The Freedom Riders left Washington on May 4, 1961, and planned to make New Orleans by May 17. They expected resistance. But they did not fully anticipate the sheer scale of the violence that would greet them upon their arrival in the Deep South: In Anniston, Ala., a gang of Klansmen set upon a Greyhound bus, slashing the tires and tossing gasoline through the open windows in an unsuccessful attempt to burn the Freedom Riders alive. In Birmingham, the Klan and the local police commissioner, Bull Connor, reached an accord whereby the Klan received 15 minutes to freely assault the Freedom Riders, without any police intervention. And in the capital city of Montgomery, the Freedom Riders walked through the doors of the bus depot and into the arms of a seething mob.
Dozens were injured, including several Freedom Riders, a few journalists, and John Seigenthaler, a Justice Department official dispatched, belatedly, to Alabama by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. An image of a battered Freedom Rider named Jim Zwerg, clad in a suit and tie, bleeding freely, became an iconic symbol of the Civil Rights Era. As did the Freedom Riders themselves: At a time when the federal government would have preferred to ignore the racial strife building in towns such as Montgomery, a small group of dedicated young people risked bodily harm to bring that conflict front and center.