The Freedom Ride

One of my dreams as a college professor is to create a class where students and professors take a bus ride through the South visiting important sites in the Civil Rights Movement. My ideas have gelled enough that I'd like to outline the experience and itinerary I have in mind so that I can point interested parties to this post. Plus, if you are driving through any of these cities you might want to visit some of these sites yourself. I hope to offer the class next summer or the one after.

The Historical Timeframe
The historical timeframe of the class would be the early Civil Rights movement from 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education through the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the most effective Civil Rights legislation signed during the Movement. About a 10 year span of history.

An Immersion Experience
By riding a bus I'd hope to capture a bit of the spirit of the original Freedom Riders and add other features to the class to create a kind of immersion experience for the students. For example:

The Course Soundtrack

Prior to departure the students would create a soundtrack of the music between '54 and '65. A particular focus would be on the music and anthems of the Movement. For example, see this compilation. The soundtrack should also include key speeches and sermons from the Movement. Again, these are readily available. Students should also sample the radio music of the time. For example, Billboard's 1955-1959 hits.

The goal of the soundtrack is that this music would be the only music the students would listen to during the bus tour. Students can make their own mix but some songs would be required. For example, they must have We Shall Overcome.

A Daily Newspaper

Prior to departure the professor or the students would prepare a "daily newspaper." The goal of the assignment would be to capture the headlines and stories from the actual newspapers that covered the various Civil Rights events. Period era newspaper coverage, of, let's say, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, would be copied and put into a newspaper. Or facsimile copes could be obtained. On the day the students wake up in a hotel in Montgomery the professor would slide the "daily paper" under their doors. The students could then read the actually news of the day as reported in Montgomery on a given date. For flavor, non-Civil Rights stories (e.g., sports) and period advertisements could be added.

The Black Church Experience

Given that this trip will be about 10-14 days long, Sunday worship should be at a historical black church, hopefully one that had a role in the Civil Rights movement. If possible, it would also be nice if we could partner with various black churches to house the students in homes as we passed through the town. During these visits the students could collect oral histories of people who participated in the Movement or who experienced Jim Crow segregation.

The Itinerary and Map

The tour would start in Abilene, TX and go to the following cities in this order (and the loop could be reversed):

Little Rock, AR
Memphis, TN
Nashville, TN
Greensboro, NC
Atlanta, GA
Birmingham, AL
Montgomery & Selma, AL

Google maps has this loop at 2,725 miles at 1 day and 19 hours of driving (which is why we need a soundtrack and audio sermons). The map of the whole trip can be seen here. I estimate the trip taking 10 to 14 days.

The reason for looping in this order is to place the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis at the start of the trip. This will provide the student with a big picture overview of the Civil Rights Movement at the very start of the trip. The end of the trip would be in Montgomery and Selma, the two historical bookends of the Movement (the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the Selma Voting Rights March in 1965). Basically, this loop makes approaching Montgomery and Rosa Parks the spiritual pull of the trip, to make a pilgrimage to the place where "it all began." But one could also start with Rosa Parks and end up in Memphis at the Civil Rights Museum. However, given that Memphis is also where MLK was shot this would end the trip on a down note. Although historically backwards, I like the idea of a journey toward Montgomery.

There are a couple of wonderful state-by-state, city-by-city, and site-by-site tourbooks of the Civil Rights Movement. Three I've consulted are:

Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement

On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail

Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement

Key Movement Events and Sites

As we travel through the cities we'll focus on six important Movement events with their associated sites:

Brown vs. Board of Education and School Integration

Brown itself isn't a site we can visit. But Brown v. Board of Education was the critical event that gave the Movement both moral and legal leverage to challenge segregation in the South. Since Little Rock is the first city we would travel through we can talk about Brown right off and stop by Central High School where the first major test of Brown occurred. On September 4, 1957 the "Little Rock Nine" attempted to enter Central High to start school with the white children. They were stopped by a mob and Arkansas national guardsmen deployed by segregationist governor Orval Faubus. This was in direct defiance of federal law. Eventually, things in Little Rock got so out of hand President Eisenhower mobilized the 101st Airborne Division to force Central High to integrate and to protect the nine black schoolchildren.

Our time in Little Rock won't be long. Just a quick stop to look at Central High, which is relatively unchanged.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Under Jim Crow public spaces were segregated in the South. This included city buses. In Montgomery the front seats of the bus were reserved for whites and the back seats for blacks. Seating typically went from front to back for whites and from back to front for blacks, with the two groups meeting in the middle on a full bus. Depending upon the racial mixture of the passengers the middle seats of the bus were often "floating" seats under the control of the bus driver. Occasionally, these middle seats would fill up with black passengers. If this happened when a white person boarded the "floating" middle section would need to get readjusted. This meant that previously seated blacks would have to give up their seats to create an open row for the newly-boarded white passengers.

On March 25, 1955 Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat. She refused and was arrested. That evening, black city and church leaders mobilized a campaign to boycott all city buses. The new preacher at the Dexter Avenue Church, the young Martin Luther King Jr., was elected to head up the boycott. The boycott lasted for over a year but was eventually successful. The boycott was the first successful mass and non-violent action in the Civil Rights Movement. The boycott made MLK a national figure.

Sites to see in Montgomery related to the boycott:

The Empire Theater Bus Stop: Where Rosa Parks boarded the bus. There is also a Historical Marker at the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church: King's church in Montgomery

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage/King House: King's home. The Parsonage was bombed during the boycott on the evening of January 30, 1956.

The Freedom Riders

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott the next important Civil Rights actions were not initiated by Martin Luther King, the NAACP or their partners. After Montgomery the most influential actions--the Freedom Rides and the Sit-Ins--were initiated by college students. The Freedom Rides began with college students who set out to test compliance with interstate bus integration in the wake of the Boynton v. Virginia judgment, the Supreme Court ruling that integrated interstate bus transportation (in the bus and at the bus station). During the era of Jim Crow, segregation laws varied from state to state. For example, if I boarded a Greyhound bus in New York with my black friend I had to move to a separate seat at the state line of a segregated state. If we continued to sit together as we drove through the Jim Crow state we could be arrested for breaking the state segregation law.

In May of 1961 two Freedom Rides, one on a Greyhound and one on a Trailways bus, set out from Washington DC for a drive through the South. The rides went well until they entered Alabama. The Greyhound bus was attacked in Anniston, Alabama. As the bus fled the town a mob chased it in cars and trucks. Due to having its tires slashed in Anniston the bus had to stop a few miles outside of town. A fire bomb was thrown onto the bus and the doors were held shut to prevent those inside from escaping. When those inside finally did emerge they were attacked and beaten. The bus was left as a smoldering shell. Freedom riders were also attacked in Birmingham and in Montgomery with many activists beaten with pipes and chains. After the attacks the Freedom Rides were continued and completed under federal escort.

To reflect on the Freedom Rides of 1961 we'll visit:

The Greyhound Bus Station, Montgomery

The Trailways Bus Station Site, Birmingham

The Student Sit-In Movement

On February 1, 1960 four black college students sat down for service at the segregated Woolworth's diner counter in Greensboro, NC. Thus began the student sit-in movement.

The heart of the sit-in movement was in Nashville, TN were college students, after receiving training in non-violent tactics from James Lawson (who studied non-violent technique in India), began to systematically target segregated downtown Nashville establishments. Many of these sit-in protests led to violence, abuse and retaliatory bombings.

Sit-In sites to visit:

F.W. Woolworth Building, Greensboro, NC: The site of the first sit-in.

Walgreen's, Nashville, TN: Site of one of the largest Nashville sit-in confrontations.The

Birmingham Protests

Birmingham was perhaps the most dramatic Civil Rights confrontation. Martin Luther King Jr. was pitted against racist police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor. At the start of the campaign King's early mass marches attracted few marchers. Consequently, King and his colleagues made the very risky and controversial choice of using Birmingham schoolchildren in the marches. The tactic worked, from a public relations stance, when Connor unleashed his fire hoses and police dogs on the children. All of which was captured on TV. The resultant images, fed into American living rooms, brought the shocking images of Jim Crow brutality into public consciousness. King was arrested and jailed during the Birmingham campaign leading him to pen his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Local sentiment decisively broke against Jim Crow on September 15, 1963 when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning and killed four young girls.

Sites to visit in Birmingham:

Kelly Ingram Park: Site of the fire hoses and the dogs.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

City Jail
: Where the Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church: Location of Klan bombing that killed four girls on a Sunday morning.

Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery March

The Selma to Montgomery marches are considered to be the emotional peak of the Civil Rights movement. The marches were planned to protest voter disfranchisement. The protesters planned to walk 54 miles from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to make their case before the Alabama state government. On March 7, 1965, a day known as "Bloody Sunday", marchers began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Waiting for them on the other side of the bridge were state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas. When the groups met the marchers were brutally beaten back. The marchers eventually retreated, leaving a blood soaked bridge behind them.

Martin Luther King led a symbolic prayer march to the bridge two days later on March 9. But fearing another attack King didn't cross the bridge. Eventually, the march resumed on March 21 and lasted five days when the marchers reached the state capital in Montgomery. Today the route in a National Historic Trial. Five months after the march Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, considered to be the most influential civil rights legislation passed during the Movement.

Sites to see in Selma:

Edmund Pettus Bridge: Site of Bloody Sunday.

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

Additional Sites

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA: King's church after he left Montgomery

Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (also where King is buried)

So that's the sketch of the trip. I'd love to get any help or feedback. Have you been to any of these sites? Feedback about them? Any other sites along this route or in these cities that we should check out? Recommendations for textbooks? Assignments?

If we ever make this class a reality at ACU I'll let you know.

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12 thoughts on “The Freedom Ride”

  1. This would be an impressive trip. What about watching footage of the actual events when visiting each site?

  2. Assignment: an "I have a dream" speech. May seem cliche, but I for one would be interested to see what students' dreams today would be.
    I'll be looking for this soon in the course catalog.

  3. This sounds fantastic. I'd love to go along and see all these sites - I've seen footage of some of the attacks, etc., but never been to any of them.

    Great work, Richard!

  4. Great idea, Richard. You might also consider visiting the University of Mississippi at Oxford where Kennedy sent Federal troops to quell violence. They have a Civil Rights center. See this url for other information:


  5. Wow, thank you for compiling these links and resources. This would be an awesome trip for a homeschooling family too.

  6. Since you will be passing through Jackson Mississippi, visit Toogaloo College, sometimes called the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement.

  7. A possibility for the soundtrack: "Oxford Town" (1963), concerning the James Meredith incident:

  8. Just visited the new National Historic Site museum at Central High in Little Rock.

    About the trip, you might like to talk with Dr. Barclay Key, who is leading just such a tour this summer. see his blog at

  9. Are you aware of the Sankofa Journey's, where an African American person is paired with a White American, on a journey through historic civil rights sites?

  10. not sure why I put an apostrophe in"Journey's". Oh well.

    Here are more links:

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