On the afternoon of July 10, 1961, a well-dressed young woman boarded a bus in St. Louis that was headed south to the state of Arkansas. She was not making the trip for pleasure; in fact it was risky. She was almost certain to be arrested, or even worse, attacked.
The newspapers would later describe her as “Bliss Ann Malone, 23, Negro, sixth grade teacher, St. Louis.” Malone had grown up in racially segregated St. Louis and was a recent graduate of the Harris Teachers College. In college she’d been active in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a historically black sorority whose members were dedicated to doing public service.
The temperature had dropped into the seventies by the time the bus pulled into Little Rock that evening, but the mood of the crowd of several hundred white people milling around outside the Trailways station was far from cool. Some carried full soda bottles — potential projectiles capable of doing serious bodily harm.
Once the other passengers were off the bus, Malone debarked with her fellow travelers: Benjamin Cox, Annie Lumpkin, John Raines and Janet Reinitz. Cox, an African-American man born in Tennessee, was the minister of a church in North Carolina. The youngest member of the group, 18-year-old Lumpkin, also African-American, was a student from St. Louis. Raines, a white man, was a pastor and Fulbright Scholar from Long Island. Reinitz, also white, was an artist from New York City. They were CORE volunteers — members of a movement called Freedom Rides that was working to end segregated bus and train stations in the South by sending their members to peacefully occupy them.
The Freedom Riders were unsure what kind of the reception they’d get in Little Rock. Just two months earlier a bus on which a different group of Freedom Riders were traveling was bombed and a white mob attacked a bystander in Birmingham, Alabama. In South Carolina several Freedom Riders were beaten when they tried to enter a white waiting room.
The Little Rock police seemed to have things under control, but the tension in the air was palpable.
Inside the station there were two waiting rooms. One was designated for white and African-American passengers. However there was also a separate waiting room for “white intrastate” passengers only. While it might have satisfied the letter of the law, it violated the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision the previous year in Boynton v. Virginia, which prohibited segregation in interstate travel facilities and bus transportation.
The police managed to keep most of the crowd out of the station. Malone, Reinitz, Cox and Raines went in, but Lumpkin stayed outside. The two women headed to the “whites only” waiting room and sat down. Cox made a phone call to CORE’s St. Louis office. Then he held a press conference.
Police chief Bob Glasscock arrived and asked the Riders to leave the bus terminal. They refused and were arrested for a breach of the peace. As the crowd cheered its approval, the Freedom Riders were taken to the Little Rock City Jail, where they were booked and their mugshots were made. Lumpkin, who was not arrested, later returned to St. Louis.
At a court hearing the next day, Judge Quinn Glover found the four Freedom Riders guilty and handed each a $500 fine and a six-month prison sentence. He said that the sentence would be suspended if they agreed to leave town and return home. They refused the deal and were sent back to jail. The following day Judge Glover was forced to admit that the law didn’t allow him to compel the Freedom Riders to go home. The Riders agreed to leave the state in exchange for having their fines and sentences revoked.
They boarded a bus in the early hours of the morning in Friday, July 14th and continued their journey south to Louisiana.
A week after the events in Arkansas, The Shreveport Journal published a letter to the editor. The author, C.E. Thompson, had spiteful words for the Freedom Riders. When it came to Malone, he wrote that she “could serve her profession better in her own vicinity by devoting her talent to the advancement of the morals and social standards of her own race. Anyone who would waste so great an opportunity deserves no more than ‘crumbs from the Master’s table.’”
Almost 100 years had passed since the Civil War ended, but the racists were still invoking the memory of slavery in support of their arguments in favor of segregation and white supremacy.
More Freedom Riders traveled to the South on buses that year. Thanks to their courage, the federal government was forced to uphold the Boynton ruling. Segregated bus stations came to an end in Little Rock and many other cities in November.
Now, 59 years since the Freedom Riders were jailed in Little Rock, the movement to end racism in America has expanded and continues as Black Lives Matter.