American Portraits

We are not Afraid and We Shall Overcome: The Freedom Rides and Courage

In this lesson, students will consider the courage of Freedom Riders in the early days of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and how they themselves can act courageously in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.


On a warm spring day, May 4, 1961, many school groups and tourists flooded Washington, D.C. to see the nation’s monuments. One bus, however, was carrying a group of thirteen black and white civil rights activists of various ages who planned to ride through segregated states on their way to New Orleans. The executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), James Farmer, took his seat with the others. They tried to smile, but all of the riders knew that they would face violence and possibly death. However, each one possessed a remarkable amount of courage and were determined to fight for equality….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can your courageous actions help to advance freedom in your life and the lives of others?

Virtue Defined

Courage is the capacity to overcome fear in order to do good.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will consider the courage of Freedom Riders in the early days of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and how they themselves can act courageously in their own lives.


  • Students will evaluate Freedom Riders’ courage during the integration of interstate bus travel.
  • Students will analyze how courageous acts can promote equality.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of courage to their own lives.


After World War II, the civil rights movement sought equal rights and integration for African Americans through a combination of federal action and local activism. One specific area that they attempted to change was the segregation of travel on interstate buses. In 1946, the Supreme Court stated that the segregated seating on interstate buses was unconstitutional, but the ruling was largely ignored in southern states.

In 1960, the Supreme Court followed up on its earlier decision and ordered the integration of interstate buses and terminals. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which had been formed in 1942, appointed a new national director, James Farmer. Supported by the recent Supreme Court decision, Farmer decided to have an interracial group ride the buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to commemorate the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education case.

They sent letters to President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the president of the Greyhound Corporation announcing their intentions to make the ride. CORE decided to move forward after hearing no response.


  • Integration
  • Segregation
  • Terminals
  • Interstate
  • Epithets
  • Congress of Racial Equality
  • Brown v. Board of Education
  • Indomitable
  • Valiant

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • How was the Freedom Riders’ identity different from that of passengers on other buses?
  • What was the Freedom Riders’ purpose in riding into segregated areas of the country, where they knew they would face violent opposition? Why would they subject themselves to discrimination and brutal attacks just to ride a bus?
  • Why did Freedom Riders continue to venture into segregated cities after the first few rides resulted in grave injuries to those on the buses?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
  • Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York: Penguin, 2013.

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