What is the significance of the Freedom Rides to the Civil Rights Movement?
There were two major ways in which the freedom rides were significant to the movement. First, they put a great deal of pressure on the federal government to do something. The levels of violence perpetrated by those who opposed the rides was appalling. Whites in the North saw this violence and it turned them against the segregationists in the South. This helped put pressure on the federal government to act. Second, the rides helped to inspire African Americans in the South. The bravery of the riders in the face of the violence was important in persuading more African Americans to get involved.
Short Answer: The Freedom Rides have great significance to the Civil Rights Movement in the following ways: they provided a real-life example that inspired many to take immediate action for more civil rights, they inspired many back people in the rural South to act against their infringements, they forced federal law enforcement to cooperate with local law enforcement in order to safeguard civil rights, and they helped for the base for a bigger civil rights moment (eventually leading to massive voter registration, freedom school, etc.).
Long Answer: It would be unfair to answer this question without truly delving into exactly what the Freedom Rides are. Interestingly enough, it is the Freedom Riders who are spoken of more than the Freedom Rides themselves, and that is because it took such courage to lead this movement. Basically, the Freedom Rides were bus routes taken in 1961 and beyond by the Freedom Riders who rode commercial buses from state to state through the deeply segregated South. The first ride in 1961 went from Washington DC, through every state in the deep South (where transportation was still locally segregated despite federal law), and ending in New Orleans, Louisiana. You see, federal law had already ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, but the Southern States weren't cooperating. In short, the South ignored the federal government.
What was the Freedom Ride plan? The plan was for the Freedom Riders to ride the commercial buses in a large group with at least one pair (one black and one white) in seats next to each other, one black Rider up front, the rest of the Riders scattered through the rest of the bus, and one Rider abiding exactly by the rules of segregation so that that Rider could alert CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in order to provide bail and/or services to anyone detained.
What was the result? Social chaos, racism, and graphic violence. The Freedom Rides began. Although they traversed the first two states without much incident, the news spread, and angry mobs began meeting the buses at the stations. It wasn't long before the Klu Klux Klan became involved. Their members would arrive and beat the Riders with pipes and bats, bomb the buses, break windows, shoot bullets from the side of the road, slash tires, etc. After a while, there was a mob ready to beat the Riders at every single station. The local law enforcement would purposely give the mob a good fifteen minutes of time before they began interfering. When the Riders were injured, most local, southern Christian hospitals would not treat the wounded. Even people gathered in their churches to simply support the Freedom Rides were met by the same angry, violent mobs.
It was at this point that CORE convinced the (reluctant) federal government to get involved. The first thing that happened was the Kennedy administration forced Greyhound buses to provide drivers. They also promised to protect the buses, but only between cities. When the violence escalated, the National Guard became involved. At this point, as local law enforcement jailed all the Riders, the tactic of the Freedom Rides changed to "Let's see what happens once we fill their jails." Now Attorney General Robert Kennedy got involved specifically asking the Freedom Rides to stop because the Riders were "embarrassing the nation ... at the height of the Cold War" and saying that the Department of Justice shouldn't be involved. This angered more civil rights officials and the outrage both here and around the world released great pressure in US politics. First, Kennedy sent a "petition" to the Interstate Commerce Commission "asking" it to desegregate the buses. When the ICC was bland in its response, a huge protest was planned called the "Washington Project," the ICC caved and issued direct orders: any person of any color could sit where he/she wanted and eat where he/she wanted in the terminals, signs of "white" and "colored" were taken away from bus terminals, drinking fountains were desegregated, bathrooms were desegregated, waiting rooms were combined, lunch counters.
Thus, the actual answer to the question of the significance of the Freedom Rides to the Civil Rights Movement (to reiterate the short answer above) is that the demand for direct action for Civil Rights became widespread throughout the country as a result, southern blacks were inspired to take up for their rights, the federal government was forced to enforce its laws in local communities, and the voter registration issue was eventually solved.
And in conclusion, I have to say that, by far, this was the most interesting topic that I have ever delved into via eNotes. What was the most upsetting was that, growing up in southern Florida in the 1970s and 1980s, I was never taught about the Freedom Rides in school! I cannot believe such an important part of civil rights was omitted by school officials! I wonder, if I had taken the appropriate classes in the 1990s at Furman University (South Carolina), if Freedom Rides would have been in historical courses of study. (As, they certainly weren't in the English Major curriculum.) And in the hallway of Saint Thomas Aquinas High school, still stands two water fountains, one right next to the other: one is cool and filtered and one is tepid and unfiltered. The wall there has long been painted over, ... but we always knew as students there, that there was a time when "White" and "Colored" was painted over those subsequent fountains: a reminder of our sad and embarrassing history, even in a Roman Catholic School.