May 20, 1961 – Attack on Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama

On this day in history, John R. Lewis, Jim Zwerg and others were set upon by some 300 segregationists at the Montgomery, Alabama bus terminal. The attack victims were “Freedom Riders,” a group of activist volunteers riding interstate buses throughout the South for seven months in 1961 to challenge the non-enforcement of U.S. Supreme Court decisions ruling that segregated public buses for interstate passengers were unconstitutional. Nearly 75 percent of the riders were between 18 and 30 years old. About half were black; a quarter, women.

Southern police arrested riders for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and violating state and local Jim Crow laws, along with other alleged offenses, but they frequently first let white mobs attack the passengers.

This was not the first attack. Earlier in May, in Anniston, Alabama, a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen attacked a bus, forced it to stop several miles outside of town, and then firebombed it.

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When the bus arrived in Birmingham, it was besieged by a mob of KKK members, who beat riders exiting from the bus with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. White Freedom Riders were singled out for the most vicious beatings; James Peck, for example, required more than 50 stitches to the wounds in his head.

The U.S. Attorney General at the time, Robert Kennedy, arranged an escort for the riders to get them safely to Montgomery, Alabama, but the Highway Patrol abandoned the bus and riders at the Montgomery city limits. At the bus station, a white mob waited yet again, assailing riders with baseball bats and iron pipes. The local police allowed the beatings to go on uninterrupted. Ambulances refused to take the wounded to the hospital. Local blacks rescued them, and a number of the Freedom Riders were hospitalized.

John Robert Lewis, who survived the attack, was hit in the head with a wooden crate and was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious. He is now the only living “Big Six” leader of the American Civil Rights Movement and has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987. [The “Bix Six” included Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young.] 


U.S. Representative John R. Lewis

U.S. Representative John R. Lewis

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