Black Los Angeles Contributes to the Freedom Rides

Freedom Riders on their way from New York to D.C., May 1961. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

In the summer of 1961, Black people from Los Angeles and their allies volunteered to travel south and take part in the Freedom Rides. They provided moral and financial support at the request of Martin Luther King, Jr. and they sent volunteers to take part in the Freedom Rides. This article adds to works by authors such as August Meier and Elliot Rudwick and Raymond Arsenault who tangentially explore the contributions of Black Los Angelenos and their allies to the Freedom Rides. Given that the South was the main stage of the civil rights struggle, it is important to recognize the struggle as a national movement with support and participants from around the country, including Los Angeles. 

Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s overturning Bruce Boynton’s December 20, 1958, conviction for attempting to desegregate the “whites only” Trailways bus terminal restaurant in Richmond, VA. The December 5, 1960, decision in Boynton v. Virginia spurred CORE to launch a campaign to test the enforcement of the ruling. A plan was afoot building on the momentum of the sit-in movement of the previous year. The open defiance of de facto segregation sought to test whether state and local law enforcement would enforce the Boynton v. Virginia ruling because the ruling is only meaningful if it is enforced. To be sure of the ruling’s enforcement, it must be tested. 

Beginning in May of 1961, the Freedom Rides tested the desegregation of public facilities in interstate travel, which is under the auspices of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). After the initial riders suffered severe beatings and the burning of their bus, many people throughout the country offered support and some participated in the campaign. The violence that these nonviolent freedom fighters experienced and endured motivated freedom fighters from around the nation to continue the rides.  

Many Black people migrated to Los Angeles from the South between 1945 and 1960 in search of job opportunities, better weather, and to leave behind the overt racism of the South. Inspired and motivated by the struggle for civil rights in the South, people like Robert and Helen Singleton and Robert Farrell sought to contribute to the Black freedom struggle locally and nationally. The Freedom Rides attracted Black freedom fighters, and their allies, in Los Angeles as a major opportunity to rid the United States of Jim Crow. Mike Davis and Jon Wiener report that “Los Angeles ranked second among CORE’s ‘fodder cities’ in the North (New York was first), sending five separate contingents of Freedom Fighters southward in the summer of 1961.” This interracial nonviolent direct-action strategy had twenty-four Black freedom fighters from Los Angeles participate in the Freedom Rides, seven of whom were women, among a total of forty-nine volunteers. 

The energy, backing, and activity in Los Angeles in support of the Freedom Rides was immense. CORE grew quickly over the summer, and in June alone, they opened a chapter in the San Fernando Valley thanks to the efforts of UC Berkeley students Ken Cloke and Pan Kovner and another office around the corner from Los Angeles City College on Melrose Avenue. A major catalyst for the CORE-sponsored Freedom Rides came on June 17 and 18, 1961, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Los Angeles with a jammed tight schedule. His primary objective was to raise $25,000 “to help support ‘full-scale assault on the whole system of segregation.’” King would also call for support and volunteers for the Freedom Rides.  

On his visit King would hold a press conference at the Los Angeles International Airport, tour Compton and Watts, and meet with the sponsors of his trip, the Western Christian Leadership Conference. King would also host a dinner on the seventeenth at the Nikabob restaurant on Western Ave. for ministers in Southern California and a breakfast on the eighteenth at Hillcrest Country Club at 8:30 am, followed by a sermon at 11 am at the Peoples Independent Church of Christ on Eighteenth Street. King would conclude his trip at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for a rally from 3 to 6:30 p.m. The Western Christian Leadership Conference sponsored the event and expected 12,000 people to attend. The Los Angeles Times reports, however, that more than 25,000 people attended Freedom Rally with approximately 90% of the audience reportedly “Negroes.” Of the enormous turnout, attendee Hampton Haws shared with the Los Angeles Times,  

The turnout was wonderful. I think we Negroes wanted to prove that we’re all together. We want all the people to know we are Americans, we’re free and we are concerned about discrimination.  

Black Los Angeles attended and energized the struggle for freedom by demonstrating its moral and financial support for Freedom Rally and the Freedom Rides. Black Los Angeles also spoke loud and clear in support of nonviolent direct action in the struggle for freedom in their funding of the cause. King may have headlined the program with guests such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Mahalia Jackson, but freedom was the real star attraction everyone desired to see. 

In his address, King responded to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and others’ suggestion of a “cooling off period” regarding the Freedom Rides, to which King responded: 

We cannot in good conscience cool off in our determination to exercise our Constitutional rights. Those who should cool off are the ones who are hot with violence and hatred in opposition to the rides. 

The Freedom Rides captured the attention of the Kennedy administration and distracted their attention from the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961 and the growing Cold War. For King, Kennedy should have directed his attention towards the freedom deniers, not the Freedom Riders. Ultimately, the Freedom Rides continued with Los Angeles sending its share of volunteers to the American South. 

CORE trained the Freedom Riders in the philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action. The Freedom Riders trained their minds, bodies, and spirits to be nonviolent in the face of racial brutality. Black people from Los Angeles contributed to and reinforced the Freedom Rides, and they were arrested, segregated by race and gender, and jailed. Eleven Los Angeles CORE members arrived in Jackson by train by way of New Orleans on June 25, 1961. Black Freedom Riders and non-Black allies from across the nation were quickly jailed in Parchman Penitentiary’s maximum-security wing. The second wave from Los Angeles came from Second Baptist Church, which raised “$2500 to buy roundtrip bus tickets for riders and to support the integration fight of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Rev. Martin Luther King” under the leadership of Dr. Raymond Henderson, who sponsored the second wave. On July 15, 1961, more Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson on the Greyhound. James Farmer had become CORE’s National Director in January 1961, so he called in his West Coast reserves and by July 30, 1961, the fourth wave left Los Angeles and arrived in Jackson by train. The fifth wave of Los Angeles-based Freedom Rider volunteers rode into Houston, Texas, on August 9-11

On September 22, the ICC issued an order prohibiting racial segregation in public facilities in interstate travel. The Freedom Rides proved effective at drawing national attention to the Black freedom struggle. Black freedom fighters and their allies triggered hostilities from Southern freedom restrictors. The central objective, however, was creating a spectacle that required state and federal governments to enforce laws protecting the constitutional freedoms of Black people. Bruised, bloodied, beaten, and jailed, the Black Freedom Riders and their allies were empowered and emboldened to continue the freedom struggle.  

Clayborne Carson stated that the significance of the Freedom Rides was “the development of a self-consciously radical southern student movement prepared to direct its militancy toward other concerns.” The Freedom Rides contributed to the development of the political consciousness of the participants as they learned that direct action provoked a crisis and response from law enforcement and decision makers, putting pressure on them to make systemic changes. In addition, Black youth and their allies were empowered and motivated in the American South and beyond to struggle for freedom. Important here is the broadening of the Black Freedom Movement to a national theater, (North, South, East, Midwest, and West) to reveal the full scope of the Black pursuit of freedom and the role that Black freedom fighters and their allies from Los Angeles played in the national and local Black Freedom Movement. 

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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at CSU, Long Beach, where he teaches classes on history and the social sciences. Claybrook serves on CSU, Long Beach’s Presidents Commission on Equity and Change Commission, and served two terms as VP of the Black Faculty and Staff Association. His research interests include the history of Black Los Angeles, the Black Freedom Movement, the Black Student Movement, 21st Century Black student activism, 21st Century Pan Africanism, Reparations, and Hip Hop. He is the author of Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Beyond the Spectacle: The Intellectual Work of the Black Power Era in Los Angeles, 1965-1975.

Comments on “Black Los Angeles Contributes to the Freedom Rides

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    Great article glad you were able to bring home the fact of Los Angeles student participation in the freedom rides including Dr. Robert and Helen Singleton and of course former La city councilman Robert Farrell. You should have Bob Farrell speak to your class. I look forward to reading more articles by you thanks!

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    “ The Freedom Riders trained their minds, bodies, and spirits to be nonviolent in the face of racial brutality.”
    It’s so important to recall the training that folks received to be effectively nonviolent so that their natural reflexes would not discredit or invalidate the movement. Good read!!

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