Imagine that you are riding with the Freedom Riders 50 years ago, intent on peacefully integrating Greyhound and Trailways bus lines through the South. You pull up to a bus station where screaming men are waiting with baseball bats and steel pipes. Imagine having such a courageous sense of purpose that you step down off the bus to thundrous blows that draw blood spurting from your scalp—until you completely lose consciousness.
Now, imagine stepping down off a bus into a crowd of swinging bats and pipes in a second city, just a few days later. That’s excactly what U.S. Rep. John Lewis did as a very young man—along with more than 400 other Freedom Riders who literally signed their wills before they got on buses.
For two hours tonight on PBS, you’re not likely to budge as you watch this nail-biting story of young heroism unfold. (Most public TV stations start the film at 9 p.m.; but remember to check local listings for air times; and here’s the official PBS page promoting Freedom Riders that includes more information.)
The original Freedom Ride, which involved massive violence and sparked international headlines, left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was supposed to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, 1961—50 years ago this week. After one bus was firebombed, many of the Freedom Riders were clubbed senseless, and many were thrown into prison (yes, the toughest prison in the South, not just local jails)—more and more and more waves of riders emerged from all across the U.S. to complete the original mission. In the end, more than 400 men and women became “original” Freedom Riders.
Their pain and heroism worked. The Freedom Riders forced the Kennedy administration to finally obey earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings and desegregate interstate buses and terminals throughout the South—one of the first national legal victories in the civil rights movement.
Surprises in Store for Viewers of PBS’ Freedom Riders
Yes, there are many surprises in store!
You’ll meet many heroes you’ve never heard about before this film: “Who the Hell is Diane Nash?!?” That was U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s first furious response when he learned that student activist Diane Nash was sending the second of what became many waves of riders into the South. You’ll meet Nash both in historical footage and photos—and in a new interview. Nash is the young activist who began the practice of urging riders to solemnly sign their wills before getting on a bus.
You’ll discover the Kennedy administration conspired to stop the riders: “Civil rights was an afterthought after an afterthought to the Kennedys,” the film explains. The president and his brother, the nation’s attorney general, were focused on tense relations with the Soviet Union and were angry when the Freedom Rides began to spark headline news coverage. Soon, the Soviet press was covering this humiliating example of America’s lack of freedom. In this PBS documentary, you’ll see some of the Soviet coverage, including one Soviet TV news report.
The Kennedy brothers were hamstrung, in part, because FBI czar J. Edgar Hoover did not keep them well informed about the initial waves of violence planned against the activists. Nevertheless, the Kennedy responses went from lame to active conspiracy to stop the rides. They sent a personal envoy partly to protect the young men and women—and also to stop them.
When that plan didn’t work and more activists poured toward the South, the Kennedy brothers cut a back-room deal with the Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett to have the young activists arrested and jailed. Barnett was such a zealous bigot that he had them thrown into the most terrifying prison in the South, known as Parchment Farm, where Barnett personally urged the staff to “break their spirit.” Freedom Ride organizers responded by sending hundreds more to face arrest and “fill the jails” in Mississippi. Eventually, the Kennedy brothers reluctantly took decisive actions, including an official end to segregated conditions for interstate travel. But the Kennedy administration comes across in this film as actively cooperating in the violation of the activists’ civil rights.
You’ll find that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also tried to stop the Freedom Rides: From the beginning, King did not want the first handful of riders to come down from Washington D.C. As they encountered their first waves of violence, King pulled the leaders aside and tried to privately convince them that they must abandon this plan.
Later, in Montgomery, Alabama, King did risk his life in a huge rally supporting the Freedom Rides. But, this documentary details a two-day series of private meetings between King and the young activists in Montgomery in which he refused to ride with them. According to a number of people who took part in those private meetings, King talked to the young activists in such a demeaning way that they began to turn against him and chide him, calling him “De Lawd,” suggesting that he felt himself too high above them to risk himself on the buses. This split, which shocked many of the Freedom Riders, later became a more substantive division in the civil rights movement.
Finally, you’ll be surprised by the faces! You’ll be horrified by hateful faces, captured by news reporters from around the world who rushed to the South. You’ll see countless otherwise ordinary looking men—fathers, church members, local businessmen—grinning savagely as they swarm in to attack the young men and women on the buses. You’ll see grandmothers decked out in full Ku Klux Klan regalia marching into the fray. You’ll see housewives, snarling at the protesters. One young rider said she’ll never forget that some of the most hateful women came to scream slogans—with their own children in their arms.
However, you’ll also be moved by the Freedom Riders’ faces. You’ll see them young and resolute in historical images and you’ll see them softened by age in new interviews shot for this documentary. One of the most startling visual transformations is in the life of John Lewis, who allowed himself to be clubbed repeatedly. We see a skinny, young, hopeful-looking John Lewis in various scenes in 1961. And, we see a comfortably portly Rep. John Lewis in Washington D.C. now—after his triumphant election to national office, a step that these courageous activists helped to make possible half a century ago.
Care to own a copy of the DVD or Blu-ray or book?
After you see this remarkable film on PBS, many people will want to own a copy—and will want to read the book on which the film is based. Freedom Riders is a terrific discussion starter for small groups, because it’s such an inspirational, exciting, true story of American heroism. You can order …
- American Experience: Freedom Riders on DVD from Amazon.
- Or, American Experience: Freedom Riders on Blu-ray from Amazon.
- Or, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, the book by Raymond Arsenault, also from Amazon. (Note that the documentary film is comprised of new interviews, plus historical film and TV footage and actual news photographs of the scenes that unfolded. The filmmakers used the book as a general guide, but developed their own research and reporting as well.)
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.