Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

American Experience: Freedom Riders

Airs Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Freedom Riders hang posters from a bus. From May until November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives — and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment — for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South.

In 1961, segregation seemed to have an overwhelming grip on American society. Many states violently enforced the policy, while the federal government, under the Kennedy administration, remained indifferent, preoccupied with matters abroad.

Members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Washington, DC as they prepare for their journey south. Left to right: Edward Blankenheim, James Farmer (Co-founder and National Director of CORE), Genevieve Hughes Houghton, the Reverend B. Elton Cox and Henry "Hank" Thomas.
Enlarge this image

Above: Members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Washington, DC as they prepare for their journey south. Left to right: Edward Blankenheim, James Farmer (Co-founder and National Director of CORE), Genevieve Hughes Houghton, the Reverend B. Elton Cox and Henry "Hank" Thomas.

Freedom Rider Mae Frances Moultrie Howard stands outside the burning Greyhound bus in Anniston, Alabama on May 14, 1961.
Enlarge this image

Above: Freedom Rider Mae Frances Moultrie Howard stands outside the burning Greyhound bus in Anniston, Alabama on May 14, 1961.

Mob violence against Freedom Riders at the Birmingham, Alabama Trailways bus station on May 14, 1961.
Enlarge this image

Above: Mob violence against Freedom Riders at the Birmingham, Alabama Trailways bus station on May 14, 1961.

Retracing the Rides

View the interactive map and retrace the Freedom Rides of 1961.

That is, until an integrated band of college students—many of whom were the first in their families to attend a university—decided, en masse, to risk everything and buy a ticket on a Greyhound bus bound for the Deep South.

They called themselves the Freedom Riders, and they managed to bring the president and the entire American public face to face with the challenge of correcting civil-rights inequities that plagued the nation.

Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s inspirational documentary, "Freedom Riders," is the first feature-length film about this courageous band of civil-rights activists.

Gaining impressive access to influential figures on both sides of the issue, Nelson chronicles a chapter of American history that stands as an astonishing testament to the accomplishment of youth and what can result from the incredible combination of personal conviction and the courage to organize against all odds.

On September 22, 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order to end the segregation in bus and rail stations that had been in place for generations.

The two-hour documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault's book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice."

"The people that took a seat on these buses, that went to jail in Jackson, that went to Parchman, they were never the same. We had moments there to learn, to teach each other the way of nonviolence, the way of love, the way of peace. The Freedom Ride created an unbelievable sense: Yes, we will make it. Yes, we will survive. And that nothing, but nothing, was going to stop this movement," recalls Congressman John Lewis, one of the original Riders.

Says filmmaker Stanley Nelson: "The lesson of the Freedom Rides is that great change can come from a few small steps taken by courageous people. And that sometimes to do any great thing, it's important that we step out alone."

"Freedom Riders" is on Facebook.

Video

Trailer: American Experience: Freedom Riders

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Above: From May until November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives — and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment — for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South. Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s inspirational documentary, "Freedom Riders," is the first feature-length film about this courageous band of civil-rights activists.

Video

Video Excerpt: Freedom Riders: The Movement

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Above: The Freedom Riders represented a cross-section of America – black and white, young and old, religious and secular. "The Freedom Rides were trying to say to America: we are a diverse country — let's act like a diverse country, where every part of the diversity is equal, and is treated equally,” says Freedom Rider Rabbi Israel Dresner. Learn more about he documentary "Freedom Riders."

Video

Video Excerpt: Freedom Riders: The Turning Point

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Above: The state of Mississippi's plan to bankrupt CORE backfired when, on August 14, 1961, all but nine of the Freedom Riders returned to Jackson for their arraignment.

Video

Video Excerpt: Freedom Riders: The Young Witness

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Above: Janie Forsyth McKinney was twelve years old when the Freedom Riders came through her hometown of Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961. After local Klan members firebombed the bus, McKinney assisted injured riders.

Video

C.T. Vivian On the Kennedys' response to the Freedom Rides

Your browser does not support this object. Content can be viewed at actual source page: http://video.kpbs.org/video/1576056838

Watch From the film Freedom Riders: Rev. C.T. Vivian on the... on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Video

Gov. John Patterson

Your browser does not support this object. Content can be viewed at actual source page: http://video.kpbs.org/video/1560084046

Watch The Governor: A Short Film from Freedom Riders on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Above: John Patterson, Governor of Alabama from 1958 to 1963, won election as a staunch segregationist. Patterson discusses his response to the Freedom Rides and his decision to refuse a phone call from President John F. Kennedy when the Freedom Riders encountered mob violence in Birmingham.

Forgot your password?