American Experience: Freedom Riders
Airs Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV
Originally published May 13, 2011 at 1:43 p.m., updated February 7, 2013 at 11:07 a.m.
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.
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.
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.
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.