Freedom Riders remembered 50 years later

CHICAGO - It might be hard for young folks to believe, but there was a time not that long ago that blacks in the South were not allowed to sit in the front of a bus. Blacks and whites could not sit side by side. CBS News correspondent Russ Mitchell reports all that changed with a movement that began 50 years ago today with the first of the Freedom Rides.

Fifty years ago, the Freedom Riders challenged Jim Crow's travel rules, divided buses, separate waiting depots and race-based rest rooms.

It was the spring of 1961, when the first 13 Freedom Riders planned a two week trek from Washington, D.C. They would take two buses through the deep South.

Hank Thomas was just 19 when he boarded the bus. "We had no thought of any kind of violence," he said.

But violence would come ten days later. Outside of Anniston, Alabama, Thomas' bus was surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan and set on fire. He and five others were almost burned alive.

"I was looking for the easiest way to die," he said.

Hours later in Birmingham, the second bus --carrying seven others -- was met by pipes and bats. James Peck lost six teeth and was knocked unconscious.

"We must not surrender to violence," Peck said in 1961.

Diane Nash was a 22-year-old junior at Fisk University in Nashville.

"It was critical at that moment that we not allow the rides to stop," Nash said.

Nash recruited ten new students and a second wave of Freedom Riders headed toward Alabama.

More than 400 others across the country would join them. That seven-month campaign is now the subject of a PBS documentary.

"It was the start of the civil rights movements," said Stanley Nelson, director of the "Freedom Riders" documentary. "You see it becoming a movement around the Freedom Rides."

The rides pressured the Kennedy administration to finally enforce federal law desegregating interstate buses and public accommodations.

Now in their 70s, many of the Freedom Riders recently reunited in Chicago to remember the lessons learned.

"Non-violence direct action has power, it works," Nash said. "It's hard to argue with success."

Success of a movement that changed their lives and the nation.

  • Russ Mitchell

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