May 16, 2011
May 4 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides. The rides began with 13 brave young college students who had planned to ride at the front of Greyhound buses in order to break down the segregation experienced by all black people in the Deep South. They were expected to ride at the back of the bus.
Stanley Nelson, a documentary filmmaker, created this homage to the hundreds of Freedom Riders by interviewing every one of them still living who would talk to him. He also took film footage from the era and made the decision not to editorialize during the documentary. So he allows a politician justifying the Kennedy administration’s handling of the crisis to speak his piece. He gives time to former Alabama Governor John Patterson, a Southern politician who called the civil rights activists “fools,” when he didn’t call them worse.
The intent of the Freedom Riders was to reach New Orleans in 10 days for the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, passed in May of 1954. Activists not only challenged the racism of segregated education, they were attempting to challenge segregated transportation. As James Farmer, a leader of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) put it for the filmmaker, “We were merely doing what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do.... We felt we could count on the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce the law.... We were prepared for the possibility of death.”
After six days on the Greyhound, the riders were confronted by an angry mob of white men. They surrounded the bus, preventing the riders from getting off in Anniston, Alabama and firebombed the bus. After some riders ended up in a local hospital, they were rescued in the middle of the night by the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth and other local black activists.
Kennedy had won office with the support of Southern Democrats who had no intention of respecting basic civil rights of the black population. Kennedy didn’t want to send in federal troops, but he had a problem. He waited, hoping the riders would stop.
But the firebombing and threats didn’t stop everyone. Diane Nash, who helped organize the next round of riders on interstate buses, said her fellow students at Fisk University argued the issue in several meetings, and then some decided to continue. Nash explained, “If the Freedom Riders had been stopped as a result of violence, I strongly felt that the future of the movement was going to be cut short. The impression would have been whenever a movement starts, all [you have to do] is attack it with massive violence and blacks will stop.”
Two interstate buses left from Nashville, Tennessee on May 17 with those Fisk University students willing to risk arrest and worse to arrive in Birmingham, Alabama. The infamous sheriff with the vicious dogs, “Bull” Connor, had his police meet the bus riders, and take them from the bus station to the countryside on the border of Alabama and Tennessee, dumping them in the middle of the night. On May 20, a bus arriving at the station in Montgomery, Alabama was met by a mob that grabbed the riders and beat them up.
The rides continued on into Mississippi. The riders were met by the police at the Jackson bus station. The police passed them through the terminal – directly into a paddy wagon. Governor Ross Barnett sent them to the dreaded Parchman, Mississippi state prison.
But the next group of Freedom Riders boarded interstate buses, knowing they would be arrested in Mississippi and sent to Parchman. Four hundred people ended up spending time that summer in the prison camp there.
After five months of angry confrontations, the federal government was finally forced to begin at least the appearance of enforcing the interstate transportation laws in the South. De facto, the Freedom Riders had already enforced those laws.
One thing filmmaker Nelson does not cover is the context of the freedom rides. The choice to do the rides and the choice of activists to participate did not fall from the sky. In the South, battling against enormous prejudice and violence, many activists had been working long years to organize for real civil rights in education, in voting, in transportation, in everyday life. They were the ones who prepared the Freedom Riders and organized the Rides.
Nonetheless this film is well worth seeing. It will be shown on American Experience, part of public television, starting May 16.