Honoring Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, and its Soundtrack

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Honoring Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, and its Soundtrack

The Freedom Riders


By Matt Silver

On this MLK Day, we honor not just Dr. King’s words and actions but those of the broader struggle for civil rights. And we do so, in our small part, by pairing the stories of that era with the music they inspired.

Read a bit about the Freedom Riders below, and pair with the following tunes, handpicked by our on-air hosts for the occasion:

Art Blakey’s “The Freedom Rider”

Chico Hamilton’s “Freedom Traveler”

Kenny Burrell’s “Freedom”

Dannie Richmond’s “Freedom Ride” (begins @ 8:30)


From left: Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Martin Luther King, and John Lewis, student leader of the Freedom Riders and future U.S. congressman from Georgia. May 23, 1961. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection.


Spring of 1961. It was a time during which the Civil Rights movement as we understand it today was just beginning to generate momentum. Two major Supreme Court rulings had come down in the preceding 15 years finding enforced segregation in places of public accommodation to be unconstitutional. 

In 1960’s Boynton v. Virginia, the high court found segregated bathrooms, waiting rooms, and lunch counters to be unconstitutional. Fourteen years earlier, in Morgan v. Virginia (1946), the Supreme Court held that implementing and enforcing segregation on interstate buses and trains was unconstitutional. 

The Freedom Riders were a group of 13 men and women, white and black, who, beginning in the spring of 1961, rode buses across the segregated South to see how much weight these Supreme Court rulings held in states where Jim Crow was still the segregationist lawmaker-in-chief.

They quickly found out: not much.

Especially in places like Rock Hill, South Carolina, where John Lewis — who’d go on to march with Martin Luther King before serving Georgia in Congress for over 30 years — was beaten for using a whites-only restroom. And in Anniston, Alabama, where the local KKK firebombed a bus and then beat the passengers as they attempted to flee the burning wreckage. 

Stops in Montgomery, Birmingham, and parts of Mississippi weren’t much more pleasant. Riders faced assaults with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. Lewis, for his troubles, was jailed several times, once for a month at the infamous Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi.

The inaugural class of Freedom Riders—those 13 men and women, white and black, of all different professions, from across the country— got off the road soon after, but several new classes followed over the next several months. In all, 436 riders took more than 60 Freedom Rides.

And for the unspeakable hardships they willingly endured, they got results.

On May 29, 1961, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in interstate bus travel. RFK’s petition was successful. The ICC’s order took effect on Nov. 1st, 1961 and led to the removal of Jim Crow signs from stations, waiting rooms, water fountains and restrooms in bus terminals.

Three years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public spaces across the United States.

The music we play today during the 9 a.m. hour — by Oliver Nelson, by Art Blakey, by Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, and Dannie Richmond — honors the Freedom Riders who embodied defiance with dignity.

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