“Who the hell is Diane Nash?”

That was Attorney General Robert Kennedy, barking a disparaging greeting over the phone to one of his deputies, John Seigenthaler.

It was a little over 50 years ago, May 16, 1961, to be exact. Two days earlier, on Mother’s Day, a group of Freedom Riders — young, mostly student activists challenging the South’s segregation laws by traveling on buses over state lines — had been set upon and beaten by a mob of white supremacists near Anniston, Ala. The bus they rode on, a Greyhound, was fire-bombed and destroyed. In Birmingham, the occupants of another Freedom Rider bus, a Trailways, had also been assaulted.

Nash, then a student at Fisk University and a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was about to dispatch a new group of Riders to take the place of those who had been attacked. They would travel from Nashville to Birmingham to New Orleans.

Kennedy wanted it stopped.

What he didn’t know, but soon discovered, was that Nash — who didn’t respond to requests for an interview — was one of the primary architects and coordinators of an activist campaign whose participants were one-quarter women. As Ray Arsenault, author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” points out, this was a high percentage for the day. Just 14 years earlier, organizers of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)’s Journey of Reconciliation — what would later be considered one of the very first Freedom Rides — had denied an active role in the journey to the women involved in its planning. Other civil rights groups, particularly those run by older activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), tended to be extremely patriarchal and not exactly progressive about recruiting women to their ranks. Nash, and the other women involved in the Freedom Rides, changed all that.

Paving the way

The most iconic images and beloved texts from the 20th-century American civil rights struggle tend to be of and by men. King. John Lewis. Ralph Abernathy. Malcolm X. But the story of institutional racism, segregation and overt or perceived threats of violence — and the efforts to combat them — is, in many ways, the story of women. And their efforts, directly and indirectly, paved the way for the modern feminist movement.

As Danielle McGuire explains in her powerful 2010 book, “At the Dark End of the Street,” Southern black women were under constant threat of sexual assault by white males; activists who investigated and publicized these crimes and tactics (including Rosa Parks, who would become famous for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus) in many ways jump-started the modern civil rights movement. As for white women, particularly those in the South, they were disempowered in a different but no less effective way: They were considered precious, fragile trophies of the patriarchy who had to be protected from black male sexuality at all costs.

All of this makes the contributions of women to the Freedom Rides that much more extraordinary. Not only were women taking part in the Rides in relatively large numbers, the very notion of womanhood — how it could be abused, threatened and fetishized — was the major subtext of the institutional racism and racialized violence that the Riders were fighting against. (Sex, wrote Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in 1944, “is the principle around which the whole structure of segregation . . . is organized.”)

The strong female component of the Freedom Rides was due in some part to necessity. Black women in particular, says renowned lawyer and former Rider Carol Silver (arrested June 7, 1961) were thrust into positions of power because the men in their communities were often killed, disparaged or put into positions from which they could not contribute.

Youth also played a large role, particularly the shift from old-school NAACP and SCLC-style leadership to the more egalitarian style of the students in SNCC and CORE, who were the driving forces behind the Rides. Nash, for example, was only 23 when she took on the leadership role that led to the continuation of the Rides. Says Rider Helen Singleton (arrested July 30, 1961), “We felt that the adults sort of weren’t getting the job done, and we had no fear in going out there and doing it.”

CORE’s New Orleans chapter, which trained some Riders and welcomed groups of others, was made up of a group of black, charismatic and largely female young leaders and Riders such as Jean Thompson (arrested May 24, 1961, at age 19). Thompson says that she and the other female CORE members had no intention of staying on the sidelines.

“We were definitely not going to be walking behind anybody,” she says. “Besides, we did the bulk of the work anyway.”

In addition to Nash, SNCC had Ella Baker, Ruby Doris Smith and legions of other (mostly black) female leaders. Catherine Burks Brooks, a member of Nashville’s Student Central Committee and a Rider arrested on May 28, 1961, says that everyone involved considered themselves to be leaders. (Or as she puts it, “We had no what you would call a leader.”)

SNCC activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (arrested June 8, 1961), had been denied a demographics scholarship because they were reserved for men, but she says that within the civil rights movement, women were given much more power and respect. “We could do pretty much anything,” she says. “Anything that we could do, knew how to do, we did.”

Exploiting assumptions

Inside the energetic and idealistic offices of CORE and SNCC, however, the real world was never far away. Although most of the physical punishments were borne by male Riders of both races, the specific and blind fury with which the sight of a black man and white woman were greeted meant that many white female activists had to do administrative and secretarial work rather than pounding the pavement and putting their colleagues’ lives at risk. The very presence of white women on the Rides was a provocation — and an abomination to the powerful white supremacists who ruled the southern states.

“One of the favorite canards of white supremacists was that the civil rights movement was just a way for black men to have sexual access to white women,” says Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer-winning “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.”

Female Freedom Riders, particularly white ones, also presented violent racists with an interesting dilemma, what Rider Claire O’Connor (arrested June 11, 1961) says was a sort of subconscious exploitation of sexist assumptions. “If you send women into a violent situation in which they are going to be nonviolent, there’s a discontinuity: Here are men who want to be violent and yet there are women being put into harm’s way,” she says. “Of course, many Southerners got over it and started treating women the same way as men, but it was a very useful tool because it forced people to rethink what they were doing.”

(In May 1961, while in Montgomery helping the U.S. government negotiate with Riders and local Alabama authorities, Seigenthaler helped rescue two white female Riders from a violent racist mob; he was beaten unconscious with a pipe.)

Women who took part in Rides and were arrested and sent to prison endured just as real but perhaps more subtle threats: Mulholland, then 19, remembers how matrons at Mississippi’s notoriously harsh Parchman prison greeted female Riders with humiliating, gloves-and-Lysol vaginal searches, and McGuire says documents from that era include testimonies from Riders who were manhandled and harassed by male guards.

“I don’t think we even know the full extent of what happened to women in terms of sexual violence they experienced, not because people haven’t said but because people haven’t asked,” McGuire says.

(In June 1963, SNCC’s Fannie Lou Hamer was stripped naked and viciously beaten by male prison guards in Mississippi after her arrest on a false charge. It took her a month to recover.)

Many impediments

There were other, less violent sorts of impediments as well, some of which conspired to keep women out of leadership positions. Traditional roles, including marriage and motherhood, sometimes intervened. After she married fellow activist James Bevel, Nash effectively took herself out of the action to raise the couple’s children. As for the continuing dominance of African American male leaders, many women were happy to cede the spotlight to black men, who had been refused respect and attention from society — denied their manhood, really — for so long.

“To see their men viewed and selected as leaders was a point of pride,” McGuire says.

Women were often underestimated by men both inside and outside the movement. As Margaret Leonard, a white Freedom Rider and Georgia native arrested June 21, 1961, puts it, “I was pretty used to being treated the way [white] women are treated in the South, which is with great courtesy but not enormous respect intellectually.”

Burks Brooks, who had been demonstrating and integrating restaurants for over a year in Nashville, remembers her boyfriend cautioning her against studying nonviolence training and going on a Ride. (“I tell everyone that I kicked my way in,” she says.)

Being easily overlooked had its upsides. Women, for example, could more easily fly under the radar, like Mulholland did when she would enter lunch counters or buy tickets for something she and other activists were planning to desegregate. (Mulholland was pictured on the front page of the May 28, 1963, Washington Post after she participated in a Jackson, Miss., sit-in.)

And Burks Brooks says that when Birmingham’s famously bigoted Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor drove her and six other Riders to the Alabama/Tennessee border in the early morning of May 18, 1961, she was able to engage him in friendly, sometimes saucy conversation. This wouldn’t have been possible if she were a black male, she says, and the positive rapport between Burks Brooks and Connor “calmed down everything around us in that car.”

Female activists — some of whom, like Burks Brooks, went on to apply their skills and knowledge to the burgeoning women’s movement — protested what they perceived to be professional and personal mistreatment at the hands of men. In 1964, two white SNCC members, Casey Hayden and Mary King, dropped a bomb with the publication of a provocative memo titled “Sex and Caste” — considered by some historians to be founding documents of the modern feminist movement — outlining their frustrations with women’s roles in civil rights. “It is a caste system which, at its worst, uses and exploits women,” they said.

And then there’s Stokely Carmichael, the onetime SNCC chairman who reportedly said that the “only position for women in SNCC is prone.” (For what it’s worth, Carmichael’s remark is said by former colleagues to have been made in jest.)

Irene Morgan

One little-known fact about the Freedom Rides: They originated with a woman.

Her name was Irene Morgan, and she was a 27-year-old wartime factory worker and mother of two traveling from Virginia to her home town of Baltimore on a July morning in 1944. Morgan, recovering from a miscarriage and unable to stand for any significant period of time, was sitting in the colored section of a Greyhound bus. At some point, she and her seatmate were asked to give up their seats to a white couple. She refused, and the bus driver stopped and summoned a sheriff’s deputy, who arrived with an arrest warrant in hand. Morgan tore it up and threw it out the window. She ended up kicking the deputy in the groin. (“He touched me,” she explained to a Post reporter in 2000.)

Morgan was charged with resisting arrest and breaking the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia and ended up taking her case to the Virginia Court of Appeals and then, in 1946, the Supreme Court. Assisted by lawyer Thurgood Marshall — who would become the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967 — Morgan argued that segregation within interstate travel violated the U.S. Constitution. She won and, in the process, introduced the idea of using the desegregation of interstate travel to protest institutional racism. She died in 2007.

“She knew her rights and she was feisty and she was a woman,” says Singleton, who was arrested 17 years to the month after Morgan took her ride. “And she doesn’t get enough play. So here’s your chance.”