Summary: On May 4, 1961, thirteen activists — black and white, young and old, male and female — boarded two buses in Washington D.C. for New Orleans, Louisiana. Their Freedom Ride will last just twelve days. But their mission is clear. The laws prohibiting segregation on buses crossing state lines and at bus stations are being violated. These Freedom Riders are determined to draw attention to the laws’ lack of enforcement. But what starts as a peaceful protest turns violent as they travel deeper into the South. This is their story. (Summary from book – Image from www.socialstudies.org)
My Review: In recent years I have become increasingly aware of the need to understand and acknowledge our nation’s history — the good and the bad. When our library finally opened up after COVID closures, I was looking for ways to learn (and teach) more about the Civil Rights movement and I found Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 in the Jr. Non-Fiction section. I had heard of the Freedom Riders before and knew that they suffered poor treatment at the hands of a bunch of ignorant racists, but was fuzzy on the details and figured it was high time I remedied the situation.
Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 is an account of thirteen brave souls whose actions drew national attention to the illegal treatment of Black passengers on the interstate transit system. In small groups, the Freedom Riders boarded interstate buses and traveled to different towns throughout the south. Their primary mission was to integrate interstate transit through non-violent means and to access the facilities and services legally guaranteed them by federal law — access that was consistently denied to Black citizens. The Freedom Riders knew the risks and the forged ahead anyway.
The first few stops on their journey offered some small victories and little resistance beyond “a few cold stares,” but as the bus traveled further south word spread about their mission. Opposition began to gather, stirring up trouble in greater numbers, and the Riders encountered significantly more violent resistance. Not only were they illegally blocked from entering facilities or receiving services, many were threatened, shoved, knocked down, beaten, and jailed. When the Freedom Riders reach Alabama, all hell broke loose in an absolutely inexcusable and shameful display of (in)human behavior. Law enforcement (most of them, anyway) stood idly by while crowds of enraged, violent Klansmen forced the Riders bus to stop and set it ablaze while they, and others, were still inside. When the Riders managed to escape, many were further assaulted and had to be hospitalized. Ambulance drivers refused to take the Black Riders until the injured white Riders began climbing out of the vehicles to join their comrades. When they reached the hospital, the staff finally consented to treat the Black Riders on the condition that they leave immediately afterward. Their path, through the angry mob outside.
Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 is told day-by-day, alongside captioned, black-and-white photographs taken at the time. The final pages of the book contain short bios on the 13 original freedom riders as well as a bibliography, and source notes. The text is easy to read physically, but very hard to read emotionally. I can’t even imagine how the Riders must have felt living it, having no idea what to expect at each and every stop and I am beyond grateful for their commitment and sacrifice. At the end of those twelve days in May, the nation began to realize that the fight for equality was not finished. Although the initial Freedom Ride was over, 436 others came to continue the ride; the actions of thirteen people had spurred a movement.
Amidst all the deplorable violence and racism, one of the most touching aspects of this book was watching this group of everyday people (Black and white, male and female, young and old, educators and students, pacifists and veterans, businessmen and religious leaders) work together towards a common goal, their defiance in the face of adversity, and their individual and collective courage. I was also inspired by accounts of white riders (and even the occasional bystander) using their privilege or position to protect and defend the unbelievably brave Black riders.
Ultimately, this book showcases some of the best and worst behavior that our nation has to offer. If you are looking to learn more about the experience of the original Freedom Riders, Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 is a great place to start. I learned so much from this book — a rather embarrassing amount, actually — but am oh-so-glad that I read it.
My Rating: 4.25 Stars
For the Sensitive Reader: The Freedom Riders were subjected to racism, threats, and outright assault. While the author does not go into graphic detail, some of the images show the violence and its aftermath and might be disturbing for younger readers. Parents should be prepared to have conversations about these interactions.