50 Years After Freedom Rides, a Stunning Film Revives the Heroism

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson talks about the incredible journey of some of the civil rights movement's youngest and most fearless leaders.

By Jamilah King May 16, 2011

Tuesday will mark 50 years ago since the first group of Freedom Riders boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., and headed on their historic journey south. The inaugural team had one ambitious goal: to help lead the charge against American racial segregation. Their plan was to defy the South’s social order by brazenly traveling as an interracial group through Southern cities before ending their tour in New Orleans on May 17, 1961. History would take a different course, however. Before the first group of riders could reach Louisiana, they were met by angry mobs in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Ala. Buses were set on fire and the riders were beaten mercilessly, but they continued their journey anyway, eventually making it to New Orleans on a plane that had to be chartered by the federal government. The trip sparked a nationwide movement in which hundreds of young activists joined the Freedom Rides and many were hauled off to one of the nation’s most notorious prisons. The saga made international headlines and turned the nation’s attention to the often brutal struggle against racial inequality.

A stunning new documentary debuting tonight on PBS details the extraordinary tale of the Freedom Riders and the activists who followed them. In "Freedom Riders," Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson uses masterful storytelling and gripping interviews with key players of the era to document what would eventually become one of the civil rights movement’s major victories. But he also shows that those victories were deeply nuanced, as younger activists fought for recognition from the president and, sometimes, from older movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Through it all, the riders were an organized team of well-trained activists who committed themselves to non-violence despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

On a recent celebration of the Freedom Riders on "Oprah", movement leader Diane Nash reiterated lessons from the era that are still applicable today:

"Voting is not enough. It’s important, but it’s not enough. That ten minutes that you spend in the voting booth every 10 years is not enough to fulfill our duty as American citizens. I think we need to begin seeing that all of us–millions and millions of us–need to use non-violent direct action to bring about the changes that need to be done in this country."

I spoke with Nelson following a San Francisco screening of "Freedom Riders" last week. He explained why the film is significant, and what young activists can still learn from the movement.

On the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides:

I think that it’s a great story, it’s also a story about the very beginnings of the civil rights movement. [It was] at a place where the civil rights movement was really in jeopardy of failing. It’s a story that people don’t know, people don’t know the outcome, people don’t know the ins and outs. So when you see it, you kinda don’t know what’s gonna happen from place to place. It’s a story that has great witnesses and characters who are still alive, who are still vibrant.

On the Kennedys’ role:

What was really surprising was the involvement–or non-involvement–of the Kennedys. John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, they just wanted the Freedom Rides to stop. They want it to go away. They don’t wanna become involved in it. They don’t wanna be seen as in any way opposing the Southern political establishment. So they’re not the kind of civil rights heroes so many times we’ve come to expect or think they are.

On lessons for today’s young activists:

I think that it’s important that we understand that the Freedom Rides are a great example of people taking a step and doing what they feel is right at great personal risk with no guarantee of success, but they take a step out there and they succeed. I think that’s the kind of political action that we need now.

It’s great screening the film with young people because they’re always so inspired by the Freedom Riders. The first group of Freedom Riders were 13 people who just got on a bus in Washington, D.C., and traveled to the South, and ended up becoming a movement and ended up changing America.