Freedom Riders Remember, 50 Years Later

A daughter goes to Mississippi to retrace the legendary civil rights ride her father and other young activists took a half-century ago.
Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary

On May 4, 1961, 13 Freedom Riders got on two buses in Washington, DC, and headed south. Their goal was to test a recent Supreme Court decision that had declared racially segregated interstate buses and travel facilities unconstitutional. A few days into their journey, the Riders were met with violence: In Alabama, one of the buses was firebombed, and riders on the second were beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan and police officers when they reached Birmingham.

But the rides continued throughout the summer of 1961, as an estimated 450 black and white Freedom Riders rode throughout the South, braving the segregationists' jeers and attacks. Many ended their travels in Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested and sent to Parchman State Prison Farm. There, they were subjected to abusive treatment that included strip searches, lights that didn't turn off at night, and hosing down to keep them from singing protest songs.

Laura Baer's late father, Byron, was one of the Freedom Riders who was sent to Parchman. (Baer, who would become a Democratic politician and leader of the New Jersey state senate, died in 2007.) In May, she retraced the journey he'd taken a half-century earlier, attending the Freedom Riders' 50th anniversary reunion in Jackson and photographing many of the surviving Riders.