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Freedom Riders in Tallahassee, 1961
The Freedom Rides of 1961 were a pivotal part of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Between May and December of 1961, more than 400 Black and white men and women headed south on buses, intent on integrating as many waiting rooms, restaurants and bus station restrooms as they could. One group of riders, composed of 18 clergymen, made its way to Florida’s capital city in June of that year.
The rides were conducted in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960 decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which ruled that segregation of interstate transportation and facilities was unconstitutional. Soon after the decision, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the Freedom Rides to test this federal ruling at the local level. CORE was a national civil rights organization founded in 1942, and its members advocated for change through sit-ins, picketing and other non-violent direct action. Members of CORE had helped lead and organize sit-ins of segregated lunch counters nationwide for more than a decade, including the February 1960 Tallahassee lunch counter sit-ins that resulted in several students getting arrested. Eight of the students opted to go to jail rather than pay their fines, which turned their sit-ins into a widely publicized “jail-in.”
Eighteen Interfaith Freedom Riders left New York for Tallahassee on June 13. The mixed race group was composed of 14 Protestant ministers and four rabbis. Their ride took them through Raleigh, NC, Sumter, SC and Savannah, GA, before going through Jacksonville and on to Tallahassee. They faced angry mobs and weren’t always able to integrate restaurants and facilities, but they avoided any violent encounters.
They arrived at the Greyhound Bus Station in Tallahassee on the morning of June 15 and were served lunch at the station’s restaurant. Members of the community came to show their support, but there were also counter-protestors. Local and state authorities had prepared for the arrival of the riders to avoid any major incidents. Although the restaurant overcharged them and had Black waiters serve the Black riders and white waiters serve the white riders, the clergymen believed they had successfully integrated the restaurant. The riders were set to fly back to New York that afternoon from the Tallahassee Municipal Airport.
Rabbi Martin Freedman, Reverend George Leake and Reverend Ralph Lord Roy (left to right) integrating the Greyhound Bus Station restaurant, June 15, 1961.
As they waited for their flight, they decided to dine at the airport restaurant to see if they would be served. But when they got there, they learned that the restaurant had been closed for maintenance to avoid serving them. Ten of the 18 riders chose to miss their flight and wait for the restaurant to open. The group, later known as the Tallahassee Ten, included Robert McAfee Brown of New York, NY; John W. Collier Jr. of Newark, NJ; Israel Dresner of Springfield, NJ; Martin Freedman of Patterson, NJ; Arthur L. Hardge of New Britain, CT; Wayne C. Hartmire Jr. of New York, NY; Petty D. McKinney of Springfield, MA; Ralph Lord Roy of New York, NY; Robert John Stone of New York, NY; and Austin McRaven Warner of New York, NY. The riders waited all day at the airport, and then spent the night at a local church. They returned to the airport restaurant the next morning to continue waiting. The restaurant was still closed, and eventually they were told to leave. The 10 protestors refused and were arrested for unlawful assembly. Three other Florida civil rights activists — Priscilla Stephens, John Jefferson Poland Jr. and Charles Hunter — were also arrested.
Interfaith Freedom Riders attempting to dine at the Savarin Restaurant at the Tallahassee Municipal Airport, June 15, 1961.
The Tallahassee Ten were found guilty of unlawful assembly one week later. They received the maximum sentence, which required them to each pay a $500 fine or spend 60 days in jail. They decided to appeal the charges, posted bond and flew home. After three years of legal appeals, they returned to Tallahassee in 1964 to serve their jail sentence. One rider, Ralph Lloyd Roy, paid the fine and did not return. Eight of the clergymen began their sentence at the Leon County Jail on August 3, and one — Wayne C. Hartmire Jr. — arrived the following day.
Though the riders intended to serve the entirety of their sentence to demonstrate their commitment to the movement, they were freed from jail after only four days. During a press conference following their release, the riders issued a statement saying they “interpreted their release as a victory for the cause of civil rights and an admission by the city that the original case was without foundation” (Tallahassee Democrat, August 7, 1964). Before flying home, the Tallahassee Ten were finally allowed to dine together in the airport restaurant they had tried to integrate three years prior.
The released clergymen and their supporters dining at the airport restaurant before flying home, August 7, 1964.
Interfaith Freedom Riders boarding a plane home after their release from the Leon County Jail, August 7, 1964.
The State Archives has made many resources pertaining to the civil rights movement in Florida available on Florida Memory, including additional photographs of the Tallahassee Ten. The Stephens Sisters Jail-In Papers, 1960 documents the experiences of Patricia and Priscilla Stephens and the six other students who were jailed after holding a sit-in at a Tallahassee lunch counter. Students can learn more about the ten Freedom Riders and the civil rights movement in Florida Memory’s Online Classroom.