Since Jim Crow laws were instituted toward the end of the 19th century, African Americans in the South were forced to endure substandard, racially segregated conditions. Black travelers were forced to sit at the back of the bus and use separate waiting rooms, restrooms, and drinking fountains. Legal challenges to end racial segregation in public facilities yielded some success in the 1960s but many Southern states resisted compliance with court ordered integration.
On May 4, 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began an effort where Black and white activists agreed to ride together through the South on Greyhound and Trailways buses in order to test whether buses and transportation facilities were complying with the decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which outlawed segregation in interstate public facilities. These “Freedom Riders” were met with extreme violence by local whites, who burned the Riders’ bus in Anniston, Alabama, and attacked Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama. Despite the violence, the inaugural ride led to future rides organized by other civil rights groups.
On September 22, 1961, after protests, arrests, and press conferences by the Freedom Riders, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) officially outlawed discriminatory seating practices on interstate bus transit and ordered that “whites only” signs be removed from interstate bus terminals by November 1. Birmingham, Alabama, one of the last holdouts, complied with the ICC ruling in January 1962.