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.