PBS’ grip­ping ‘Free­dom Rid­ers’ marks a civil rights mile­stone


“Amer­i­can Ex­pe­ri­ence” ob­serves the 50th an­niver­sary of a seis­mic event in the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment in “Free­dom Rid­ers,” an elec­tri­fy­ing two-hour doc­u­men­tary pre­mier­ing at 9 p.m. Mon­day on KCTS, Chan­nel 9.

Based partly on his­to­rian Ray­mond Arse­nault’s book “Free­dom Rid­ers: 1961 and the Strug­gle for Racial Jus­tice,” wri­ter­di­rec­tor-pro­ducer Stan­ley Nel­son’s (“The Mur­der of Em­mett Till”) film opens in 1961, just a few months af­ter the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy. De­spite two Supreme Court de­ci­sions man­dat­ing the in­te­gra­tion of in­ter­state travel fa­cil­i­ties, much of the Deep South re­mained strongly seg­re­gated as white South­ern­ers sim­ply elected to ig­nore the fed­eral man­dates.

Frus­trated, the Congress of Racial Equal­ity hit on a sim­ple yet rad­i­cal plan: It would send a small, racially mixed group of Amer­i­cans on buses from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., into the heart of the South, where these “free­dom rid­ers” would will­fully but peace­fully vi­o­late the seg­re­ga­tion­ist poli­cies rou­tinely still en­forced in restau­rants, bus de­pots and re­stroom fa­cil­i­ties.

When a Grey­hound bus bear­ing one group of Free­dom Rid­ers rolled into An­nis­ton on a sunny Mother’s Day morn­ing, a mob or­ga­nized by the Ku Klux Klan was wait­ing. Curs­ing the pas­sen­gers, the 200 white men broke the bus win­dows and punc­tured the tires. The driver was able to get the bus back on the road be­fore the tires went com­pletely flat, where­upon the white South­ern­ers at­tacked the ve­hi­cle again, set­ting it on fire and beat­ing the pas­sen­gers when they fi­nally were able to es­cape the smoke and flames.

Not long af­ter that, a Trail­ways bus, its Rid­ers know­ing noth­ing about the An­nis­ton in­ci­dent, reached Birm­ing­ham, where a big­ger mob was wait­ing. Al­though Alabama Gov. John Pat­ter­son didn’t know it, the city’s de facto boss, Com­mis­sioner of Pub­lic Safety (and fire-breath­ing seg­re­ga­tion­ist) Bull Con­nor, se­cretly had agreed to give the Klan un­fet­tered ac­cess to the Rid­ers, whom they beat within an inch of their lives.

Mean­while, back in Wash­ing­ton, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Robert Kennedy had re­ceived alarm­ing re­ports of the ex­plo­sive sit­u­a­tion in Alabama and dis­patched his as­sis­tant, Nashville-born John Seigen­thaler, to the scene, where he found the bedrag­gled Rid­ers trapped in the Birm­ing­ham air­port by the re­lent­less mob. No bus driver in the area would agree to carry the Free­dom Rid­ers any fur­ther, so CORE aborted the mis­sion, but it was only with Seigen­thaler’s in­ter­ven­tion that the group was able to es­cape by plane to New Or­leans.

If Seigen­thaler thought the cri­sis had been averted, how­ever, his re­lief was short­lived. Only hours later, his boss was back on the phone with the alarm­ing news that a de­ter­mined group of stu­dents was com­ing down from Nashville to con­tinue the Ride, led by one of their peers, Diane Nash.

“I knew that if the Free­dom Ride had stopped right then, we would have to have got­ten many, many peo­ple killed be­fore we were able to have a move­ment about any­thing,” Nash says to­day, “be­cause the mes­sage would have been sent that you could stop a (peace­ful) cam­paign by in­flict­ing mas­sive vi­o­lence, and it would have been re­ally hard to over­come that mes­sage.”

That sec­ond leg of the Ride even­tu­ally was suc­cess­ful, cap­tur­ing the at­ten­tion of sup­port­ers from across the coun­try, who quickly trav­eled south to step in for Rid­ers who had been in­jured or ar­rested.

A Free­dom Rid­ers bus was at­tacked and set ablaze on May 14, 1961, in An­nis­ton, Ala.

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