Burks was a member of a student committee of the Nashville Christian Movement for Human Rights and an early volunteer to participate in the Freedom Rides in the Spring of 1961. In order to get permission to leave campus, she called her mother in Birmingham to invite her and her friend Lucretia Collins to visit her.
The first Freedom Riders to reach Birmingham from Atlanta, Georgia on May 14 were met by mob violence and no drivers were willing to carry them onward to New Orleans. Many elected to fly from Birmingham in order to reach New Orleans in time for a scheduled rally. Later buses were escorted by police and National Guardsmen. When Burks and her group arrived in Birmingham from Nashville on May 17, they defied the city segregation laws enforced at the bus station. They were placed in "protective custody" and driven back to the Tennessee state line by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor the next day. Many returned to Birmingham by private car for the next leg of the trip. In Montgomery on May 20 they were met by an angry mob which was eventually dispersed by Alabama Public Safety Director Floyd Mann. The group holed up at First Baptist Church, held in siege by a crowd outside.
The group continued to Jackson, Mississippi where they were arrested en masse and charged with breach of peace. Most were sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary to serve their sentences. Burks was expelled from Tennessee State following her arrest. She won a court judgment reinstating her as a student and completed her degree there. The University awarded her with another honorary degree in 2008.
In August 1961 she married fellow freedom rider Paul Brooks. In 1962 and 1963 she and her husband worked in voter registration campaigns in Mississippi, co-editing the Mississippi Free Press and working as a teacher and social worker. From 1970 to 1979 she resided in the Bahamas, where she operated a jewelry boutique. After returning to Birmingham she worked as a substitute teacher for Birmingham City Schools.
Burks-Brooks and the other Freedom Riders expelled from Tennessee State were awarded honorary doctorates from the university in 2008. In 2010 Burks-Brooks was interviewed for the documentary "Freedom Riders", which aired on PBS in May 2011.
Burks-Brooks died at home in July 2023.
- Orndorff, Mary (April 13, 2011) "Birmingham Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks to attend Washington screening of documentary." The Birmingham News
- Johnson, Roy S. (July 6, 2023) "Birmingham Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks dies at 83." AL.com
- Catherine Burks-Brooks at pbs.org