Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice

by Raymond Arsenault

As the originator and chief financial sponsor of the Rides, CORE had the closest organizational identification with the elimination of segregated transit facilities, a victory that brought unprecedented attention and influence to a group of activists unaccustomed to visibility or notoriety. Despite the continuing legal responsibilities and debts associated with the Rides, CORE emerged from the crisis in good shape, with an expanded budget and staff, thousands of new members, and an expansive sense of its new role as a leading force within the nonviolent movement. The enhanced stature of Farmer and other former Freedom Riders gave the organization credibility and standing, even in the arena of popular culture, where musicians such as Chuck Berry and Phil Ochs paid tribute to them in song. "Jim Farmer was a hard fightin' man," Ochs's 1962 folk ballad "Freedom Riders" intoned, "decided one day that he had to make a stand. He led them down to slavery town, and they threw Jim Farmer in the can." Buoyed by this and other public tributes, the national office in New York, along with local CORE chapters around the nation, was brimming with proposals for direct action. By the end of the year several of these proposals had become operational, from the Freedom Highways campaign in the Southeast to a national recruiting project known as Task Force Freedom. And, unlike in the past, there was no sense that such projects were limited to a small vanguard or constrained by organizational inertia. Despite the continuing challenges of public complacency and political backsliding, CORE--the organization that had put the movement on wheels--was on the move.

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