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MLK & the Freedom Riders: Unpublished Photos

MLK & the Freedom Riders: Unpublished Photos

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A Freedom Rider on a bus in the Deep South, 1961. Arrests in Jackson, Mississippi, only deepened activists' commitment to the cause: King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups recruited more volunteers, organized more Freedom Rides, and further prodded the Kennedy administration toward solutions. Finally, in September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission began to enforce court rulings ordering the desegregation of bus and train terminals across the South.

A young woman naps on the bus to Jackson, Mississippi, as a National Guardsman hovers over her, armed and alert in 1961. Soon after LIFE's Schutzer snapped this photo, the bus pulled into the station, the Freedom Riders attempted to desegregate the facilities, and they were promptly arrested. The National Guard, for all the physical protection they offered, would do nothing to protect the Riders' legal rights.

During a stop just short of the Mississippi line, Alabama Guardsmen surround a bus carrying the Freedom Riders on May 24, 1961.

A Freedom Rider sleeps at a safe house, his copy of Dr. King's Stride Toward Freedom close at hand, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961.

In a safe house in Montgomery, Alabama, Freedom Riders relax, regroup, and heal in May 1961. Over the next three days, more volunteers would arrive from Nashville, New Orleans, and Atlanta to join the Rides, replacing those who had dropped off. The next stop was daunting — Jackson, Mississippi — but in this brief respite, they played cards, savored cigarettes, and listened to Ella Fitzgerald records.

The congregation remained inside First Baptist for hours, as the threat outside escalated and local officials did nothing. Federal marshals arrived to shoot tear gas into the mob, which responded by throwing bricks and bottles. Only after RFK intervened, forcing Governor Patterson to declare martial law and sending in the National Guard, did the violent white mob break up. Just before dawn, on the 22nd of May, 1961, the Guard finally moved the congregation out.

A weary King inside Rev. Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 21, 1961. Those gathered at First Baptist that night kept one ear tuned to the encouraging words of their religious leaders and another to the thousands of angry whites gathering outside. Sometime during these long, tense hours, King had a phone conversation with Robert F. Kennedy, and blasted the U.S. attorney general for allowing the untenable situation to fester.

Paul Schutzer captures the view from a bus' window during a Freedom Ride from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961.

The Freedom Rides were highly organized; every volunteer who stepped aboard a bus traveling through the Deep South received not only extensive training about constitutional law and the methods of civil disobedience, but also grave warnings about the danger they faced.

edom Riders enter a bus terminal area designated as whites-only in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961. They were promptly arrested on charges of breaching the peace and disobeying an officer.

Integral to King's speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage was his plea to the black community,to remain level-headed and loving, no matter how arduous the fight and no matter how hate-filled the adversary. His call for nonviolent activism inspired young people — particularly the ones who, in 1960, would form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that pushed the civil rights agenda by participating in lunch counter sit-ins, public protests, and the Freedom Rides.

Among his landmark early addresses, King's speech that day — now known as "Give Us the Ballot" speech —urged President Eisenhower and members of Congress to protect the most basic rights of democracy for all American citizens.

Two women at the Prayer Pilgrimage in Washington, D.C. on May 17, 1957

Women wave their arms in approval at the Prayer Pilgrimage in Washington, D.C. on May 17, 1957. Though young people on the Freedom Rides would later become the face of the civil rights movement, transforming message into strategic action, it was "church ladies" like these — and like Rosa Parks, who kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and attended the pilgrimage — who provided its spiritual backbone.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on May 17, 1957, the third anniversary of the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision against segregation in public schools.

Martin Luther King Jr. and young Freedom Riders in Mongtomery, Alabama, in 1961.