April marked 75 years since the four Freedom Riders were arrested in North Carolina. Now a North Carolina court has vacated Bayard Rustin’s and three others’ sentences for alleged “disorderly conduct.”
Sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the two-week “Journey of Reconciliation” attempted to test the bounds of a 1946 Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate buses. The Court later extended the ruling to include trains.
An interracial group of 16 people met resistance during their travel through North Carolina. NCPedia explained that the North Carolina Courts decided that the Supreme Court’s decision in Morgan v. Virginia did not apply because on the day the group was arrested, they were traveling within the state and not “interstate travelers.”
Rustin and fellow travelers attempted to board a bus in Chapel Hill and were beaten, removed from a bus and ultimately charged with disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to 30-days on a chain gang, serving 22 days.
News of the exonerations comes ahead of the Juneteenth holiday, a time of celebrating Black liberation and freedom. Over 80 years after emancipation, Black citizens were still fighting for full and equal access to the so-called American dream.
During a public ceremony last month, Orange County District Court Judges apologized for the mistreatment and injustice in a court system invested in protecting the Jim Crow system.
“We stand before our community on behalf of all five District Court Judges for Orange and Chatham Counties and accept the responsibility entrusted to us to do our part to eliminate racial disparities in our justice system,” said the judges. “The Orange County Court was on the wrong side of the law in May 1947, and it was on the wrong side of history.”
Rustin also wrote about his 22 days on the chain gang, describing the horrible conditions and day-to-day experience. He even included a survey of 44 men also detained at the Roxboro Prison camp. Over half of the men interviewed were under age 30. The majority lacked vocational training.
The account ran as a five-part series for the New York Post. By some accounts, Rustin’s story helped lead to the end of chain gangs in North Carolina.
Carolina Public Humanities, housed at the University of North Carolina, launched a 75th-anniversary site commemorating the 1947 freedom ride. An educational treasure trove, the 75th Anniversary of the Journey of Reconciliation site provides context for the freedom ride and other efforts to challenge Jim Crow in public transit.
Not to be deterred, future groups would continue to push the bounds of Jim Crow laws with sit-ins and another Freedom Ride through the south. Another interracial group from CORE would set out 14 years after the “Journey of Reconciliation.”
The group traveled from Washington D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi, testing the limits of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton v. Virginia, finding that segregation in facilities such as bus terminals was unconstitutional. The late Rep. John Lewis was among the student organizers who traveled with CORE, later becoming a leader within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Historical injustices like the legal action taken against Rustin and his comrades and the outrage and violence inflicted by white supremacy deserve more than an apology 75 years later. A part of remembering the legacy is ensuring that history is being taught, another reason the resources provided by Carolina Public Humanities are so valuable.
This apology and the acknowledgment of the courts’ role in maintaining white supremacy is a clear example of systemic racism. It is unfortunately not the last to be addressed.