On Mothers' Day, May 14, 1961, at the Anniston depot, an unknown assailant slashed the front tires of the Riders' bus, and a group of white reactionaries in forty cars followed the Greyhound as it limped out of town. When the bus pulled onto the shoulder of the highway, the mob tossed a firebomb into the bus through a shattered window. Black smoke billowed as the passengers—twelve men and women, white and black—poured out onto the side of the highway. As the Greyhound burned, a second group of Riders arrived in Birmingham to a crowd of angry whites at the Trailways bus station. Thirty men broke from the crowd, beating the riders and several bystanders, including members of the press from the Birmingham Post-Herald, the Birmingham News, and CBS television. The Birmingham News immediately placed blame for the violence on the police, led by Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, for failing to respond quickly to the rioting, as well as the activists, who tried "to create racial trouble to make headlines."In fact, Connor and Governor John Patterson had been informed of the Freedom Riders' planned arrival and deliberately kept police from the station.
In the wake of the events in Birmingham and Anniston, veteran activist John Lewis and an interracial group of students from Nashville traveled to Alabama to continue the Freedom Rides; as one student explained, "The impression would have been that whenever a movement starts, all [you have to do] is attack with massive violence and the blacks [will] stop." Lewis's group was accompanied by John Siegenthaler, a personal representative of Robert Kennedy sent to ensure the students' safety. Governor Patterson promised to "fill the jails" with anyone "[trying] to stir up trouble," but on Friday, May 19, Patterson agreed to meet with Siegenthaler, telling him that the state would protect the riders. Armed with a promise of safety, twenty Freedom Riders left Birmingham for Montgomery. State patrolmen in cars and planes escorted the bus down Highway 31, skirting a rudimentary roadblock at Clanton, but as the bus approached Montgomery, the officers disappeared.
When Lewis's bus reached the terminal, it was again met with violence. Lewis recalled "shouting and screaming, men swinging fists and weapons, women swinging heavy purses, little children clawing with their fingernails at the faces of anyone they could reach." Lewis was knocked unconscious, and John Siegenthaler, arriving late to the scene, was hit in the head with a pipe. By the time state troopers managed to disperse the mob, news reporters had begun to send images of the violence around the world.
Furious at Patterson's duplicity, the Kennedys sent federal marshals to Montgomery to keep the peace. Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders continued to Mississippi, yet the state of Alabama remained as recalcitrant as ever. On May 24 the Alabama state legislature adopted an amendment praising Patterson's actions during the crisis and blasting the Freedom Riders and federal troops for creating "conditions of unrest, violence and hatred." The protests convinced state leaders of the need for greater vigilance against the actions of such "outside agitators," even as civil rights activists were encouraged by the bravery of the Freedom Riders. The mood was best captured by Martin Luther King Jr. who arrived in Montgomery on Sunday, May 21, to address the wounded activists: "Alabama will have to face the fact that we are determined to be free … we've come too far to turn back."
With those words, the eyes of the nation turned on Alabama, launching a summer of festering debates over the limits of rights and rabblerousing.