In 1961, an multiracial group of intrepid "Freedom Riders" attempted to desegregate bus stations in some of the most militantly segregationist parts of the Deep South. These courageous civil rights activists, including John Lewis, Diane Nash, Jim Zwerg, and James Peck, encountered shocking violence in the State of Alabama. A bus they were taking was burned down, and several Riders were bloodied & beaten by organized vigilantes who opposed racial integration. Once photographic images & film footage of this brutality received international media coverage, the Kennedy Administration finally intervened to force desegregation of interstate travel facilities. Southern politicians then attempted to get revenge by tricking busloads of impoverished African-American Southerners to head north in the so-called "Reverse Freedom Rides." Meanwhile, Cold War tensions continued to heat up, as the Vienna Summit between John F. Kennedy & Nikita Khrushchev failed to reach a solution to the Berlin crisis, leading the Communists to construct the Berlin Wall to keep East Germans from moving into the capitalist West. Decolonization continued to free global populations from European imperialism, including a violent struggle that gained Algerian independence from France. Some new nations sought neutral non-alignment, while others allied with the Communist bloc. JFK tried to keep these new Third World nations from siding with the Soviets via aid programs such as Food for Peace, the Peace Corps, and the Alliance for Progress in Latin America. However, there was a more coercive side to these US Cold War efforts, as the Kennedy Administration also funded CIA interference into foreign politics, anti-Communist military buildups in Latin nations, and an escalation of US military commitment in South Vietnam. The year closed on an ominous note as both the USA & the USSR began escalating defense spending and nuclear testing.Support the show
From Boomers to Millennials is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations of Americans, from the mid-1940s to the present day. Welcome to the second of two episodes about the year 1961, a/k/a Episode 18, “Pay Any Price.” In Part I of 1961, we examined the vision that JFK articulated for his presidency, which asked Americans to “ask what they could do for their country” & to be willing to “bear any burden” & “pay any price” for freedom. However, at times this inspirational rhetoric hit up against the harsh realities of the Cold War era.
The US government had a longstanding plan to send anti-Castro Cuban exiles to liberate Cuba from its revolutionary Communist government. This scheme had been set in motion by Eisenhower, & it was given the green light by Kennedy in April 1961. However, when they landed on Cuban shores at the Bay of Pigs, the anti-Communist exiles were not greeted as liberators, as had been hoped. Instead, the attempted rebel invasion was crushed by Fidel Castro’s forces not long after the Anti-Communists stepped onto the island. This humiliating failure became a major embarrassment for the young Kennedy Administration once press reports publicized that this military excursion had US government backing. Here in Episode 18, we will consider the subsequent developments in JFK’s foreign relations during 1961 in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. We will also examine a group of young Freedom Riders’ who set out on a daring campaign for civil rights & racial justice across the American South.
We start off this episode in the so-called Third World, where the results of over 15 years of steady decolonization often challenged American hopes for a stable postwar international order. Year after year, the number of newly independent countries trying to find their own way in the world was growing. For example, the quickly disintegrating British Empire had granted independence to Sudan in 1956, to Ghana and Malaysia in 1957, to Nigeria in 1960, to Kuwait in 1961, and to Jamaica in 1962. Likewise, the French regime granted independence to several areas previously under their control in sub-Saharan West Africa during the year 1960.
However, France stubbornly tried to hold onto its North African possessions, especially Algeria, where over a million French had settled, ultimately comprising almost 10% of the Algerian population. A violent war of national independence enabled Algeria, which was one of the biggest remaining European pillars of imperial power, to finally fall by 1962. These events were dramatized in the trenchant 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers,” which was directed by Italian filmmaker Gilberto Pontecorvo. Many Americans tend to think of old black-and-white films about war as often being somewhat sanitized compared with more recent fare, but “The Battle of Algiers” is unsparing in its realistic depictions of the Algerian liberation movement’s use of terrorist tactics, and the French Army’s use of torture in trying to snuff out the radical pro-independence organizations.
The struggle for Algerian independence was indeed a bloody and unpleasant affair, one that also had violent ripple effects on France. A far-right paramilitary group known as Organisation Armee Secrete (pardon my French), also known as the OAS, began targeting supporters of Algerian independence in France. One of these was Jean-Paul Sartre, who was perhaps the most influential French philosopher of the 20th Century. In June 1961, a plastic bomb exploded in his residence, but Sartre was unharmed. In 1962, an OAS supporter shot at French President Charles De Gaulle’s vehicle, narrowly missing him. The far-right group was angry with De Gaulle for having reluctantly granted Algerian independence. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of ethnically French residents of Algeria began pouring into France. Those few Europeans who remained behind in the newly independent North African nation were often met with violent reprisals. The decolonization process was not always so violent in other places, but all around the world, militant agitators played a role in pressuring European powers into granting former colonies their freedom.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, states Professor George Herring, (quote) “the modern US alliance with Israel originated on [President Kennedy’s] watch,” as the Americans began selling weapons to the Israelis, in part to counteract the fact that the Jewish state’s most formidable rival, Nasser’s Egyptian regime, had been cultivating closer ties with the Soviets (close quote). By the 1970s, this foreign policy had solidified into a fairly permanent US strategic position, with the Americans now backing an odd coalition of Middle Eastern states, including the high-tech modern quasi-democracy of Israel alongside the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia & Iran. The Soviets, on the other hand, backed various radical Arab nationalist groups throughout the Middle Eastern region.
Global decolonization created opportunities for Communists & other radical groups that were looking to pick up allies and wield influence in the Global South. Leftists offered to help Third World independence movements challenge the Western capitalist hegemony that still reigned over much of Africa, Latin America, & Southeast Asia. In some cases, radical national separatist groups received direct support from the Soviet Union or China. However, many newly independent countries did not want to escape domination by an imperial power only to become a mere puppet government of a distant Communist regime. They instead wanted to take their own path free from the any superpower patron, instead of being beholden either to the NATO nations or to the Soviet Bloc. Historian George C. Herring notes that (quote) “The rise of the Third World dramatically changed the make-up of the United Nations [once these new countries were admitted as members] & altered the balance of power in the [UN] General Assembly” (close quote). The newly diverse makeup of the UN would limit both American and Soviet attempts to steer the decisions of the global peacekeeping organization.
In another development that troubled the superpowers, Herring notes that (quote) “In 1961, neutralist leaders Nehru [of India], Nasser [of Egypt], Sukarno [of Indonesia], Tito [of Yugoslavia], & Nkrumah of Ghana convened . . . the 1st conference of Non-Aligned Nations with the declared intention of limiting the effects of the Cold War on the rest of the world” (close quote). As we mentioned back in Episode 11, the neutralist tendency was first developed when 2 charismatic leaders of newly independent states, the Egyptian dictator Nasser & the Indian president Nehru, had tried to exert maximum leverage on the superpowers by refusing to align with either one. However, even after the ‘61 organizing conference gave more coherence to this international tendency, the nations affiliated with the Non-Aligned Movement remained much more loosely organized than official military treaty organizations such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Nevertheless, these non-aligned newly developing nations pledged to assist each other whenever possible in order to make certain that they had the necessary military & economic resources to remain neutral and free of the global Cold War conflict.
Washington DC tended to take a dim view of the Non-Aligned Movement. President Kennedy did not want Third World nations to be neutral, he wanted to win them over to the side of the United States & its Western allies, and he know full well that the Kremlin wanted to convert these new nations into Communist bloc members. In his book From Colony to Superpower, Herring reports that, to increase American influence in still-developing nations, the Kennedy Administration (quote) “sought to expand economic assistance [to them] & to appoint ambassadors with language skills & area expertise” to far-flung corners of the globe (close quote). He also tried to win them over with humanitarian aid programs like Food for Peace, which was led by a former World War II bomber pilot from South Dakota named George McGovern (hmm, we may be hearing more from him in the future). This program made diplomatic use of the American agricultural surplus by providing heavily discounted food to impoverished nations. McGovern travelled to poverty-stricken India and helped launch a school lunch program there that would end up feeding 1 in 5 Indian schoolchildren. Herring reports that by 1963, the Food for Peace program was providing food to tens of millions around the globe.
More famous was another program we already touched on back in Episode 17, the Peace Corps. Interestingly, the visionary labor leader Walter Reuther helped come up with the concept for this organization, and he persuaded Kennedy to champion the creation of the Peace Corps during his 1960 presidential campaign. President Kennedy lived up to this campaign promise, officially creating the program just months into his administration. JFK, who was no stranger to nepotism, appointed his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver as the first director of the Peace Corps. In fairness to Shriver, he was well qualified for the position. Shriver grew up in Maryland in a devoutly Catholic family. He then went on to become a decorated World War II veteran and a Yale-educated attorney, and in 1955 he had been appointed president of the Chicago Board of Education. Despite his past wartime service, this Sargent was not an officer in the military. Sargent was literally his first name, & you have to wonder if that made some foreign officials question the program’s peaceful intentions. The idea of the Peace Corps was, of course, to send thousands of Americans to help people in developing nations. Kennedy said that he hoped the Peace Corps would help to correct the stereotype of the “Ugly American” by showing the more humanitarian and culturally sensitive side of the American people to the rest of the world. Herring argues that, in spite of its ambitious & high-minded intentions, (quote) “the Peace Corps’ impact on Third World development was negligible. Some volunteers lacked skills, others had little to do, & many ended up teaching English” (close quote). But Herring still thinks it was symbolically important, because (quote) “It conveyed the hope & promise that represented the United States at its best.”
US policymakers played special attention to the international situation in the Western Hemisphere. American diplomats were still recovering from the shock of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 (see Episode 14), and President Kennedy vowed to take action to prevent the further spread of Communism in Latin America. In March 1961, he announced a major foreign aid program for the region known as the Alliance for Progress, which pledged billions of dollars in funds intended for social investment & economic development. Herring reports that the Alliance for Progress funds led to the building of roads, schools, hospitals, & low-cost housing in Latin America, but the program still fell short of its goals of substantially reducing the problem of poverty within the region. The administration opposed governments engaging in land reform in the region, viewing this policy as a gateway to socialism, despite the fact that a wildly inequitable distribution of real property was a major contributor to income inequality & political instability in Latin nations.
Furthermore, while the funding offered by programs like the Alliance for Progress were the carrot offered to these nations, the Yankees still carried a stick – Herring reports that JFK allowed the CIA to continue meddling in Latin American politics in order to prevent leftists from obtaining power. Kennedy also tried a less covert approach to keeping further Communist advances at bay. He invested in making sure capitalistic governments had the muscle to prevent Cuba-style revolutions. According to Herring, the Kennedy Administration (quote) “expanded military aid [to the region] by more than 50%, [increasing it] to [around] $77 million dollars per year. In 1962 alone, more than 9,000 Latin American military personnel [also] trained in such [quote-unquote] ‘educational’ institutions as the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. The results [of this effort] were not what had been hoped for. Between 1961 & 1963, military coups eliminated 6 elected governments. The US aid [and training] program assisted the growth of military influence, & for the next 2 decades the [militaries] dominated hemispheric politics” in Latin America (close quote). In attempting to prevent Castro-style dictatorships of the Left, the Americans had ended up subsidizing an outbreak of military dictatorships of the Right, including (significant given recent events) a military dictatorship in Brazil that would hold power there for 2 solid decades.
The tragic aspect of the failure of the Alliance for Progress to promote prosperity & democracy in Latin America is the fact that the Kennedy Administration had genuinely tried to do more to assist poor 3rd World countries than Eisenhower’s more conservative administration had ever attempted. To be sure, American foreign aid dollars came with some restrictions & strings attached, but there were genuine hopes that the funding could promote both geostrategic & humanitarian goals by reducing the poverty & suffering that Americans feared would cause populations to turn toward anti-US radicalism. JFK’s high hopes fell short in an increasingly unstable developing world. The resentment caused by US military & intelligence interventions in the region, combined with the limits of the social reforms the North Americans were willing to support, meant that even well-intentioned US efforts at humanitarian intervention only contributed to political instability in Central & South America.
The most notorious & disastrously misguided US intervention to prevent Communism in the Third World was, of course, (back in the Eastern Hemisphere) the one still unfolding in South Vietnam. By the early 60s, North Vietnam had stabilized internally & it now was sending thousands of Viet Cong pro-Communist insurgents to foment rebellion in the south. Herring notes that, although Kennedy was (quote) “concerned about the obvious deficiencies in [South Vietnamese President] Diem’s leadership, JFK in late ’61 sharply escalated [the] US commitment” (close quote). After a near-Communist takeover in Laos, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, & an escalating Berlin crisis, according to Herring, Kennedy (quote) “felt compelled to do something, & he believed the US must show it could counter Communist-inspired wars of national liberation. He increased the # of US advisers [in South Vietnam] from 900 when he took office to over 11,000 by the end of 1962.” These so-called advisers sometimes “took an active role in combat & suffered casualties” (close quote). The college textbook Liberty Equality Power points out that (quote) “Kennedy saw Vietnam as a test case for his ‘flexible response’ military strategy” and as a chance to test the skills of the newly-created Green Beret squads that had been “trained in ‘counterinsurgency’ tactics” (close quote). Herring reports that despite the US doubling military aid to President Ngo Dinh Diem’s crony capitalist regime, the South Vietnamese leader (quote) “resisted reforms & refused to broaden his government,” while Viet Cong guerillas (quote) “expanded their control of the South Vietnamese countryside (close quote). Before the end of JFK’s presidency, American frustration with Diem’s leadership would reach its breaking point as it became clear his corrupt & incompetent regime was only increasing the appeal of Communism within South Vietnam, but that’s a story for a future episode.
Kennedy faced another destabilizing insurgency at home in the form of the civil rights movement. Historian James T. Patterson notes that many racial justice activists hoped that the new administration (quote) “would show more sympathy for their aspirations than Eisenhower had” (close quote). The movement for racial desegregation was also hoping to keep its momentum going following the 1960 explosion in sit-in protests at private businesses (see Episode 16). After Martin Luther King’s endorsement of Kennedy in the previous November’s election, many civil rights leaders were disappointed that the JFK administration took a position of cautious neutrality in the first months of the new presidency. Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek observes that Jack avoided publicly meeting with MLK Jr., & only spoke to him off-the-record & in private. The administration wanted (quote) “to avoid too much entanglement in civil rights struggles.” According to Dallek, some lawyers in the Justice Department told King that (quote) “constitutional federalism placed . . . restrictions on the [federal] government’s power to intervene in” desegregation (close quote). This chilly & standoffish response to King’s outreach efforts to the federal administration in Washington caused King became frustrated & somewhat disillusioned with the Kennedys for a time.
The Northern-based organization CORE (or Congress Of Racial Equality) tried to force federal action by trying to integrate buses traveling through the South. This project harkened back to a modest effort by CORE to engage in a similar Freedom Ride back in 1947, which had caused several activists to be arrested in North Carolina that year. It also tried to build on the momentum of the far more successful Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 (see Episode 11). By 1961, recent judicial rulings indicated that the nation’s courts might be more willing to back up activists’ efforts to desegregate interstate transportation facilities than they had been during the original attempt back in the 40s.
In his book Grand Expectations, Patterson notes that the plan was that the Riders (quote) “would board interstate buses & try to desegregate bus terminals wherever the buses stopped. In so doing, they now had the rule of law on their side, for the [US] Supreme Court had decided in December 1960 that segregation of interstate bus terminals was unconstitutional” (close quote). Patterson states that the Freedom Riders (quote) “fully anticipated that whites [in the Deep South] would react violently” to this effort. For this reason, they forewarned Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy & FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of their planned trip, although Bobby later claimed (quote) “that he knew nothing beforehand about the rides” (close quote) and the reactionary Hoover was, of course, very reluctant to provide protection to the civil rights activists. Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek notes that the Kennedys viewed the civil rights agitation as an unwelcome distraction from the struggle against Communism amid a particularly tense chapter of the Cold War. But the Freedom Riders’ trip would force the administration to pay attention to domestic inequalities.
The CORE organization behind the Rides offered Martin Luther King a leadership role in the project, but he would not agree to take charge of the initiative unless CORE merged into his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC. CORE declined these terms, and instead kept on its current director, James Farmer, as the leader & architect of the trip. Farmer was born in Texas during 1920, the son of a professor at a historically black college. He had been a gifted child who entered college at just 14 years old, & he served as undoubtedly the youngest member of the school’s debate team. According to the website of a PBS American Experience documentary, in his role as CORE leader, Farmer personally coined the term “Freedom Rides” for the project. A young & charismatic African-American man named Jim Lawson also emerged as an important leader. Lawson had recently been expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville for his participation in the sit-ins, and he went on to conduct workshops for CORE that taught nonviolent tactics in order to help the riders prepare for the trip. Participation in the Rides would be no picnic, and they were not intended to be easy. According to historian Raymond Arsenault, the emerging trend for activists who were arrested in these incidents was to serve out their jail terms instead of trying to get bailed out. The idea behind this “jail not bail” slogan was that large numbers of protesters serving out their sentences (quote) “would put the maximum pressure on the financial resources and infrastructure of state & county governments” (close quote).
The first group of Freedom Riders during 1961 consisted of 13 activists, 7 of them black & 6 of them white, who boarded 2 separate buses in order to travel from Washington DC through the most heavily segregated parts of the South en route to New Orleans, Louisiana. On buses and facilities throughout the trip, the Freedom Riders would defy segregation rules & would use any public facility at bus stations that they pleased. They encountered little major resistance as they traveled through the more moderate Upper South states of Virginia & North Carolina. However, violent conflict first occurred in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where Freedom Rider & future political leader John Lewis was beaten to the ground with a club when he tried to enter a bus station’s “whites only” men’s restroom. According to historian Raymond Arsenault, Lewis’s endurance of this awful attack meant that (quote) “the Freedom Riders had passed their 1st major test, refusing to strike back against an unprovoked assault” (close quote). The leadership of the CORE organization that had organized the project knew that the danger would only increase once the Riders proceeded deeper into the South, but the Freedom Riders’ initial reception in the Deep South was deceptively benign. Arsenault reports that they were greeted by a group of cheering college students in the progressive enclave of Athens, Georgia. In Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King shared a meal and some words of encouragement with the Freedom Riders in Georgia’s relatively cosmopolitan capital city, although he did warn them to be careful, as he was hearing disturbing reports from his contacts in Alabama that local white vigilantes were planning something.
Indeed, trouble started very soon after the Riders entered the white supremacist enclave of Alabama. James T. Patterson notes that as soon as the Freedom Riders pulled into a station in Anniston, Alabama, (quote) “a mob slit the tires of 1 of the buses, smashed its windows, [and] tossed in an incendiary device” that caused it to catch fire (close quote). Bobby Kennedy biographer Larry Tye notes that the rioting crowd then (quote) “used clubs & iron bars to batter the [Freedom] Riders as they scrambled out of the burning vehicle.” A photograph of black smoke pouring out of the smoldering bus remains one of the most iconic images of the scorched-earth tactics that were used by Jim Crow supporters against the civil rights protesters.
Things were no better for another bus of Freedom Riders arriving in the Deep South metropolis of Birmingham, Alabama. Arsenault reports that white supremacists in the Birmingham Police Department had tipped off members of the local Ku Klux Klan that these quote-unquote “outside agitators” would be arriving in Birmingham, and the KKK prepared to receive the Freedom Riders with a very unfriendly greeting party. Author Larry Tye writes that (quote) “The city’s police were conspicuously missing, even though their headquarters was just 2 blocks from the [bus] terminal. For…a prearranged 15 minutes, 40 white thugs…assaulted the activists with baseball bats, blackjack [clubs], & bicycle chains. [Freedom Rider] James Peck…was attacked so savagely that it took 50 stitches to close his head wound” (close quote). According to Patterson, another Freedom Rider who was a 61-year-old man was (quote) “left permanently brain damaged” after the mob attack in Birmingham. Tye notes that city’s Police Commissioner, the infamous segregationist Bull Connor, smirkingly told the press that police couldn’t prevent this violence because (quote) “too many of his men were on leave for Mother’s Day.” Newspaper coverage of scenes like this forced the Kennedy Administration to take action to protect the Freedom Riders. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy sent a Justice Department official named John Seigenthaler to accompany the Riders in their travels and make sure they safely made it the rest of the way to New Orleans.
According to the PBS American Experience documentary about the movement, the traumatized Freedom Riders were having a difficult time even finding a way out of Birmingham, because all the drivers for the bus companies were now afraid of being attacked and refused to drive. Seigenthaler convinced the Freedom Riders to take the last leg of the journey to New Orleans by airplane. The Riders were menaced by a gathering angry crowd at the airport, but Seigenthaler managed to get them on board the plane safely, and within hours, the first group of Freedom Riders touched down in Louisiana. Seigenthaler and his boss Bobby Kennedy thought the Freedom Riders saga was over, as their trip had come to an end, & they’d reached their destination. But other college students had already been inspired to join the movement. A group of young people from predominantly black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee decided that they needed to show that the violence in Birmingham would not dissuade people from continuing to conduct Freedom Rides. They were led by a charismatic African-American young woman named Diane Nash. When Robert Kennedy learned that more Freedom Riders were on the way, he told Seigenthaler that, in order to avoid more violence, he had to convince them not to come to Alabama. Following these orders, Seigenthaler called Nash and told her that the students had no idea of the situation they were getting into, and that if she didn’t call their Ride off, she was going to get her friends hurt, or maybe even killed. Nash calmly responded that her group of Freedom Riders had all written up their wills the night before. They knew exactly what they were getting into, and they were willing to put their lives on the line. Unable to dissuade the Riders from coming, Seigenthaler finally used federal pressure to force Alabama officials to provide a police escort for this new group of Freedom Riders for the journey from Birmingham to Montgomery. But upon arrival within the city limits of Alabama’s capital, the protection quickly melted away, and an ominous feeling set in on the bus.
When the Freedom Riders walked out into the Montgomery bus station, Dallek reports that a mob carrying ax handles & lead pipes set upon & assaulted the integrationists. This group did not make distinctions between the “active participants” & observers accompanying them on their ride. Journalists & photographers traveling with the Riders were attacked, and the segregationist mob in Montgomery assumed John Seigenthaler was one of the civil rights protesters and beat him up as well. Biographer Larry Tye indicates that Bobby Kennedy’s attitude about avoiding involvement changed when his ally & emissary Seigenthaler ended up hospitalized after being assaulted & battered in Alabama. RFK was a man often motivated more by personal relationships than abstract information, and Tye writes that the attack on his friend Seigenthaler caused his (quote) “patience and caution to give way to resolve and rage” (close quote). Bobby decided to send a force of 400 US marshals to Alabama, and he deployed FBI agents to investigate the riots against the Freedom Riders in the state. Fortunately for the Freedom Riders, it turned out the Kennedy administration had sent federal marshals to protect them at the moment they would be most desperately needed.
When Martin Luther King Jr. learned about their brutal reception the Freedom Riders received in Montgomery, he traveled there & held a community meeting of Freedom Riders & civil rights activists at a local church. However, an angry racist mob learned of the meeting, & hundreds gathered around the church. JFK biographer Robert Dallek recounts that (quote) “During repeated mob assaults on the church, which the marshals repelled with tear gas, King & Bobby clashed on the telephone” (close quote). MLK thought Kennedy wasn’t doing enough to disperse the mob & prevent violence, particularly when Bobby allowed some Alabama National Guard troops (who presumably had more sympathy for the mob) to relieve some of the federal marshals. The crowd had thrown rocks into the windows of the church, & for a time there was fear they might set it on fire. Luckily, the civil rights activists managed to sneak out of the church just before dawn & the situation ended without major violence. But the Kennedys seemed to find themselves in a no-win political situation. Dallek reports that a Gallup poll from 1961 indicated that only a minority of the country (quote) “approved of what the Freedom Riders were doing.” The Kennedy Administration was attacked by southern white Dixiecrats, such as Alabama Governor John Patterson, who thought it were doing too much to intervene in favor of civil rights activists, & it was also were criticized by northern racial liberals who thought it wasn’t doing nearly enough to stop fascistic vigilantes from violently attacking people who were fighting for equality.
The new groups of Freedom Riders survived the assaults in Montgomery & made it into the State of Mississippi, where that state’s Dixiecrat governor urged the angry segregationist crowds to let his police forces handle the activists. As soon as the Freedom Riders tried to integrate public facilities in Mississippi, they were immediately arrested. Dozens of Riders soon found themselves sentenced to several months of hard time in one of the South’s toughest penitentiaries. While they languished in jail, and while more buses of Freedom Riders were on the way, the federal government took action. Faced with press coverage of beaten protesters & burned buses, the Kennedy Administration had been forced off of the sidelines, & now they were ready to finally bring the situation to a resolution. Bobby Kennedy convinced the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the recent prohibition of segregation in interstate travel facilities. The Commission forced Southern bus & train stations to remove all signs separating facilities by race, and to open them all up for general public use. These stations were forced to comply, & this victory brought an end to the 1961 Freedom Rides. Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil note that the experience of the Freedom Riders taught activists that (quote) “nonviolent protest could succeed if it provoked vicious white resistance and generated publicity” (close quote). It seemed that only by revealing the segregationists’ willingness to resort to brute force had the activists forced the federal government to step in. The struggle would continue the very next year, as we will see, when attempts at integrating the University of Mississippi caused a new wave of violence & racial strife in the Deep South.
The saga of the Freedom Rides remains one of the most dramatic, frightening, & inspiring chapters of the civil rights movement. It introduced the world to John Lewis, the son of Southern black sharecroppers who, after being beaten multiple times on the Freedom Rides, also went on to endure violence during the 1965 voting rights March to Selma, Alabama. Lewis remained a lifelong advocate of courageous protests against injustice, which he called “good trouble,” and he went on to represent Georgia in the US House of Representatives for 32 years before his death in the year 2020. The Freedom Rides also provided unforgettable photographic images & film footage such as that of Jim Zwerg, a white Freedom Rider from Wisconsin who had been savagely beaten in Montgomery, and who was subsequently interviewed on camera from his hospital bed. The bruised and battered Zwerg told his interviewer, (quote) “Segregation must be stopped. We’re going on, no matter what happens. We’re dedicated to this. We’ll take hitting, we’ll take beating. We’re willing to accept death” (close quote). The Freedom Riders truly embodied the public-spirited self-sacrifice that JFK had called on Americans to practice in his inaugural address. They were willing to bear any burden and pay any price, even the ultimate price, to achieve democratic values. Coming out of the complacent patriotism of the 50s, many members of the white American political establishment, including even the Kennedys themselves, were slow to recognize that millions & millions of Americans didn’t have to go overseas to boldly fight for democracy & equality. They were still fighting for basic rights & freedoms right here in America.
Not everyone found the Freedom Riders inspirational at the time. Hard-line elements in the white South were seething in the aftermath of the Freedom Rides, and in 1962, some segregationist politicians came up with a scheme for getting revenge on meddling Northerners. According to Gabrielle Emanuel of NPR, powerful Southerners essentially tricked around 200 Black Southerners into believing that there were good jobs & housing lined up for them in Northern states such as Massachusetts. They used flyers and radio commercials to recruit African Americans to accept bus tickets that would take them to what was supposed to be a promising new life north of the Mason-Dixon line. Emanuel indicates the plotters recruited the poorest and most vulnerable elements of the Black population, including single mothers, welfare recipients, and former prison inmates, who the segregationists viewed as (quote) “placing a burden on public resources” (close quote). The segregationists sent these migrants up north via Greyhound bus, in what historians have dubbed the “Reverse Freedom Rides.” Emanuel writes that the assumption behind these rides was that (quote) “When large numbers of African Americans showed up on Northern doorsteps, Northerners would not be able to accommodate them. They would not want them, and their hypocrisy would be exposed” (close quote).
The advocates of Jim Crow directed some of the African-American migrants to be dropped off near the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis, Massachusetts. When the Black Southerners stepped off the bus, they discovered that there were no jobs and no homes lined up for them after all. When the Kennedys learned that this political stunt was going on in their hometown, Ted Kennedy, who was then running for Senate in 1962, actually did show up on one occasion to welcome a bus full of Reverse Freedom Riders & shake their hands. But Emanuel reports that (quote) “Ted Kennedy never showed up again” & “the rest of the Kennedy family never made an appearance (close quote).” When JFK was asked about the Reverse Freedom Rides in a news conference, Emanuel states he labelled it a “cheap exercise” before hesitating & dodging the question. The president was angered by the scheme, but was afraid to speak out too strongly, knowing he badly needed white Southerners’ electoral votes if he wanted to win reelection in 1964.
Some other Northerners mobilized to provide extensive assistance to this manipulated group of people who were vulnerable refugees far from home. Emanuel notes that a local NAACP chapter coordinated with concerned residents to create a multiracial assistance group known as the Refugee Relief Committee. Among their members was a Unitarian minister who said of the Reverse Freedom Riders, (quote) “They were homeless, broke, tired, and afraid. We had to help them” (close quote). With the assistance they got from charitable Northerners, these poor African-American families eventually were able to find jobs and housing in the North. Still, they faced many economic & social challenges, and they experienced the de facto residential segregation common throughout the North. Some also dealt with the culture shock of moving from the rural South to the urban North, and they lived with the rage & shame of having been tricked by white Southern demagogues.
Nevertheless, although the Reverse Freedom Rides may have been gratifying to some white Southerners, the advocates of Jim Crow did not succeed in getting the propaganda victory they craved. According to Emanuel of NPR, (quote) “the prevailing sentiment was that the Reverse Freedom Rides exposed the callousness of the Southern segregationists, not the hypocrisy of Northern liberals” (close quote). There was an almost eerie historical echo of the Reverse Freedom Riders in September 2022, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tricked planeloads of undocumented immigrants into thinking there were jobs waiting for them in the wealthy Northern liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The response to this recent incident was similar to the reaction to the Southern scheme of 1962, in that it delighted reactionaries, while some Massachusetts locals mobilized to help the displaced migrants, & many media pundits condemned the stunt as playing cheap political games with the lives of vulnerable people.
In 1961 and 1962, JFK had higher priorities than the slow burning tensions of the civil rights struggle. He was struggling to navigate a new phase of a Cold War that was coming close to overheating. After the U2 incident in 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had dramatically shifted his approach to the Cold War, moving from being a dove who had shown openness to peace agreements, to being a hawk who wanted to deter NATO with force. Some American hard-liners maintain that Khrushchev was never negotiating in good faith, but during the early 60s, the Soviet premier adopted an alarmingly bellicose tone. Patterson ponders why Khrushchev spoked & acted so aggressively during these years, & speculates (quote) “Perhaps he wanted to impress [the USSR’s wavering ally] China with his ability to stand up to adversaries, perhaps he felt pressure from military leaders at home, [or] perhaps he considered the youthful Kennedy to be weak” (close quote).
Reports of an incident where Khrushchev angrily pounded his shoe on his desk at the United Nations (see Episode 15) also contributed to the public perception in the USA that the Russian leader was a dangerous loose cannon. News was also widely spread by the American media that, at a speech given during 1956, Khrushchev had said of the capitalist powers, (quote) “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” (close quote). The Soviet premier made similar statements on subsequent occasions, and many Americans interpreted this phrase, “we will bury you,” as a threat of Soviet military invasion or nuclear attack. In reality, most historians believe that Khrushchev was actually making reference to the traditional Marxist belief in the eventual decline & fall of capitalism around the world, and many believe a more accurate translation of Khrushchev’s words is “we will outlive you.” Nevertheless, the association of this memorable phrase with Nikita Khrushchev, when combined with his other recent aggressive words & actions, struck fear into the hearts of generations of Americans who were alive during the early 1960s.
In June 1961, Kennedy had a series of meetings with Khrushchev during a diplomatic summit in Vienna, Austria. George Herring notes that at the meetings, JFK was (quote) “in severe pain from various ailments & heavily medicated” (close quote). Kennedy’s physical discomfort was not helped by how stressful and unpleasant the summit became, as Khrushchev repeatedly tried to bully his inexperienced adversary into making concessions on Berlin. The Soviet premier threatened to allow the East Germans to completely cut off Western access to Berlin.
Herring notes that Khrushchev’s threats (quote) “did nothing to resolve the immediate problem in East Berlin, where during July ’61 alone more than 26,000 East Germans fled to the West” (close quote). The working German masses, who in Marxist theory were supposed to support Communism, were instead voting with their feet to escape into capitalist West Germany via West Berlin. The existence of the prosperous island of West Berlin with competitive democratic politics & market economics behind the Iron Curtain was a major propaganda coup for the West and a major embarrassment to the Communist bloc.
At the Vienna summit, a truculent Khrushchev made it sound as though he was willing to go to war if NATO would not allow an East German takeover of West Berlin. JFK refused to be intimidated into making concessions, and the immediate US public reaction was that the summit had been positive, since the American president had stood up to the Russian’s unreasonable demands. In reality, Kennedy left the meetings deeply shaken by the bellicose attitude & aggressive debating style of Khrushchev. He told a friend afterward that the Soviet leader (quote) “just beat the hell out of me” (close quote).
Herring reports the USSR & East Germany decided (quote) “to stop the ‘hemorrhaging’ [of the East German population into the west] by building a wall to seal off East Germany from West Berlin” (close quote). Construction on the infamous Berlin Wall started in August 1961, as East German soldiers began laying concrete blocks & barbed wire on the border between West Berlin and East Berlin. Once completed, this barrier became deadly serious business, as guards posted at the wall would shoot East Germans who attempted to go over, under, or around it in order to escape into the West. Dozens of people would die trying to cross the Berlin Wall during the almost 3 decades that it remained in place as a physical manifestation of the metaphorical Iron Curtain.
George Herring notes that although it later became a symbol of the worst aspects of the Cold War, at the time of its creation, many Americans (quote) “accepted the wall as a way to ease tensions” around Berlin between the superpowers. JFK privately observed, (quote) “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war” (close quote). Patterson credits Kennedy with not overreacting to the construction of the Berlin Wall. (Quote) “He recognized that the USSR had the right to close off its zones . . . Sending in a token force of 1500 troops to West Berlin, he made it clear that the US would stand by the beleaguered city . . . The Kennedy administration performed more steadily & professionally in its summer war of nerves over Berlin than it had over Cuba in April  (close quote).”
Nevertheless, Khrushchev’s truculent behavior in the Vienna meeting & the escalation of Soviet activity in Berlin made Kennedy less optimistic about prospects for peace. Historians Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil note that JFK sought & received Congressional approval to add an additional 300,000 troops to the United States armed forces during 1961. Herring reports that the president also increased defense spending, mobilized tens of thousands of military reservists, & most alarming of all, he (quote) “pushed for a federal program to assist in the building of [nuclear] fallout shelters” (close quote). Khrushchev responded in kind, and the US & the USSR resumed nuclear testing. During October ‘61, in Arctic waters north of Russia, the Soviets detonated what is, to this day, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested. This epic explosion became colloquially known to Russians as Tsar Bomba, the king of all bombs. Escalating nuclear tests & tensions ended the year 1961 on an ominous note, as the prospects for world peace were beginning to look dire indeed. We will see the 2 great superpowers get terrifyingly close to nuclear war in our next full-length episode, when we will examine the year 1962.
The “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Our show is written & narrated by Logan Rogers. If you have comments, compliments, or complaints about this episode, please send us an e-mail at email@example.com. Also, you can leave money in our metaphorical tip jar by leaving us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts. Here at “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast, you don’t have to pay any price for our show, as we are 100% free to download and listen to (but we do have a Patreon if you’re into that whole generosity thing). We want to thank our listeners for their patience in waiting for part 2 of our overview of 1961, & thank you all once again for listening!