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The most visible action of CORE in the movement was the Freedom Rides, designed to test the federal law prohibiting discrimination on interstate public transportation. Small interracial groups boarded Greyhound and Trailway buses, beginning in Washington, D.C. They found that the "colored" and "white" signs had been removed in the bus stations of Virginia and they encountered no problems until they crossed into Alabama.
In Anniston, Alabama, their bus was fire bombed and the riders were beaten with sticks and had rocks thrown at them as they tried to get off. One sixty-year-old man went into cardiac arrest. When the riders were taken to the hospital, no one would treat them. The hospital demanded that they leave, but this seemed impossible because an angry crowd surrounded the building. Fortunately for the riders, a caravan of fifteen cars, led by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, showed up to rescue them.
As Hank Thomas, one of the Freedom Riders recalled "everyone one of those cars had a shotgun in it. And Fred Shuttlesworth had got on the radio and said – you know Fred, he's very dramatic – 'I'm going to get my people… I'm a non-violent man, but I'm going to get my people!"
The issue of armed self-defense highlighted one of the many differences in approach among those committed to non-violence. CORE and SCLC members were always unarmed during demonstrations and actions. Some like King and Lawson were committed to principles of non-violence as a way of life. Others like Shuttlesworth were committed to non-violence as a tactic, but reserved the right of self-defense. For hundreds of participants in demonstrations, non-violence was a useful and pragmatic tactic. Ernest Green pointed out the logic of non-violence in his situation as one of nine black high school students daily surrounded by hundreds of potentially hostile Whites – police and parents, as well as the other students at Little Rock's Central High. The white South had always held the upper hand in terms of guns and arms. To respond in kind would have been disastrous. Furthermore, the unarmed presence of demonstrators revealed the violence inherent in maintaining white supremacy. When dogs and fire hoses were turned on praying people in Birmingham, it was clear to even casual observers who the aggressors were. Or as King wrote in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," "we who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive."
from Chapter 11 "The Civil Rights Movement: Participatory Democracy and Nonviolence in Action" in the book The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History