The Freedom Riders

In this lesson, students will use a primary source—an NBC news report from 1961—to investigate the Freedom Rides. The lesson will also explore segregation in the South and the tenets of nonviolent protest. 
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • Understand that segregation existed in many areas of life in the South, including transportation, public accommodations, schools, stores and neighborhoods
  • Understand that segregation was sometimes enforced by law, sometimes by tradition and sometimes with violence 
  • Explain how segregation involved both state and federal laws
  • Understand the tenets of nonviolent social protest
  • Analyze how nonviolent protest transformed the United States during the civil rights movement
  • Analyze why ordinary individuals risked their lives to end segregation
Essential Questions
  • What is the philosophy of nonviolence? How did it shape the civil rights movement?
  • Why do people risk their lives to challenge injustice?
  • How does the federal government ensure that its laws are upheld? What happens when federal laws are not enforced?


African Americans struggled for decades to win legal equality. Segregation was deeply entrenched in the South. Schools, public transportation and many public places were segregated. Lawsuits to challenge segregation in schools began as early as the 1930s. They culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Meanwhile, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott took on segregated city buses. And sit-ins challenged segregation at lunch counters starting in 1960.

During the summer of 1961, with the civil rights movement well underway, activists challenged yet another segregation stronghold: interstate bus travel. Technically, this segregation was already illegal. In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional. In 1960, in Boynton v. Virginia, the high court ruled that it was also illegal in bus terminals.

Despite these rulings, segregation continued. Most African Americans did not challenge tradition and assert their rights because of the likelihood of violent white resistance. The federal government refused to enforce the Supreme Court rulings.

In 1961, a group of Freedom Riders—both black and white—challenged segregation on interstate buses and in terminals. In doing so, they also challenged federal officials to enforce U.S. law. The Freedom Riders boarded buses headed for Louisiana, only to confront violent resistance from white citizens and law enforcement in Alabama. During the conflict, which continued all summer, hundreds of protestors were jailed or injured in attacks by pro-segregation mobs. Eventually the federal government intervened to see that integration was enforced. By the time the Freedom Rides were over, segregation had suffered another blow. The Freedom Rides became a defining part of the civil rights movement, and the Freedom Riders became models of the heroism that transformed race relations.


Additional Resources



discrimination [dih-skrim-uh-ney-shuhn] (noun) unfair treatment of someone based on their membership in a group defined by race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or other factors

segregation [seg-ri-gey-shuhn] (noun) the separation of a specific racial, religious or other group from the general body of society

interstate travel [in-ter-steyt trav-uhl] (noun) transportation that crosses from one U.S. state to another



I. Warm-Up
As a class, complete a K-W-L chart about the Freedom Rides. Take turns calling out what you know about the Freedom Rides already and what you want to know. Have the teacher or a class volunteer write people’s statements on the chart. On the same chart, write what you know about nonviolence as a form of social protest, and what you want to know. These topics will be the focus of this lesson. When you finish the lesson, you will add what you’ve learned.

II. Context: Segregation
Look at Segregation in the United States. Complete the map activity and write answers to the questions at the bottom of the page. 

III. The Freedom Rides
1. Watch the video about The Freedom Riders (or read the transcript) and complete The Freedom Riders handout to help you understand and remember the important points. With a small group, review the answers to the questions. If anyone in your group is confused or has misunderstood something, find the part of the video transcript that clarifies or answers questions. Check in with your K-W-L chart. Write what you’ve learned in the “L” column. Have any of your questions been answered?

2. A variety of laws addressed segregation. Before you read about them, look at the words intrastate and interstate. (Note: Write the two words on the board, underlining the prefixes intra- and inter-.) With a partner, look up the meaning of the two prefixes, intra- and inter-. Using those definitions, discuss with your partner what the words intrastate and interstate mean. Then write down a hypothesis that answers this question: What laws do you think applied to segregation in intrastate travel in southern states in 1961? What laws do you think applied to interstate travel in southern states in 1961?

3. Test your hypotheses by reading about the State and Federal Laws that governed intrastate and interstate travel. Answer the questions on that sheet.

4. Now think about the way the Freedom Riders went about trying to bring about change. They chose to ride buses. With your partner, discuss why you think that was the strategy they chose. How else might they have confronted segregation in interstate bus travel? Why didn’t they take violent action instead of riding buses? Then read about the theory of nonviolence that was at the heart of Martin Luther King’s beliefs, and that shaped the Freedom Rides, the sit-ins and the boycotts. (Note: Display Theory of Nonviolence.) Have volunteers read the numbered items aloud. Stop after each item and have class members answer this question: What evidence of this belief can you see in the Freedom Rides?

5. Return to the K-W-L chart. As a class, complete the “L” column of the chart with what you have learned about the Freedom Rides. Then write a journal entry that reflects on the Freedom Riders' use of nonviolent protest. In your entry, summarize the most important things you have learned. Write your thoughts and feelings about what they did. As you do so, think about why the Freedom Riders chose to ride the buses, even though they knew that doing so was dangerous. Think about why they didn’t fight back when they were attacked.

6. Watch the video about the Freedom Riders again. Then, share with the class anything that struck you differently after seeing this for a second time. What, if anything, would you add to the report based on what you have learned?


Extension Activity

One Freedom Rider’s Story

Today we admire the Freedom Riders’ courage, and we can see the changes that they brought about. But when you read and watch reports about the Freedom Riders, it’s easy to forget that they were regular people. Many of them weren’t much older than you are. That’s why it’s good to listen to individuals talk about their experiences. How did they feel at the time? Why did they do what they did? The civil rights movement was made up of many individuals making difficult decisions. They took big risks and ultimately became heroes who changed the nation.

Congressman John Lewis was one of the Freedom Riders. In 1961, Lewis was in his 20s. An African American man, he was one of the people who boarded the bus in Washington, D.C. and was attacked by an angry mob in Alabama. Watch this 2001 interview with Lewis (or read the transcript), in which he talks about his experiences.

Write a journal entry about your thoughts and feelings about the video. Here are some questions to guide you:

  • What was segregation like for John Lewis? Can you imagine what it was like to live in 1961, the way he describes it?
  • Can you imagine what it was like to board the bus in Washington, D.C.? Why did Lewis do it?
  • Why was he willing to face so much danger, maybe even to die?
  • What can you learn from the Freedom Riders, like John Lewis and Diane Nash? How are their experiences relevant today? What questions do you still have?

Share your responses as a class.