Written By: Ben Cosgrove

It’s mid-spring, 1961. In the kitchen of a safe house in Montgomery, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. is tense. In the house with the 32-year-old civil rights leader are 17 students—fresh-faced college kids who, moved by King’s message of racial equality, are putting their lives at risk. These are the groundbreaking practitioners of nonviolent civil disobedience known as the Freedom Riders, and over the past two harrowing weeks, as they’ve traveled across the state on integrated buses, their numbers have diminished at every stop in the face of arrests, mob beatings, and even fire-bombings.

Right there along with the riders, capturing the mood of the movement as it swung between exhilarated and exhausted, thrilled and terrified, was 26-year-old LIFE photographer Paul Schutzer. He had covered the landmark Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom march and rally in Washington, D.C., four years earlier and had witnessed firsthand the courage and determination Dr. King inspired in his followers. Filed along with Schutzer’s Pilgrimage photos in LIFE’s archives are notes from the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Henry Suydam Jr., citing the energy and excitement that swirled around King: “At the end of the ceremonies, a couple of hundred people pressed feverishly on Reverend King seeking pictures, autographs, handshakes, or just a close look. The jam got so heavy that he had to be escorted to safety by police.”

Here, decades after the Freedom Riders put their lives on the line for dignity and equal rights, LIFE.com presents photos from that heady era in U.S. history, most of which never ran in LIFE magazine. Here are pictures, from the rides and the safe houses, charting a pivotal moment in the journey of Dr. King himself and in the nation-changing movement he led, from the monuments of Washington to the highways, rural roads, churches and bus depots of the Jim Crow American South.

Julia Aaron and David Dennis, along with 25 other freedom riders and several members of the National Guard, travel from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss.

Julia Aaron and David Dennis, along with 25 other freedom riders and several members of the National Guard, travelled from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Just shy of the Mississippi-Alabama border, members of the Alabama National Guard surround a bus carrying freedom riders.

Just shy of the Mississippi-Alabama border, members of the Alabama National Guard surrounded a bus carrying freedom riders.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A freedom rider and member of the National Guard on a bus in the Deep South.

A freedom rider and member of the National Guard on a bus in the Deep South.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The view from a bus window on a freedom ride.

The view from a bus window on a freedom ride.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders peer from bus windows during a stop.

Freedom riders peered from bus windows during a stop.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A congregation in Alabama prays for the safety of freedom riders.

A congregation in Alabama prayed for the safety of freedom riders.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders sing at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., as a white mob gathers outside.

Freedom riders sang at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., as a white mob gathered outside.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A weary Martin Luther King Jr. sits at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., as a white mob surrounds the building.

A weary Martin Luther King Jr. sat at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., as a white mob surrounded the building.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders try to rest at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., as a white mob gathers outside.

Freedom riders tried to rest at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., as a white mob gathered outside.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

After U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy intervened, forcing Alabama Governor John Patterson to declare martial law and send in the National Guard, the white mob outside First Baptist Church finally broke up. Before dawn on May 22, 1961, the Guard moved the congregation out.

After U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy intervened, forcing Alabama Governor John Patterson to declare martial law and send in the National Guard, the white mob outside First Baptist Church finally broke up. Before dawn on May 22, 1961, the Guard moved the congregation out.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders rescued from First Baptist Church relax at a safe house in Montgomery, Ala.

Freedom riders rescued from First Baptist Church relaxed at a safe house in Montgomery, Ala.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders rescued from First Baptist Church (including John Lewis, with bandaged head) relax at a safe house in Montgomery, Ala.

Freedom riders rescued from First Baptist Church (including future U.S. Rep. John Lewis, with bandaged head) relaxed at a safe house in Montgomery, Ala.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders, along with Martin Luther King Jr., relax at a safe house in Montgomery, Ala.

Freedom riders, along with Martin Luther King Jr., relaxed at a safe house in Montgomery, Ala.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

At a safe house in Montgomery, Ala., freedom riders relax after being rescued from First Baptist Church.

At a safe house in Montgomery, Ala., freedom riders relaxed after being rescued from First Baptist Church.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

At a safe house in Montgomery, Ala., freedom riders pray after being rescued from First Baptist Church.

At a safe house in Montgomery, Ala., freedom riders prayed after being rescued from First Baptist Church.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders wait to board a bus to Jackson, Miss.

Freedom riders waited to board a bus to Jackson, Miss.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. encourages freedom riders as they board a bus for Jackson, Miss.

Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged freedom riders as they boarded a bus for Jackson, Miss.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders and members of the National Guard on a bus in the Deep South.

Freedom riders and members of the National Guard on a bus in the Deep South.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders on a bus in the Deep South.

Freedom riders on a bus in the Deep South.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Freedom riders on a bus in the Deep South.

Freedom riders on a bus in the Deep South.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

White segregationists hurl stones at a bus carrying freedom riders in Mississippi.

White segregationists hurled stones at a bus carrying freedom riders in Mississippi.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A young freedom rider on a bus in the Deep South.

A young freedom rider on a bus in the Deep South.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

More Like This

history

Celebrate the 1970s

Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders walk in Medgar Evers' funeral procession, Jackson, Miss.. history

Medgar Evers’ Funeral, June, 1963

history

Mary: Blessed Art Thou Among Women

history

A Story of America in 100 Photographs

history

The Influenza Outbreak of 1957

history

Michelle Obama: Her Inspiring Story