A bill recently introduced in Congress seeks a gold medal to honor the Civil Rights Freedom Riders of 1961.
Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, D-Ga., introduced H.R. 4041, seeking a single gold medal that will collectively recognize the contribution the Freedom Riders made to the advancement of Civil Rights.
The bill was introduced Feb. 11 and was referred to the House Financial Services Committee and the House Administration Committee.
In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregated bus and rail stations were unconstitutional. By that decision, despite racial segregation, a black person was permitted to sit next to a white person on any bus traveling through interstate commerce into most locations in the South. However, rules differed at the state and local levels.
“The Freedom Riders, with the intent to end segregation in public transportation throughout the South, paved the way for full racial integration of the United States transit system. The Congress of Racial Equality selected 13 volunteers for nonviolent response training to join in the Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, Louisiana,” according to the legislation.
“On the morning of May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders, comprised of seven black people and six white people, boarded two buses, and sat together. Most segregated states considered even this level of integration a crime.”
At various stops along the way, the Freedom Riders would enter areas designated “Whites” and “Colored” and would eat together at segregated lunch counters to defy local laws, according to the legislation.
Angry mobs often awaited the riders and many of the riders were beaten with fists, lead pipes and baseball bats, and eventually were jailed in Mississippi for disturbing the peace.
Effective Nov. 1, 1961, five months after the first Freedom Rides began, the Interstate Commerce Commission in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, issued a federal order banning segregation at all interstate public facilities based upon “race, color or creed.
If approved by Congress and signed into law by the president the legislation would authorize that the gold medal be given to the Smithsonian Institution for display as well as to be made available for research. It would also permit the Smithsonian to make the gold medal available for display elsewhere, particularly at appropriate locations associated with the Freedom Riders.