violent mantra.
As a teen in the late 1940s, McDonald, according to author Raymond Arsenault, campaigned for a Progressive Party presidential candidate. Later, he became a folk singer in New York City before joining the Freedom Riders. McDonald saw the bus trip as an adventure, and said he was brought along for his singing ability.
“I was not sent because I had a lot of intellect,” he recalled in 1969; “. . . certainly I was not in there because I wanted to be like Gandhi,” he said in Arsenault’s book “Freedom Riders.”
McDonald would later go to work on television for BET, where he hosted two programs. He was also the executive director of the Yonkers Human Rights Commission and a 30-year activist for the NAACP.
Ed Blankenheim (1934–2004)
Prior to becoming a Freedom Rider, Blankenheim’s experience as a young Marine in North Carolina, where he witnessed segregation and racism, laid the groundwork for his role in the Civil Rights movement.
After leaving the military, Blankenheim enrolled in classes at the University of Arizona, where he helped Black students suffering from housing discrimination. He also joined the NAACP and soon after was offered a spot as a Freedom Rider.
Blankenheim was 27 when the bus he rode into Anniston, Alabama was set on fire on Mother’s Day 1961. He the blaze, but lost several teeth after being hit in the face with a tire iron.
“We’ll roast them alive! We’ll roast them alive!” is what the crowd shouted, Blankenheim told NPR in 2001.Blankenheim worked for a few years in the South testing bus stations to make certain that they were following the laws and were fully integrated before eventually settling in San Francisco, where he worked as a carpenter.
Hank Thomas (1941- )
Thomas, who grew up in Florida, was only 19 years old when he joined the Freedom Riders. He too was one of the riders attacked in Anniston, Alabama, after their bus caught fire.
“But I then knew that Anniston was a terrible, terrible place,” he told an interviewer in 2017.
Thomas later served in the Vietnam War as a medic in 1965. He was wounded in combat and awarded the Purple Heart. While serving in Vietnam, just a few years after his time as a Freedom Rider, he shot down a Confederate flag flying above an Army base.
An entrepreneur, Thomas first bought a laundromat before going on to own several fast-food franchises and hotels.
Rev. B. Elton Cox (1931-2011)
Cox, 29, was a pastor in High Point, North Carolina, when he founded the first Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter. After meeting with James Farmer, director of CORE, he was asked to become a Freedom Rider.
One of 16 children, Cox said he protested an A&W Restaurant in Illinois as a teen because of its shoddy service toward Black customers. In high school, Cox and other students were successful in persuading staff to stop the singing of a song in music class that he said had degrading racial overtones.
In December 1961, Cox lead a peaceful demonstration in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was arrested and charged. In 1965 in Cox v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, on the grounds Louisiana law deprived him the right to free speech and assembly.
Cox was arrested nearly 20 times during the civil rights movement and spent numerous days in jail.
John R. Lewis (1940-2020)
Now the most famous of first Freedom Riders, Lewis is considered one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement. He represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 2020.
Not long after the group set out, Lewis, then 21, was attacked in Rock Hill, South Carolina. In another attack during the rides, a white mob beat Lewis unconscious in Montgomery, Alabama. Jailed numerous times, he also spent nearly 40 days in the Mississippi State Prison, known as Parchman Farm, for entering a “white” restroom as a Freedom Rider. For several years until his death, beginning in 2014, Lewis posted his mugshots on Twitter each year to mark the anniversary of his Mississippi arrest.
“During the time I was being beaten and other times when I was being beaten, I had what I called an executive session with myself. I said I’m gonna take it, I’m prepared. On the Freedom Ride, I was prepared to die,” he said during a 2011 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Charles Person (1943- )
Person was born in Atlanta, Georgia, where hatred toward Black people was rampant. He wanted to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but during the time many universities weren't willing to look beyond his skin color to consider his intellect. After multiple denials, Person attended Morehouse College and waded deep into the politics and racism of society by participating in rallies and facing discrimination head-on. He would spend weeks behind bars after being arrested at protests and never failed to complete homework assignments
He joined the Freedom Riders at age 18 and would go down in history as the youngest original member.
Though he wasn't on the bus that caught on fire in Anniston, Alabama, Person didn't come out of the journey unscathed. He experienced nightmares some men only see in war: burning vehicles with the doors held shut while people burned inside, caravans looking for people to lynch and blood leaking into his eyes after relentless beatings.
About this series
In May 1961, the first Freedom Riders departed on their journey through the South to challenge segregated buses, bus terminals, lunch counters and other facilities associated with interstate travel.
These activists would be confronted, often violently, by police and mobs of white citizens, drawing international attention to social inequity in what became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
This year, the USA TODAY Network is examining the legacy of these trailblazers and how it informs our current moment.