The Ride to Arkansas
The five young people aboard the Trailways bus traveling from St. Louis to New Orleans didn’t expect trouble when they rolled into Little Rock that hot, muggy day 50 years ago on Sunday, July 10.
The Freedom Riders, civil rights activists volunteering to test a court order to integrate transportation facilities, didn’t know that the bus route had been printed in the local newspaper.
A crowd of white people, still reeling from the 1957 Central High School Crisis, were ready for a confrontation. Despite efforts by a group of leading Little Rock businessmen urging calm, the city police chief declined to disburse the crowd and instead arrested the riders.
The five white and black Freedom Riders were part of a summer-long effort through the South by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision ordering all interstate bus companies to integrate interstate transportation waiting rooms and restrooms. The non-violent bus riders were college students, ministers, housewives, and others who risked being jailed, beaten, or death to desegregate bus stations.
Their actions not only removed the “Whites” and “Colored” signs at the bus depot, but they helped lead to an orderly and peaceful integration of Little Rock’s downtown lunch counters, Robinson Auditorium, and other segregated public facilities.
“The sit-ins and Freedom Rides launched the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States and in Arkansas,” said John Kirk, UALR history department chair and Donaghey professor.
“The story of Arkansas and the civil rights movement in the 1960s is one that has seldom been told, often overshadowed by the events of the 1957 Little Rock School Crisis. Yet Little Rock and Arkansas have a rich, deep and complex civil rights history that stretches well beyond the events at Central High.”
The Freedom Ride to Little Rock originated in St. Louis and was supposed to be a scouting trip. The five riders were the Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, a rider who survived a burning bus at Anniston, Ala., earlier that year; Bliss Ann Malone, a public teacher; Annie Lumpkin, an 18-year-old student; John Curtis Raines, a white pastor from Long Island, N.Y.; and Janet Reinitz, a white homemaker and artist. Their plans were to travel to Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Texarkana, Shreveport, and New Orleans.
A crowd of 400 to 500 people filled Markham Street from the bus terminal to the old Marion Hotel where the Little Rock Peabody now stands to meet the Freedom Riders. No effort was made to disperse the crowd. When the riders took seats in the “white-only” section of the waiting room, they were arrested for breach of the peace by the Little Rock police chief.
Jim Clark, now the deputy city attorney for Rogers and then a copy editor for the Arkansas Gazette, witnessed the event.
“I have never been so impressed with the heroism of a group of people as I was that evening,” he recalled recently. “The rednecks were gathered around, jeering and shouting insults. The Freedom Riders walked with great dignity, ignoring all the taunts, into the bus station, where they were arrested and taken to jail by Little Rock police. It was so sad, and yet so inspirational that there were people who would risk all for equal rights. I felt guilty that I was not with them.”
Photos courtesy Special Collections, University of Arkansas Archives, Fayetteville Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.
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Kirk, John A. “Battle Cry of Freedom: Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Freedom Rides at Fifty.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 42 (August 2011): 76–103.
———. “A Forgotten Freedom Summer.” Arkansas Times. July 6, 2011, pp. 10–15. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/a-forgotten-freedom-summer/Content?oid=1852445 (accessed July 6, 2013).
———. Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
Niven, David. The Politics of Injustice: The Kennedys, the Freedom Rides, and the Electoral Consequences of a Moral Compromise. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.
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