The Freedom Rides of 1961 began with thirteen riders traveling on two buses through the South. Their goal was to end race segregation in interstate bus travel. The Rides grew to over fifty journeys and other actions, and attracted 436 Riders; six of them were from Minnesota.
On June 11, 1961, six young Minnesotans took a Greyhound bus from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. All were white, but at the Jackson bus terminal they went straight to the waiting room marked “colored.” Police arrested them at the lunch counter inside on a charge of breach of peace. After staying in jail overnight, they were tried, convicted, fined, and sentenced to four months in jail.
They were Freedom Riders, part of the project led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to take nonviolent action against racial segregation in the South. The Freedom Rides had their origin in the Journey of Reconciliation led by CORE and Bayard Rustin in 1947. Rustin and company took a bus journey through the Upper South, disobeying Jim Crow laws and customs.
Then came Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Montgomery bus boycott (1956), the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in (1960), and many similar events. In 1961, CORE, now led by James Farmer, decided to try again.
They started with an experiment: thirteen people traveling by bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, May 4–17. In Alabama, that journey exploded, with the bus set afire, riders beaten, and mobs abetted by the local police. The violence did not produce the desired effect; instead, the Freedom Rides multiplied.
The Minnesota Freedom Riders were part of a second, expanded stage of the effort. Four were students at the University of Minnesota: Zev Aelony (the organizer and the one most deeply read in the theory and practice of non-violence), Claire O’Connor, Robert Baum, and Eugene Uphoff. Marvin Davidov, twenty-nine, was beginning a long career as an activist. The sixth Minnesotan was David Morton, whom Aelony called the university’s resident beatnik.
CORE had made Jackson, a crucial Southern state capital, a special target. Fourteen groups of Freedom Riders had preceded the Minnesotans to Jackson—nine by bus, five more by air and rail. All 104 of those Riders had been arrested. They were foot soldiers in a battle of attrition between Freedom Ride leadership and the State of Mississippi. The organizers hoped to overwhelm local law enforcement with numbers. In this case, the authorities answered not with violence but with process: trials, maximum sentences, jail terms, appeals bonds, and court dates.
After a few days in jail, the Minnesota men were transferred to the state penitentiary at Parchman, a prison famous for its harshness. They were held at first in maximum security, two to a six-by-nine cell, with no exercise, no visitors, and only Bibles to read. When it was hot, there was no ventilation; on cool nights the guards chilled them with fans. When they sang, the wardens took away their mattresses. Later, as more Riders were arrested, prison authorities moved them to dormitories.
O’Connor spent about two weeks in jail. She was then transferred to Parchman’s women’s section, where she endured verbal abuse and a body-cavity search. She was released on July 3, the Minnesota men on July 24. All appealed their convictions and posted appeal bonds to pursue the strategy of stressing the Mississippi justice system. To stress them back, the court in Jackson required all Riders (by now 186) to return for new trials—two a day, starting August 15. A long standoff seemed likely.
For the organizers, salvation of a sort came on September 21, 1961, when the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order forbidding race discrimination on interstate buses and supporting facilities. This was victory; but it came from Washington, not Jackson. The Freedom Rides shifted focus to North Carolina (where Baum and Morton participated briefly) and ended in early December.
The Minnesotans got on with their lives and educations. Uphoff eventually became a physician, O’Connor a community organizer, Aelony a businessman, and Baum a University of Minnesota bus driver. Davidov continued working as a political activist. Morton, according to Davidov, became Minnesota’s first hippie.
“6 ‘Riders’ From Cities Arrested.” Minneapolis Tribune, June 12, 1961.
“6 ‘Riders’ Sentenced.” Minneapolis Tribune, June 13, 1961.
Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders, 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
[Captioned staff photo of Freedom Riders.] St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 27, 1961.
Masters, Carol, and Marv Davidov. You Can’t Do That! Marv Davidov, Nonviolent Revolutionary. Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2009.
O’Connor, Claire. Correspondence with the author, January 23, 2017.
Rosario, Rubén. “‘Freedom Riders’ Exhibit Puts Courage on Display.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 4, 2014.
Steller, Chris. “Impulse Made Freedom Rider of Peter Ackerberg.” Minneapolis Bridgeland News, September 24, 2008.
Tevlin, Jon. “Minnesota Freedom Rider Has Remained True to the Cause.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, May 10, 2011.
“We Did Quite a Bit.” Minneapolis Star, July 26, 1961.
Fifteen minutes after arriving in Jackson, the Minnesota six are arrested. In keeping with CORE policy and strategy, they decline to post bail.
The nation’s first Freedom Ride, led by Bayard Rustin of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (which later became affiliated with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality), travels through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
In November, the Interstate Commerce Commission orders the desegregation of seating on interstate buses (but not terminals). The order is not enforced.
In Morgan v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Virginia’s law requiring separate seating and facilities for blacks and whites in bus transportation is unconstitutional for passengers in interstate commerce.
On February 1, James Farmer takes over as head of CORE. Once in office, he endorses a new Ride for Freedom campaign.
The first Freedom Ride takes place. Leaving from Washington, D.C., thirteen freedom riders board buses to New Orleans, between May 4 and 17. Thirteen riders participate.
On May 26, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asks the Interstate Commerce Commission to adopt stringent regulations for enforcement of desegregation in interstate busing.
On June 7, Zev Aelony presides at a meeting at the University of Minnesota seeking Freedom Riders. David Morton and Marvin Davidov attend.
On June 9, the six Minnesota Freedom Riders depart Minneapolis by bus for Nashville, where they meet Freedom Rider leaders John Lewis and Diane Nash and receive training in non-violence. They leave the next day for Memphis.
On June 11, the six Minnesotans bus from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. They are arrested almost immediately upon arrival in Jackson. In keeping with CORE policy and strategy, they decline to seek release on bail.
On June 15, the five Minnesota men are transferred to Parchman Penitentiary due to overcrowding in the Hinds County jail. Claire O’Connor is transferred to Parchman’s women’s section several days later.
On July 3, Claire O’Connor is released from Parchman on bond. Two Minnesota officials, Assistant Attorney General John Casey and Human Rights Commission Chairwoman Gladys Brooks, arrive to investigate conditions for the remaining Minnesota five.
On July 24, the remaining Minnesotans post a $500 appeal bond and are released. They fly back to Minnesota on July 25. Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin invites them to his office for a new conference.
On August 14, the Minnesotans return for new trials in the Hinds County Court. Aelony is the first to be tried, and is convicted again.
On September 21, the Interstate Commerce Commission issues regulations requiring anti-segregation measures by bus companies and increasing fines to $500 per violation. Afterward, most Jackson Freedom Riders do not appear for their trials.
The Freedom Rides end in early December.
Peter Ackerberg, an Ohio college student who had taken the first bus to Jackson, moves to Minnesota. He works for the Minneapolis Star and, later, the state attorney general’s office.