American Experience: Freedom Riders

They never treated us like we were human. They treated us like we were vicious animals, like they were always on guard, like we were going to do something to them. And they were doing it to us.

— Frederick Leonard

“We talk about it here as separation of the races, customs and traditions that have been built up over the last 100 years that have proved for the best interest of both the colored and the white people. There’s not been one single change.” The white man speaking is unidentified in Freedom Riders, and his words hang over images illustrating what “we talk about.” Klansmen in robes, their hoods pushed back, make their way past a hardware store on one side and the camera on the other. As the footage slows, you notice a black woman walking behind the Klansmen and glancing in their direction — or maybe she’s looking at the camera. She clutches her parcel closer to her chest and then she looks back behind her, where three or four white teens are walking, their jeans rolled up and their hair cut short.

Lasting but a few seconds, this archival clip succinctly reveals the white speaker’s willful ignorance, undermining his contention that “separation” serves both races’ “best interest.” The film cuts to a sign in a bus station window reading “White Waiting Room,” an emblem of separation and particular point of departure for the freedom rides of 1961. Stanley Nelson’s exceptional documentary tells the story of the rides, from their initiation in May, by James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC) ruling in September, that passengers on interstate buses could sit wherever they wanted, “the first unambiguous victory in the long history of the civil rights movement.”

As the film shows repeatedly — using some incredible images from the time — this victory was the result of months of struggle, including assaults on the freedom riders by angry citizens as well as police officers. Boarding commercial buses (Trailways and Greyhound) in Washington, DC and intending to ride through the Deep South, the riders set out deliberately to violate Southern segregation laws. Each CORE member signed a formal agreement, stating “I understand that I shall be participating in a nonviolent protest… against racial discrimination, that arrest or personal injury to me might result.” They had little expectation of the violence that would be inflicted on them. As a young Genevieve Houghton assures a small gathering of reporters before she boards the bus in Washington DC, “There is a possibility that we will not be served at some stops, there is a possibility that we may be arrested. That is the only trouble that I am anticipating.”

As historian Derek Catsam suggests there was “an element of naïveté attached to it how easily they thought it would go,” the film offers other sorts of naïveté, a 1946 Greyhound bus magazine advertisement that promises passengers will “roll through America’s well-kept front yard.” A group of white young people sits on a porch, one playing a banjo as they sing. A bus passes in the distance, as does a black woman with basket in hand, her shape, apron, and headrag recalling Aunt Jemima.

In a television ad, white riders sing with their white driver, celebrating their freedom to ride wherever they wanted, as John Seigenthaler, a onetime assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, remembers his own Southern childhood, served by “invisible women. “We were blind to the reality of racism,” he says, “And afraid, I guess, of change.” (He is later in this story the subject of a newspaper headline — “U.S. Official is Knocked Unconscious” — one victim of the white mob during the Montgomery riot.)

The change this time is a function of what seems a “simple” strategy, as freedom riders remained nonviolent in the face of all manner of abuse, their buses set on fire and their bodies beaten. Julian Bond explains how the freedom rides “typified one of the standard contradictions within the civil rights movement. On the one hand,” he says, “It’s nonviolent, doesn’t hit back when hit. On the other hand, they’re really courting violence in order to attract publicity that will forward the cause.” As Bond points out, such “mixed motives” were common during the movement, as the most effective way to get the attention of the broader public as well as the federal government was to get on TV.

Just so, when the Kennedy Administration first heard of the riders, John and Bobby hoped the local jurisdictions would protect them. But, as a striking interview with former Alabama governor John Patterson reveals, state and national officials were working at cross-purposes. Patterson expected the Kennedys would leave his state’s segregation enforcement alone, and that as he and city authorities — say, Birmingham’s infamous Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor (“who must have been some kind of psychopath,” observes Bond, “just rabid on the issue of race”) — would have free reign to handle the “agitators” from outside Alabama as they saw fit. He believed this, he says, because he was “the first governor in the South” to endorse Kennedy for president, apparently understanding a tit-for-tat arrangement. He believed, he says ow, that the president understood, “We’re not gonna tolerate integration of the races for one minute.”

The film shows how the freedom riders put all the official posturers to a series of tests, however. When a first attack on the CORE riders in Birmingham left them traumatized and without drivers, a second group took up the cause, led by Diane Nash, a student at Fisk University who gathered together fellow members of the Nashville Student Movement to continue the rides themselves. One of these next wave riders, Bernard Lafayette Jr., remembers, “It was not an easy decision” because it meant dropping out of school during final exams. “For some of us, we were the first ones we were the first generation to go to college. Our parents had really made sacrifices.” And yet, they all greed to commit to keep the rides going — because otherwise, says Nash, “The message would have been sent that all you need to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict violence.” Of 18 volunteers, 10 were selected.

Met by more violence in Montgomery, the riders were met by Martin Luther King, Jr. for a meeting in a church, where some 1500 protestors were threatened by white locals. King’s phone calls to Robert Kennedy led to protection by state troops at last, but King declined to join the rides, suggesting to some recalling their meeting now, that his prominence in the movement prohibited his participation in the plainly dangerous rides. Here, Clayborne Carson reflects, student protestors and older members of the movement came to recognize tensions within the movement: “I think it fed into the splits to come.”

The riders met each obstacle with renewed ingenuity. When at last they were escorted out of Alabama. By the end of June, they arrived in Jackson, Mississippi where Governor Ross Barnett had them arrested, convicted, and sent to Parchman Prison, “the most dreaded prison in the South.” Faced with more violence in prison, the riders remained organized and resolute, sending more and more of their number to serve time. Threatened by guards with loss of their bug screens and mattresses, they took up singing. Layfayette recalls that when their toothbrushes were taken away, they determined to sing with their mouths closed, so their cellmates — crowded 12 into two-person cells — wouldn’t suffer from their bad breath.

Apparently stopped in Mississippi, the riders made their cause visible even from Parchman. Media attention increased, both around the U.S. and around the world. A Russian TV broadcast here shows images of riders in prison uniforms, carted away as the reporter intones, “For those who refuse to submit to unjust racial laws, in this ‘paradise of freedom,’ prison awaits.” Such imagery pressed the Kennedys to act, and by November of 1961, the ICC ruled to desegregate buses and bus stations. If more years would pass before these laws would be upheld on any regular basis, the riders knew what they had done. “Nothing,” says Representative and former Freedom Rider John Lewis, “was going to stop this movement.”

RATING 9 / 10