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GSA Marks Anniversary of Freedom Rides at Montgomery Bus Terminal

By Shea Brannen
Southeast Sunbelt Region
General Services Administration

ATLANTA, June 3, 2011 – Fifty years after the historic Freedom Rides in the South, the former Montgomery, Ala., bus terminal owned by GSA has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On May 20, 1961, a group of black and white students got off at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery. Their nonviolent response to the waiting and violent mob precipitated a chain of events that led to the cessation of racial segregation in interstate travel.

The Alabama Historical Commission leases the terminal from GSA and has restored the building, creating a museum about the Freedom Rides. The museum’s grand opening was May 19-21, with U.S. Rep. John Lewis and other Freedom Riders attending and speaking. 

The culmination of years of coordination and negotiation between GSA and the Alabama Historical Commission, the bus station was purchased and documented by GSA before the construction of a new U.S. courthouse annex adjacent to the Frank M. Johnson U.S. Courthouse, and before some of the additions to the bus station were demolished. 

A Public Broadcasting Service crew visited the bus station to retrace the riders’ route, and sponsored a re-enactment of the rides where the public vied for seats “on the bus”. Some Freedom Riders spoke after the event, including Jim Zwerg, a white Freedom Rider who was a sociology major at Beloit College and participated in an exchange program with Fiske University, a predominantly black school in Nashville.

Also commemorating the anniversary, PBS’ "American Experience" premiered "Freedom Riders," a film about 436 Americans who risked their lives by deliberately violating Jim Crow laws in the Deep South in the summer of 1961.

Moreover, the grand opening of the newly dedicated library for Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., the namesake of the adjacent federal building and courthouse and the newer U.S. courthouse, was also celebrated May 20. The library is managed by the U.S. District Courts and is in the courthouse. 

Johnson is known for related historic civil rights rulings, including the 1956 ruling that segregated seating on Montgomery's buses was unconstitutional, and in favor of legality of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march that set the stage for the Voting Rights Act. Because of the controversy surrounding his cases and intense opposition to change – a cross was burned on his front lawn in December 1956 – federal marshals provided him round-the-clock protection for almost 15 years, following the Supreme Court's final order to desegregate the buses in Montgomery. 

Learn more about the Freedom Rides Museum

Watch "Freedom Riders"

Learn more about the Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse

View photos from the event