The Freedom Riders were inspired by the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, led by civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and George Houser. Like the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Journey of Reconciliation was intended to test an earlier Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel. Rustin and a few of the other riders, chiefly members of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were arrested and sentenced to serve on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating local Jim Crow laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation.
The first Freedom Ride began on May 5, 1961. Led by CORE Director James Farmer, 13 riders (seven black, six white) left Washington, D.C., on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending with a rally in New Orleans, Louisiana. Most of the Riders were from CORE, and two were from SNCC. Many were in their 40s and 50s.
The Freedom Riders tactics for their journey were to have at least one interracial pair sitting in adjoining seats and at least one black Rider sitting up front (seats usually reserved for white customers only), while the rest would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would abide by the South's segregation ideals in order to avoid arrest and to contact CORE and arrange bail for those who were arrested.
Only minor trouble was encountered in Virginia and North Carolina, but John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and some of the Riders were arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Winnsboro, South Carolina.