A Government Lawyer's Contribution To The Freedom Riders

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Starting in May of 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans tested Jim Crow laws in the deep South by riding buses together and sitting in segregated waiting rooms.

They encountered widespread violence. The Kennedy administration was at first at a loss as to how to respond. Robert Saloschin, who was then a lawyer with the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, came up with the strategy of having the department petition the Interstate Commerce Commission to order desegregation of buses and terminal waiting rooms. We speak with Robert Saloschin about that historic time. Saloschin is co-author of the upcoming book ""Time to Make History:Stories and Notes on Aiding the Nation From a Contrarian Who Did"

Book Excerpt: "Time to Make History:Stories and Notes on Aiding the Nation From a Contrarian Who Did"

By: Robert L. Saloschin and Maryann Karinch

Grounding Jim Crow

During the Kennedy years, civil rights activists called Freedom Riders staged tests of a Supreme Court decision (Boynton v. Virginia, 1960) stating that racial segregation in public transportation was illegal. Regardless of that decision, places all over the South continued to enforce Jim Crow laws, which were state and local laws dictating segregation practices. They covered where blacks and whites were to sit on the bus and at bus stations, and required they use separate rest rooms and separate lunch counters.

The Freedom Riders bought tickets for trips into Southern states from Greyhound and Trailways, which handled most interstate bus trips. The first Freedom Rides originated from Washington, DC on May 4, 1961. Men wore coats and ties; women wore dresses. This non-violent protest and those that followed stirred up the anger of white segregationists who turned the Freedom Rides into bloody events at terminals and on buses.

The Kennedy Administration saw this as a huge embarrassment, among other things, and wanted an immediate way to sedate the violence. They concluded quickly that they wouldn't get action from Congress, because a large part of the Democratic membership of Congress was Southern democrats who wouldn't buck the will of their constituents.

The other avenue was to go to court and get an order to either stop the demonstrations or stop the Jim Crow practices-the latter being preferable. But they felt that would take a year due to appeals and this was an immediate problem with people getting hurt.

Then I remembered something I had read about ten years earlier. When I first went to the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1952, I had to read the laws under which the CAB operated, enacted in 1938. I recalled reading a section, which in very general and sweeping language, prohibited airlines from any form of discrimination or preferences with lots of synonyms. I had a hunch. My hunch was this had been copied from earlier laws regulating other modes of interstate transportation-railroads, trucks, and busses.

I told the Attorney General [Bobby Kennedy]: My suspicion is that you will find the same provision, word for word, when Congress decided to cover interstate busses. It took less than five minutes to look it up and see it was true.

That indicated a way out.

I said, "We can file a petition with the ICC under that section of the law relating to interstate busses to order the bus lines to stop discrimination in their busses and terminals."
By the end of the day the petition had been filed. The ICC was shocked. Despite their experiences with discrimination that took the form of uneven services or financial inequalities, they had never had anything to do with racial problems before.

The FBI was ordered to go into bus terminals and take pictures of the "white" and "colored" signs at rest rooms and waiting rooms, and every other area that might have been affected by the Jim Crow laws, to collect evidence of discrimination. Evidence in hand, on November 1, 1961, the ICC ordered the bus companies to stop the Jim Crow practices, and that ended the problem.

This segment aired on May 16, 2011.


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