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Freedom Rides


Martin Luther King, Jr., made history, but he was also transformed by his deep family roots in the African-American Baptist church, his formative experiences in his hometown of Atlanta, his theological studies, his varied models of religious and political leadership, and his extensive network of contacts in the peace and social justice movements of his time. Although King was only 39 at the time of his death, his life was remarkable for the ways it reflected and inspired so many of the twentieth century’s major intellectual, cultural, and political developments.

Marshall, Burke

Burke Marshall was head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, serving from January 1961 through December 1964. Martin Luther King regularly called and wired Marshall for assistance. John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other civil rights leaders were on a first name basis with Marshall. Wyatt Tee Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), woke Marshall at 1:00 A.M. to inform him of King’s arrest during the 1963 Birmingham Campaign.

Vivian, Cordy Tindell

As a minister, educator, and community organizer, C. T. Vivian has been a tenacious advocate for civil rights since the 1940s. After joining the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the early 1960s, he became the Director of Affiliates and participated in numerous protests. Known for his sharp tongue and unflinching courage, Vivian recalled what movement veterans felt after serving time in jail: “They had triumphed, that they had achieved, that they were now ready, they could go back home, they could be a witness to a new understanding. Nonviolence was proven in that respect” (Hampton and Fayer, 96).

Patterson, John Malcolm

Patterson’s gubernatorial term in Alabama was a turbulent one due to his enforcement of state-sponsored segregation and the increase of civil rights activity in Alabama. During his tenure as governor the student sit-in movement was taking hold, and Martin Luther King was indicted for perjury for his 1956 and 1958 Alabama income tax returns (see State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr.). King felt that the charges against him were an “attempt on the part of the state of Alabama to harass me for the role that I have played in the civil rights struggle” (Papers 5:371).

Freedom Rides

During the spring of 1961, student activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Freedom Rides to challenge segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals. Traveling on buses from Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Mississippi, the riders met violent opposition in the Deep South, garnering extensive media attention and eventually forcing federal intervention from John F. Kennedy’s administration. Although the campaign succeeded in securing an Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ban on segregation in all facilities under their jurisdiction, the Freedom Rides fueled existing tensions between student activists and Martin Luther King, Jr., who publicly supported the riders, but did not participate in the campaign.

Peck, James

A radical pacifist, trade union proponent, and civil rights activist, James Peck wrote the introduction to a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) reprint of Martin Luther King’s article, “Our Struggle: The Story of Montgomery,” which originally appeared in Liberation. “By encouraging and supporting actions such as that in Montgomery,” Peck informed readers, “we who adhere to the principles of nonviolence hope to hasten complete abolition of segregation within our social system” (King, “Our Struggle,” 1957).

Nash, Diane Judith

Through her involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Diane Nash worked closely with Martin Luther King. In 1962 King nominated Nash for a civil rights award sponsored by the New York branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to acknowledge her exemplary role in the student sit-ins. King described Nash as the “driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters” (King, 9 April 1962).

Kennedy, Robert Francis

As U.S. Attorney General from 1961 to 1964, Robert F. Kennedy served as one of the most trusted advisors to his brother, President John F. Kennedy, on matters of civil rights. Although Martin Luther King boldly criticized the attorney general and the Department of Justice for its failure to investigate civil rights violations, he wrote Kennedy in 1964 praising him for his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Your able, courageous and effective work in guiding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through both Houses of Congress has earned for you an even warmer spot in the hearts of freedom loving people the world over. I add to theirs my sincere and heartfelt thanks” (King, 24 June 1964).

Kunstler, William Moses

From the freedom riders to the “Chicago Seven,” William Kunstler defended political and social activists for four decades. Martin Luther King and Kunstler first met during the 1961 Freedom Rides. King asked Kunstler to take on several cases throughout the 1960s and praised him for the “magnificent job” he had done as a civil rights attorney (King, 30 December 1963).


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