In 1961 the Freedom Riders were young, unafraid and bold enough to believe they could make a difference and combat Jim Crow segregation and bigotry in the Deep South.
The four courageous California college students–Edward Johnson, Robert Farrell, and Helen and Robert Singleton–participated in the rides, seeking to improve the lives of their southern brothers and sisters while clearly endangering their own.
It was 50 years ago that these four young people joined the movement to desegregate interstate travel. They decided that they could not sit on the sidelines and watch the national drama play out without their personal involvement, yet they did not take for granted the circumstances.
“The Freedom Rider movement was so significant because it was the first time you saw African Americans from all over the country going to the South to protest segregation,” said Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., managing director of the Urban Issues Forum.
Before a packed house at the California African American Museum, the four Freedom Riders were guest panelists of the Urban Issues Breakfast forum and spoke candidly about their experience.
Helen Singleton, 78, and husband Robert, 75, were married at the time they volunteered.
“As a Black person I could not justify not going,” said Helen Singleton. “There was a situation that needed fixing and I believed I could help. I felt the people in the South were taking a greater risk than me because they had to live with the consequences after I left.”
Others young and old, Black and White, volunteered to put their lives on the line to test the 1960 Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in all interstate and public facilities.
Hailed as heroes, the Freedom Riders challenged America’s second greatest “massive resistance” movement, which was also recognized as the White response to the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil War is considered the first, which concluded in 1865; the second lasted from 1954 to 1964.
“We did what we set out to do in 10 months,” said Farrell, 74. “In the context of 1961, those suckers did not like us at all. It was later that they came to what we see today.”
He added that during that time the government was more concerned about Europe than back home. “If the victory had not been achieved in 1961 you might be looking at another scenario today,” said Farrell.
Two of the most significant engagements of the civil rights era were the desegregation of the interstate highways and lunch counters. Both just happened to be student-led movements.
Church and student-led movements developed their own organizational structures to sustain, coordinate, and fundraise for local protests and the training of Black leaders.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, developed the “jail-no-bail” strategy.
SNCC’s role was to develop and link sit-in campaigns and to help organize Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, and other protest activities. These three new groups joined forces with existing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Urban League.
The NAACP provided legal counsel for jailed demonstrators and helped raise bail, as it continued to test segregation and discrimination in the courts.
Student seminars conducted by CORE and SNCC on Southern California college campuses helped motivate students to volunteer and provide additional energy to the protest movement.
Robert Singleton said, “lots of people don’t want to lead; they would rather follow,” as he analyzed what made these types of protests successful.
Edward Johnson, 69, a native of Houston, left the University of Texas, Austin, to escape the hash reality of racism and move to Los Angeles because he though it was the land of opportunity for Blacks.
“I quickly found it was much different than I thought,” he said. “The signs were not up but we still had issues.”
Though subtle, the ugly tentacles of racism were prevalent in Los Angeles.
While attending L.A. City College in 1961, Johnson noticed signs asking for volunteers for Freedom Riders. Fear was never in his mind and he had no second thoughts about going. Though not active in any student groups, he I recognized the hardships of segregation on Black people.
“If you were Black and grew up in the South you understood what Black people experienced,” said Johnson. “It meant more to me because I grew up in Houston and I witnessed racism firsthand. It was something that was significant for the country.”
Johnson recounted a conversation with his father shortly after the victory of the Freedom Rides, which ultimately forced the federal government to enforce desegregation laws.
“My father said to me, ‘Boy, let me tell you, the signs are down but nothing has changed.’”