In school, when I was learning about the Civil Rights movement, I heard about Dr. Martin Luther King, about Rosa Parks, about Brown vs. the Board of Education, about sit-ins at lunch counters. What I do not remember hearing about-and it could just be that my memory is at fault-are Freedom Rides.
The documentary Freedom Riders, a film by Stanley Nelson (Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till), which will air on PBS in May of 2011, is currently making the film festival circuit, and it was at one such screening that I had the opportunity to view the film. I knew nothing about the film going into the screening-in fact, I had it confused with another film, and thought I was going to be watching something on another topic entirely-but from moment one, I was completely fascinated by the story this movie was telling.
In short: it is a wonderful film and inspiring in all of the right ways.
In case there are others out there who, like me, had not heard about the Freedom Rides, let me provide a bit of history. In December of 1960, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Boynton v. Virginia, which outlawed racial segregation in restaurants and waiting rooms of terminals that served buses that crossed state lines. Despite the ruling, however, many of the states in the Deep South would not enforce it, and Jim Crow laws remained in effect. Which brings us to the Freedom Rides.
In May of 1961, a group of 13 students, seven black and six white, and most of them representing a group called Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), embarked on what was supposed to be a 14-day journey to challenge the southern states’ refusal to follow the federal ruling. Before they left, they practiced peaceful protests and standing their ground. They carefully planned their route from Washington DC to New Orleans, Louisiana, through Alabama and Mississippi, the two states most intent on keeping the status quo in place. They expected to be intimidated and arrested, and when they left on the morning of May 5th, they thought they were prepared for what to was come.
They weren’t. Not even close.
Without going into too many details, as this film and the suspense that it creates over the course of the 113-minute running time should be enjoyed as it is, what happened next was a story that transfixed not only the United States, but the rest of the world. The actions of those 13 students, getting on those two buses that day, fundamentally changed race relations in this country, and marked a major step forward for the Civil Rights movement.
Perhaps what was most striking and memorable about this film, though, was the interviews. Not only were we provided with emotional interviews with the original Freedom Riders, but the filmmaker was able to talk to former Alabama Governor John Patterson, in charge at the time the Freedom Riders arrived in his state, as well as John Seigenthaler, an assistant to the Kennedy administration, who was able to provide rare insight into the White House’s view on the Civil Rights movement.
This was a moving film, a must see, providing key insights into a truly important moment in the United States’ Civil Rights movement.
WGBH American Experience: Freedom Riders