Half a century ago, in the early years of the civil rights movement, a group of courageous, mostly young Americans climbed aboard buses for rides that threatened their lives.
They were called Freedom Riders. And next week, three dozen high school students from all over Michigan will follow in their path, in an effort to learn something about a recent era that, to many their age, seems as far removed as the Crusades.
To those who are old enough to remember 1961, however, what happened to the Freedom Riders is vividly real. Their goal was to draw attention to the fact that southern states were openly defying the U.S. Supreme Court, which had twice ruled racial segregation on public buses unconstitutional. But southern states ignored that, and neither state or federal authorities did anything to enforce the law.
Frustrated, the Freedom Riders decided to challenge custom by riding buses in mixed racial groups, and having black riders refuse to obey orders to go to the back of the bus.
The reaction by southern whites was horrifically violent. One bus was firebombed; its riders barely escaped. Freedom riders were beaten by mobs wielding baseball bats and iron pipes, while local police did nothing. Walter Bergman of Detroit, later a law professor at Wayne State University, was beaten so badly he was left paralyzed.
John Lewis, today a congressman from Georgia, had his skull fractured. The Kennedy administration, worried about losing Southern support and about the Soviet Union using the rides for propaganda purposes, was lukewarm at best to the Freedom Riders.
Eventually, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to see what was happening.
He was beaten and left unconscious. Eventually, outraged world and national opinion provoked the federal government to first order protection for the riders, then order the Interstate Commerce Commission to order the bus companies to comply with the law.