Civil Disobedience: Freedom Riders

Categories: Civil Disobedience

What is civil disobedience? What is an example of civil disobedience? Martin Luther King Jr.

once said, “We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”(1964) Civil Disobedience is the act of challenging or violating the law to achieve a public interest. Taking a look at the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King Jr. He responds to a newspaper explain why direct action(non-violent) must be taken since there was no progress for years after years on negotiating. He discusses five different criterias where you are able to depict if a certain situation is considered civil disobedience which are: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; direct action and willingness to accept the penalty. (King Jr., 1963) One great example of an incident that is considered as civil disobedience is the Freedom Riders.

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Why the Freedom Rides would be such a great example is because they met all of the different criterias that Martin Luther King Jr. explained in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham jail when he wrote the letter responding to the newspaper in 1963. In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he discusses over the injustice that has been taking place in Birmingham. He provides factual examples of how unfair the government system was treating people of color.

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For example he states, there has been a long history of brutality, unfair treatment in courts, and many unsolved cases of houses and churches bombings on the black community. (King Jr., 1963) There have been times where they would send a representative to negotiate, but nothing would happen. There would be no progress. The Supreme Court would make so many promises on so many things but nothing would change. Martin Luther King states, ̈when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.¨(1963) All they would say is wait and wait, but how much longer would they have to wait?.

This is why King decided to take direct action. It was the only way to bring attention and address the problem. But before that, King Jr, talks about how they prepared themselves by taking workshops on non-violence. (self purification) Martin Luther and his followers knew that violence wasn ́t the answer and that violence would make matters worse. Even if they were attacked, they were taught to not fight back and keep calm. Direct action was the only solution that they had for themselves. Martin Luther king emphasises that they can no longer ignore the problem and provide many different scenarios where why direct action must be taken. Scenarios he used were how black people confirm with institutional racism. They protested peacefully, but with every action, there are consequences. King explains that you have to be willing to accept responsibilities and face the consequences. There were cases where people would attack and fight Dr. King’s followers, but there would also be cases where they would get arrested. In this case, King Jr. was arrested in the Birmingham jail and unfortunately was assassinated when he was thirty-nine years old.

One famous incident that met all Kings five different criteria was the Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders were black and white student civil rights activist that challenged the Supreme Court due to the segregation of interstate buses in 1961. They rode buses towards South America like Alabma and South Carolina. The Freedom Riders goal was to enforce the Supreme Court’s Boynton v. Virginia decision in 1960.(The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019) Although segregation was illegal, the law wasn´t enforced. A group of students would get on busses and sit wherever they wanted and go in areas where only white people were allowed. Like King said, no more ignoring the problem and address it.

To have a better understanding of the cause what the Freedom Riders are fighting for, let’s go back in history to 1946. Irene Morgan was a black woman who rode on the greyhound buses.(Catsam and Wolfe, 2014) On her way home, two white passengers entered and the bus driver asked her to give up her seat along with a women sitting next to her. She refused and stood by her beliefs. During that time the Virginia Law, a law that allowed segregation, was active. She was arrested; later on was out by bail. She and her lawyers, some were the behalf of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), together fought for justice and finally the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia Law. In 1964, the supreme court ordered for a new law, Morgan V. Virginia law, which made segregation illegal.

Now going back to the Freedom Riders. In 1961, the Freedom riders tested the Supreme Court to see if they would enforce the law, which happened to be the opposite. During this period of time segregation was everywhere and Martin Luther King Jr. was protesting as well. After Irene Morgan ́s case and Martin Luther King Jr’s protest/speeches, there still was no change. There have been so many injustices during this period of time and all the Supreme Court promised to the people was change but the Supreme Court doesn’t put any mind to it and it stays the same. Once again, direct action is the only solution that they have and that’s where the Freedom Riders come in. Although the Freedom Riders didn’t technically negotiate by themselves, but people were tired of being mistreated. Why keep on repeating negotiating if it’s already been tried by other people and still doesn’t work?

Although the Freedom Riders were making a point, they made sure to keep it non-violent. According to The Freedom Riders, By Holmes, Marian Smith and Smithsonian, it specifically states, ̈The volunteers from 40 states, received training in non-violence tactics. Those who could not refrain from striking back when pushed, hit, spit on or doused with liquids while racial epithets rang in their ears were rejected.¨(2009) Comparing it to MLK Jr., both parties received workshops on non-violence and made sure everything was done civilized. Their plan wasn ́t to bring destruction, but to bring justice and peace and to bring the change that the people wanted, also attention needed to be brought to the cause. The group of activists would ride the buses to South America and go against the norms. They would go to white only restricted places and trespass. According to the article, Freedom Riders, states how the Freedom Riders would use ̈whites only ̈ lunch, restroom, and pool areas. (2018) They would protest peacefully and stand by their beliefs. Of course, the white mobs were not very cooperative. Things escalated and soon grabbed the attention of people internationally. This resulted in many people joining the Freedom Riders to achieve justice in the Supreme Court, but keep in mind, it was done non-violently just like how they were taught.

The Freedom Riders have faced it all. Their lives were in danger. In the Freedom Riders : 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault states how the Freedom Riders knew they were going to face militant white supremiscit, which meant bad consequences. (Arensault, 2006) They were willing to sacrifice themselves to eliminate segregation. The Freedom Riders were separated in groups traveling towards up South, where they would get brutally beaten, arrested, and be discriminated by white angry mobs. One incident that was the worst occurred on May 14, 1961. Referencing back to the article, The Freedom Riders, by Holmes, Marian Smith and Smithsonian, indicates how during mother’s day (May 14,1961), a group white militant angry supremacist attacked the Freedom Riders by throwing rocks/bricks breaking the windows, slashing the tires, and screaming racially comments. They also threw a smoke bomb which set the bus on fire. Luckily the Freedom Riders were able to escape but as soon as they got off board, they got beaten brutally.

Martin Luther Kings direct action criteria is worthy to assess the merits of civil disobedience campaign. When it comes to change, there are things you need to stand up for. Nothing is ever easy and not everyone will agree with you when you are trying to achieve a public interest. Civil disobedience is when you break the law to bring justice. Looking back to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the reason why direct action is very vital is because there was no change after negotiating for years after years. Looking as well at the Freedom Riders, the only way to enforce the Morgan V. Virginia law was by direct action. In these cases, direct action was needed to bring change. When negotiating doesn’t work, direct action is one of the crucial steps to categorize if the certain incident is qualified as civil disobedience.

In conclusion, Martin Luther King Jr. points out five different criterias where you are able to qualify if a certain situation is considered civil disobedience or not. The five different criterias are: negotiation; self purification; direct action and willingness to accept the penalty. Negotiation meaning as first talking and working things out. Self purification meaning as doing things civilized and non-violently no matter what the circumstance is. Direct action meaning as going out and take a stand (only making sure its required if negocation doesn’t work). Last but not least, willing to accept responsibility/consequences meaning as sacrificing themselves even if they get arrested and etc. One incident that mets all five Kings criterias were the freedom riders. They did achieve their goal which was to enforce the Morgan V. Virginia law. Despite everything they went through, they managed to stay civilized and tall.

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Civil Disobedience: Freedom Riders. (2021, Apr 03). Retrieved from

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