Written By: Erin Livingston

The deaths of two of the nation’s most influential civil rights advocates came during a time marked by protests for police reform and racial justice, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. John Lewis, 80, and Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, 95, both died on July 17, 2020. At the time of his death. Lewis was serving his 34th year in the U.S. House of Representatives. Vivian was an important minister and leader. A story about some of Lewis and Vivian’s work in the 1960s, as well as unique LIFE photographs chronicling those events is below.

John Lewis (R) seated during a discussion with other freedom riders while in the basement of Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s Church, Montgomery, Alabama, May 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

A Mississippi National Guardsman standing on a bus next to freedom riders Reverend C.T. Vivian (C) and Paul Brooks (R), as they traveled from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Both John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were on the front lines of 1960’s racial justice reform. They were part of the original Freedom Riders and worked alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Vivian served as King’s field general and Lewis helped organized the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Several LIFE staffers photographed these early reform movements. Their images are extraordinary freeze-frames of the 1960’s fight for racial justice, capturing the passion and resilience of the activists and demonstrators.

Most LIFE photos taken of the 1961 Freedom Rides were never published. Many are from LIFE photographer Paul Schutzer who, four years earlier had photographed the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom March in Washington. He took photos of the riders while on the buses and in safe houses at stops on their routes.

LIFE photographer Joe Scherschel also captured scenes from the Freedom Rider’s trips, often photographing National Guard troops around the busses and the interactions the group had challenging “white only” sections within bus terminals. Scherschel and Schutzer’s photos are from the leg of the Freedom Rides from Montgomery, AL to Jackson, MI.

Reverend C.T. Vivian on a bus with the freedom riders traveling from Montgomery, AL to Jackson, Mississippi, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

John Lewis sitting with other Freedom Riders while in a Montgomery Baptist church basement, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

The Freedom Riders made a series of bus trips in 1961 to challenge segregated interstate travel through the South. The original group was made up of 13 activists (7 Black and 6 white) chosen by the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE). Their plan was to travel on Greyhound and Trailways busses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana.

While driving through Southern states, they were met with violence from mobs of Klansmen and segregationists. Once, stopped at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the group tried to enter a white waiting room together. John Lewis, then 21, was brutally attacked by a white police officer. Two of his fellow riders were also attacked and beaten. The Freedom Riders responded with non-violence and decided not to press charges.

Violence escalated as the group moved down to Alabama. The first bus was firebombed near Anniston. Klansmen ambushed the buses and nearly burned the riders alive. Similar violence occurred in Birmingham, where riders were dragged from the bus and beaten. At this point, the original Freedom Riders separated. Several flew to New Orleans to a rally, where they were scheduled to speak.

John Lewis continued on the rides along with several new group members from the Nashville Student Movement (NSM). C.T. Vivian was among the Nashville activists who replaced injured riders in Montgomery, Alabama. Vivian and Lewis were familiar with one another from having organized non-violent sit-ins and protests throughout Nashville.

The Greyhound bus station in downtown Montgomery became another site of white violence, so the Freedom Riders sought refuge in Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church. Abernathy was also a leader of the civil rights movement and a close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On Sunday, May 21, 1961, more than 1,000 people and civil rights activists gathered in the church to show support for the Freedom Riders.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy delivering a sermon to activists and demonstrators taking refuge in his church, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Rev. Ralph Abernathy (L) sitting with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Center) while taking refuge in a Baptist church in Montgomery, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

While white angry mobs gathered outside, Schutzer and Scherschel took photographs of the riders, demonstrators, and fellow-supporters. The images are powerful portraits of the relentless fatigue experienced by the Black community during these acts of violence.

Freedom riders sitting during a service in Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s Church, Montgomery, Alabama, May 1961. John Lewis is looking at the camera. From left to right: John Lewis, Carl Bush, Joseph Carter, William Mithcell, rest unidentified.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/ The LIFE Picture Collection (© Meredith Corporation)

Freedom riders sitting during a service in Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s Church, Montgomery, Alabama, May 1961. From left to right: John Lewis, Carl Bush, Joseph Carter, William Mithcell.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Women sleeping on a pew while gathered for the Freedom Riders in Montgomery Baptist church, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Woman holding a sleeping child while sitting in support of the Freedom Riders at Montgomery Baptist church, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Woman and her daughter resting in a pew while supporting the Freedom Riders at the Montgomery Baptist church, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Girl leaning over a pew in the Montgomery Baptist church, 1961

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Portrait of Freedom Riders, in the basement of Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s Church, Montgomery, Alabama, May 1961. Pictured are, front row, from left: Allen Cason Jr., Frederick Leonard, Etta Simpson, William B. Mitchell, Ruby D. Smith, John Lewis, and Charles Butler; second row: Joseph Carter, Lucretia Collins, Patricia Jenkins, Carl Bush, Catherine Burks, and Paul E. Brooks; standing: Clarence Wright, Bernard La Fayette Jr., Rudolph Graham, and William Harbour.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation.

The Freedom Riders met in the basement of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s church and got on the phone with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to call for help. Kennedy dispatched the National Guard, who used tear gas to disperse the violent crowd, and helped to escort the people inside the church to safety.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during a press conference to discuss the violence facing the Freedom Riders, 1961.

(Photo by Ed Clark/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Freedom Riders Bernard LaFayette Jr. (L) and Lucretia Collins (R) standing and discussing with other Freedom Riders.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Freedom Riders John Lewis (center with bandage), Clarence Wright, Bernard LaFayette Jr., and William Mitchell gathered in a circle, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

The images of Lewis show his bandaged head, from wounds he received when he was beaten upon the group’s arrival to the Montgomery Greyhound bus terminal.

Demonstrators and activists gathered outside of Montgomery First Baptist church, while being protected from white violence and escorted by National Guard troops, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

National Guard soldiers escorting supporters out of the Montgomery Baptist church, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Freedom Riders getting into a National Guard truck to be escorted to a safe house in Montgomery, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

After Kennedy’s troops successfully disbanded the mob, the Freedom Riders were loaded onto a National Guard truck and moved from the church to the safe house of Dr. Richard Harris. There, they continued organizing plans for the Freedom Rides, and rested before their next departure. Schutzer went with the Freedom Riders to the safe house and continued taking photographs. Below, a view of bandaged John Lewis speaking with other Freedom Riders.

A bandaged John Lewis (center left) discussing with Rev. Abernathy and other Freedom Riders at a Montgomery safe house, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

John Lewis sitting with other Freedom Riders at a Montgomery safe house, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

On May 24, 1961, after spending some time in the safe house, the Freedom Riders were escorted by the National Guard to the Montgomery Trailways bus station. The group, including John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, got on a bus that departed for Jackson, Mississippi. The troops Kennedy had sent in cordoned off streets and the station to protect the riders.

National guard soldiers patrolling around the Freedom Riders’ bus Montgomery, Alabama, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Freedom riders standing at a bus terminal ticket counter to get tickets for their 1961 ride from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi. Reverend C.T. Vivian (back center) facing Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. leaning against the counter.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

National Guard troops protecting the Montgomery Trailways bus station so the Freedom Riders can make a safe departure to Jackson, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

National Guard troops patrolling the Montgomery Grayhound bus terminal after violence broke out in response to the Freedom Riders’ demonstrations, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Army and U.S. Marshalls outside the Montgomery bus station during demonstration by Freedom Riders, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

The Freedom Riders’ bus pulling out of the bus terminal in Montgomery, Alabama, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

National Guard soldier standing in front of the Freedom Riders’ bus, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

The Rev. C.T. Vivian on a bus with the freedom riders traveling from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

National Guard members sitting in front of Reverend C.T. Vivian on a bus with the freedom riders traveling from Montgomery, AL to Jackson, Mississippi, 1961.

Photo by Paul Schutzer/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation.

Demonstrations of hate continued, including by the Lincoln Rockwell “Hate Bus.” Seen along the routes of the Freedom Riders, the bus was adorned with slogans supporting white supremacy. Groups of white men dressed as Nazis rode the bus to speaking engagements of civil rights activists and followed the Freedom Riders.

White men dressed as Nazis standing by a ‘Hate Bus’ to oppose the Freedom Riders, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

View of the ‘Hate Bus’ adorned with white supremacy slogans to oppose the Freedom Riders, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Upon arrival to the Trailways bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were arrested along with other Freedom Riders. The violence in Montgomery drew worldwide attention and forced the National government to intervene with civil rights hate crimes.

Rev. C.T. Vivian stepping into the Jackson Mississippi Police car after his arrest, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Jackson Mississippi Police officer standing by as the Freedom Riders step into custody after arrests, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Jackson Mississippi police waiting outside Trailways bus station to arrest the Freedom Riders on arrival, 1961.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Jackson, Mississippi police car waiting for the Freedom Riders outside the Trailways bus station.

(Photo by Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Freedom Riders Patricia Jenkins (Front left) and Ruby Smith (Center) being taken into custody by police officers during their arrest at the bus stop in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Freedom Riders Ruby Smith (L) and Patricia Jenkins (C) being ordered by a white police officer during their arrest at the bus stop in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961.

(Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

C.T. Vivian went on to join the executive staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as the Director of Affiliates. He coordinated local civil rights groups and advised King while organizing demonstrations in Alabama and Florida.

John Lewis also continued fiercely with his civil rights activism. Two years later, he went on to help plan the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which included King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. The march, which took place in August of 1963, was photographed by LIFE’s Francis Miller, Robert W. Kelly, and John Dominis.

Portrait of racial justice activists and organizers for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 1963. Bottom right to left: Roy Wilkens, Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph, Cleveland Robinson, Whitney Young. Top row right to left: Walter Reuther, Floyd McKissick, Reverend Eugene Carson Blake, John Lewis, Rabbi Joachim Prinz.

(Photo by Francis Miller/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Civil rights activists standing arm in arm for the March on Washington, August, 1963. From left to right: John Lewis, Matthew Ahman, Floyd McKissick, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, Cleveland Robin, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkens, Walter Reuther.

(Photo by Robert W. Kelley/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. accompanied by other activists for the March on Washington, August 1963. (John Lewis featured back left)

(Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

A huge crowd gathered on the Mall between the Lincoln and Washington Monument during the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963.

(Photo by Robert W. Kelley/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Buses full of demonstrators unloaded passengers on the Mall for the March on Washington, August 1963.

(Photo by John Dominis/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Crowds at the Freedom March dipping their feet into the water of the Reflection Pool, August 1963.

(Photo by John Dominis/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Crowds gathered for the Washington Freedom March, August 1963.

(Photo by John Dominis/ The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

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