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“The First Freedom Ride:” Bayard Rustin On His Work With CORE

World War II was a period of economic and social advance for African Americans, and many who served overseas in the military, worked in defense industries, and listened to wartime propaganda about freedom became more assertive in their demands for equal rights. In 1942, Bayard Rustin, a pacifist whose expertise in non-violent protest would have a deep impact on the Civil Rights movement, helped found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The group, dedicated to non-violent direct action, was one of many rights groups that came to life during and immediately after the war. In 1947 Rustin led a group of whites and blacks on a “Journey of Reconciliation” to challenge racial segregation on inter-state buses. The willingness of Rustin and his companions to undergo arrest at one point serving 30 days on a North Carolina chaingang provided an important example for the more famous Freedom Rides of 1960.

Listen to Audio:

RUSTIN: In August of 1945 I left Lewisburg Penitentiary, where I had been in jail as a conscientious objector. I had gone in to prison in 1942 for three years' term. Given good time, I was able to come out in August of 1945, at which time I went back to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with which I had been associated since 1941. At this time I also was beginning to give a great deal of my time as director of the Civil Rights Department of the Fellowship of Reconciliation — FOR — to CORE [Committee on Racial Equality]. Now, CORE had been founded within the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and great numbers of blacks had cooperated with the CORE direct action. But when war came, the many blacks who were working in CORE and who were not pacifists did not want CORE to remain within the FOR, because the FOR was a pacifist organization and they did not want to be associated with a pacifist organization in war time. So there was a decision made that CORE should become independent. Even though CORE was independent of the FOR, the FOR paid my salary to do a great deal of the work organizing CORE, and a good bit of the years from 1945 to 1955 were spent as field director of CORE — which meant that I traveled all over the country creating all kinds of demonstrations, sit-ins in restaurants, theaters, hotels, barber shops, and the like. This became a very crucial period, and particularly in 1946 something very important occurred, that was to have a very profound effect on the whole civil rights movement.

In 1946 the Supreme Court of the United States delivered what became known as the Irene Morgan Decision. Irene Morgan was a black woman who had an interstate ticket on a bus. The Supreme Court ruled that she had been incorrectly arrested and punished, because if a person was moving between the states on a bus or train it was a burden on interstate commerce to stop the bus or train and waste time and energy separating people. You will also remember that 1946 is a crucial period, because many blacks who had been in the army were returning home from Europe. There were many incidents in which these black soldiers — having been abroad and exposed to fighting for freedom — were not going to come back to the United States on their way home and be segregated in transportation.

Therefore the combination of these blacks who were already resisting, and the Irene Morgan Decision, which gave blacks the right to resist segregation, particularly in interstate travel, we in CORE decided immediately following the Morgan decision that the next year, 1947, we were going to create a nationwide protest with nine blacks and nine whites who would go into buses all over the upper south with blacks sitting in the front and the whites sitting in the back to challenge this. This was known generally as the first Freedom Ride. It was called “The Journey of Reconciliation.” As a result of the Journey of Reconciliation a number of black and whites were jailed. That was my first experience on a chain gang. In late 1947, early 1948 I spent thirty days on a chain gang, as well as did a number of whites and other blacks.

By CORE’s moving through the southern states getting five blacks arrested here, five whites arrested there, an interracial couple being arrested here, and willingness to go to jail and write about it, and the fact that the NAACP picked up those experiences and made booklets as to how to adhere to the Irene Morgan Decision and said, “We will give you an attorney anywhere you go and you are willing to face arrest to clarify this issue,” that period of eight years of continuously doing this all over the south prepared for the 1960s revolution, prepared for the 1954 Supreme Court Decision.

Source: Interviewed by Ed Edwin 9/12/85
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection