John Lewis in Birmingham

Birmingham City Jail docket showing the arrests of John Lewis and other Freedom Riders, May 17, 1961

By Jim Baggett | Archives Department, Central Library

John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights icon whom the nation is mourning this week, was arrested more than 40 times. Such is the life of an activist.

One of those arrests happened in Birmingham.

On May 17, 1961, three days after the first group of Freedom Riders were attacked and beaten at the Birmingham bus station, Lewis and eight other students arrived in Birmingham as the second wave of the Freedom Rides. The Birmingham police took the students into “protective custody” and put them in the jail. The students went on a hunger strike and sang spirituals to keep their morale up (and to irritate the jail guards). Apparently unsure of what to do with the students, Birmingham’s notorious police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, and five police officers loaded them into two cars and personally drove them back to Tennessee. Lewis sat in the back seat of Connor’s car, listening as fellow Freedom Rider Catherine Burks sat up front beside Connor, fearlessly bantering with the old segregationist. When they reached the Tennessee state line about 4:00 a.m., Connor left the Riders and their luggage by the side of the road.

Hitching rides with fellow activists, the Freedom Riders were back in Birmingham by lunchtime, then traveled to Montgomery and on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested and spent more than a month in jail.

The record of John Lewis’ Birmingham arrest, and the arrests of his fellow Freedom Riders, is preserved in the Birmingham Public Library Archives, along with approximately one million additional documents recording the history of Alabama’s African American freedom struggle.