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In America's Deep South, a front seat for Freedom Riders

A disused bus station-turned- museum honors some of those who changed the course of civil rights history.

By Matthew Shaer/ correspondent / July 13, 2011

A 1961 photo shows riders arriving in Montgomery under guard of police and National Guard.

Perry Aycock/AP/File

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Montgomery, Ala.

Fifty years ago, on a hot day in late May, 21 tousled men and women stepped off a Greyhound bus and into the clamor of the Montgomery, Ala., bus depot. They called themselves the Freedom Riders, and for the previous few weeks, they had been hurtling by coach through the American South, from Washington, D.C., to Virginia; from Virginia to North Carolina; and from North Carolina over into Tennessee.

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They were students, most of them, black and white, 20- and 30-somethings, schooled in the ways of nonviolent protest and encouraged by the recent success of the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-ins. Their aim was to test a Supreme Court ruling banning segregation at bus and railway stations – a ruling that had largely been greeted with a shrug by Southern officials.

The Freedom Riders left Washington on May 4, 1961, and planned to make New Orleans by May 17. They expected resistance. But they did not fully anticipate the sheer scale of the violence that would greet them upon their arrival in the Deep South: In Anniston, Ala., a gang of Klansmen set upon a Greyhound bus, slashing the tires and tossing gasoline through the open windows in an unsuccessful attempt to burn the Freedom Riders alive. In Birmingham, the Klan and the local police commissioner, Bull Connor, reached an accord whereby the Klan received 15 minutes to freely assault the Freedom Riders, without any police intervention. And in the capital city of Montgomery, the Freedom Riders walked through the doors of the bus depot and into the arms of a seething mob.

Dozens were injured, including several Freedom Riders, a few journalists, and John Seigenthaler, a Justice Department official dispatched, belatedly, to Alabama by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. An image of a battered Freedom Rider named Jim Zwerg, clad in a suit and tie, bleeding freely, became an iconic symbol of the Civil Rights Era. As did the Freedom Riders themselves: At a time when the federal government would have preferred to ignore the racial strife building in towns such as Montgomery, a small group of dedicated young people risked bodily harm to bring that conflict front and center.

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