Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Freedom Riders, a New PBS Documentary for the 50th Anniversary

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, an 18 day Civil Rights campaign in which a group of young people boarded a U.S. Trailways bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in order to test laws that recently desegregated interstate buses in the south. In honor of the anniversary, PBS is airing on May 16th a two-hour documentary called Freedom Riders, based on the nonfiction title Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault. Today, Oprah will host the film’s director, Stanley Nelson, along with the men and women (the Freedom Riders) who were a part of that campaign on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

This is an important piece of history and I encourage anyone to check out the doc (I have not seen it myself). I’ve written about the Freedom Riders before. Here’s an excerpt from that article I wrote and a link where you can read the rest. You can find out more about the film at

The summer of 1961 was going to be hot in more ways than one. After the 1960 Supreme Court's decision in the Boynton v. Virginia case struck down segregation laws governing interstate buses in the south, Students for the Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to test the Kennedy administration's resolve in enforcing the new desegregation law by organizing Freedom Rides that summer. The strategy was simple: a biracial group was to board buses from Washington, D.C. and travel south, with white passengers sitting in the back and black passengers in the front. The group included thirteen brave young men, including James L. Farmer, William Mahoney, John Lewis, William Sloan Coffin, Jim Zwerg, James Peck, George Bundy Smith, Frederick Leonard and others. Dubbed the Freedom Riders, they boarded the Trailways bus in Washington, determined but sober about the seriousness of their expedition. Trained in the nonviolent tactics used in the lunch counter sit-ins the year before, they knew what was expected ahead. As the civil rights movement gained speed in its goal to demolish segregation laws in the south, winning victories along the way, the resistance from southern whites had grown more virulent. Mob violence had marked every nonviolent protest organized by SNCC. They didn't expect any different that summer.

On May 4, the Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C. and were expected to arrive on their final destination in New Orleans on the 17th of that month. On May 14, Mothers Day, the group broke up into two, each traveling a separate bus into Alabama. As expected, violence greeted one of the buses as it reached Anniston. A mob of 200 assaulted the bus, hurling stones and slashing the bus's tires. Though the Freedom Riders manage to escape the mob, their bus was firebombed six miles out of town when they stopped to change tires.

The second bus likewise met with violence in Birmingham. A mob descended on the bus and began attacking passengers. White Freedom Rider, Jim Peck, received the worst of the violence, requiring fifty stitches for the injuries he sustained during the attack. Bull Connor, the city's Public Safety Commissioner, claimed his police officers were off for the holiday. But Bull Connor, who had set fire hoses and snarling dogs on children as they protested in Birmingham the year before, was a well-known Klan sympathizer. Later, it was learned that Connor purposefully kept his men off duty and that the FBI was well aware of the impending violence awaiting the Freedom Riders once they appeared in Alabama.

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