Students, both college and high school, played a major role in desegregating the south. On February 1, 1960 four African American college students initiated a nonviolent protest at the segregated lunch counter in a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Over the course of several months, hundreds of students participated in what would become known as "sit-in" demonstrations that rapidly spread to other cities.
Following the success of the sit-in movements, student protestors focused their attention on addressing Jim Crow transportation laws. In the late 1940s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had organized a series of nonviolent protests to challenge racial segregation on the interstate bus routes. These protests, called "the journeys of reconciliation," had brought teams of whites and blacks to challenge segregation laws together by sitting in white sections of buses. Nearly 15 years later, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on bus and railroad transportation was unconstitutional, reversing the 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson decision that created the notion of "separate but equal," CORE revived this form of nonviolent protest under the new name of "Freedom Rides" to test the nation's intention of enforcing the new legislation. Starting on May 4, 1961, groups of young black and white protestors from CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) traveled from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, and then to cities and towns in the Deep South.
Whites deliberately sat with blacks in white-only waiting rooms and restaurants to challenge local segregation codes. Freedom Riders were frequently harassed, arrested, and assaulted. Despite assurance from the Alabama Governor John Patterson that the Freedom Riders would be protected when they rode into Birmingham, neither police nor state highway patrolmen were present in the bus terminal. Mobs of whites attacked them, focusing their anger on Jim Zwerg, a white freedom Rider who was brutally beaten. John Lewis, a seminary student who later became head of SNCC and two decades later a congressman for Georgia, was knocked to the ground and beaten unconscious.
In response to the violence carried out against Freedom Riders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Montgomery to show his support. During his address at the First Baptist Church, a white mob surrounded the building. The governor of Alabama declared a state of martial law. At 4 a.m. the troops arrived at the church and escorted the parishioners safely to their homes. As state police and the National Guard were called into Montgomery, the crowds of white vigilantes disappeared. The morning after the mob violence at the Montgomery church, U.S. Attorney Robert Kennedy urged Freedom Riders to declare a "cooling-off period." But after CORE leader James Farmer and other activists refused, Kennedy approached Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland to guarantee the safety of Freedom Riders traveling through Mississippi.
The ordeals of Freedom Riders were widely publicized throughout the world and generated significant support for the cause of racial desegregation in the South. During the first two years of his administration, President Kennedy attempted to placate white southern Democrats by not aggressively supporting a civil rights agenda. However, the spectacle of young student protesters being beaten viciously by white mobs convinced Attorney General Robert Kennedy that greater action on behalf of desegregation activists was needed. As a result of his urging, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally banned racial segregation on interstate bus transportation on September 22, 1961.