"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 Monday, May 16, on PBS (check local listings).
Based partly on historian Raymond Arsenault's book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice," writer-director-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.
Somewhat naively, the volunteers for the two-week May mission knew they would face some resistance, but most of them believed that they only would be refused service or, at worst, arrested. And their first few stops, in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, seemed to bear that out. Then they hit Alabama.
And Alabama hit back, hard and violently. 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 short-lived. 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. The situation was nothing short of a nightmare for Patterson and, in one of the PBS telecast's biggest coups, Nelson has the Alabama governor talking candidly about those tense days, when he was stuck with Kennedy, a political ally, on one side and Patterson's mostly angry white constituency on the other, flanked by the loathsome Connor and the Klan.
"I never honestly imagined that (Nelson) would get the governor of Alabama to talk in a really honest way," says "American Experience" executive producer Mark Samels. "Later I asked him, 'How in the hell did you get (Patterson)?' and he said, 'He wanted to talk. He needed a little convincing that we weren't going to do just some drive-by sensationalist thing, that we really were interested in his perspective.' Patterson really wanted to describe what a fight he saw himself in. He's a man who saw himself in a vise."
For an entire generation of Americans, the Freedom Ride of 1961 may be little more than a footnote now, but this extraordinary documentary captures a volatile moment in U.S. history that had a profound effect on society. It also remains intensely relevant today, with its message celebrating individuals who don't wait around for a designated leader to tell them to do the right thing.
"You know how we all felt in the hours and days after 9/11, that we were literally living through a period where every minute was being written into history," Samels says. "These Riders had that same sense, that there was this turning point possibility here, that if they grabbed these reins of history and pulled on them hard enough and didn't let go, something could happen, something that could lead in turn to something else. And you know what? They did. They changed history through their collective action.
"This is a story that is directly relevant to now, as we are seeing how ordinary people led spontaneous revolutions in the Middle East. It's a reminder that we should try to get better leadership, leaders who truly lead, and we should get a better functioning government, but change often happens because of our decisions and our responsibilities."
That explains the tagline featured in this program's posters and promotional materials: "Could you get on the bus?"
"It's really sort of a shot across the decades," Samels says. "Is there something in your life that will engage you and cause you make a commitment and make sacrifices toward? Because if more of us did that, the world would be a better place."