A forgotten freedom summer 

Fifty years ago, the Freedom Riders came to Little Rock.

At 7:45 p.m., on Monday, July 10, 1961, a bus bound for Houston carrying five Freedom Riders pulled into Little Rock's Midwest Trailways station at Markham and Louisiana Streets. The Freedom Riders were all on a sponsored journey by the St. Louis branch of the civil rights organization the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) from St. Louis to New Orleans to test court-ordered desegregation in Trailways bus and Illinois Central Railroad terminal facilities. The Riders' journey had begun that morning, with an itinerary that wound from St. Louis to Little Rock, then on to Shreveport, and finally on to New Orleans, with a planned return leg by train through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Illinois, arriving back in St. Louis on Sunday, July 16.

The head of the CORE Freedom Riders group was 30-year-old African-American Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, a native of Whiteville, Tenn., a minister at Pilgrim Congregational Church in High Point, N.C., and a CORE field secretary. Cox was a veteran of the very first Freedom Ride, which had been held in May earlier that year. Cox's fellow Riders were 23-year-old Bliss Ann Malone, an African-American public school teacher from St. Louis; 18-year-old Annie Lumpkin, an African-American student from St. Louis; 27-year-old John Curtis Raines, a white pastor from Setauket Methodist Church in Long Island, N.Y., a former Fulbright scholar; and 23-year-old Janet Reinitz, a white artist and homemaker from New York City.

In December 1958, Bruce Boynton, an African-American Howard University law student, had been arrested for refusing to leave the white section of a bus terminal restaurant in Richmond, Va., while on an interstate bus journey from Washington, D.C., to Alabama. When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, the Court extended its earlier Morgan ruling to include the desegregation of interstate transportation terminal facilities as well as interstate carriers. James Farmer, national director of CORE, proposed to revisit an earlier Journey of Reconciliation after the Morgan ruling with a "Freedom Ride" to test the new law at Southern bus terminals.

The five St. Louis CORE Freedom Riders headed to Little Rock on one of a number of further Freedom Rides held in the summer of 1961 aimed at testing bus terminal facilities across the South and keeping the issue in the headlines. News of their arrival, publicized in advance, had already provoked discussion and debate in the city.

The bus company said that it would make no special provisions for the Riders' arrival. Little Rock Police Chief Robert E. (Bob) Glasscock ambiguously stated that his men would uphold law and order. Gov. Orval E. Faubus, who had made international headlines in September 1957 when he had called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School, was questioned by the press about the Riders' imminent arrival. Faubus recommended simply ignoring them, saying that would "be the worst disappointment they could have."

The advance warning of the Riders' arrival encouraged a crowd of 300-400 people, many of them teenage boys and girls, to gather at the Midwest Trailways bus station. At first, people began to line up on a wooden catwalk on Louisiana Street across from the bus station. As the crowd grew it spread out onto the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Marion on Markham Street. Police Chief Glasscock cruised the area in a patrol car, with two uniformed officers and five plainclothes policemen dotted about the station. The crowd was largely silent in anticipation, but as the time drew near for the arrival of the Riders' bus, a crush of cars and people in the area ratcheted up the tension.


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