50th Anniversary of the First Freedom Ride

AMY GOODMAN: It was 50 years ago, May 4th, 1961, when mixed groups of black and white students took two public buses from Washington, D.C., and intended to arrive in New Orleans two weeks later. They were risking their lives to challenge segregation. They called themselves the Freedom Riders.

President Obama has issued a proclamation honoring May 2011 as the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides and called on Americans to celebrate their struggle for equal rights during the civil rights movement.

Well, in December of 1960, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional segregation in public transportation and interstate bus and rail stations. But despite the ruling, Jim Crow travel laws remained in force throughout the South. Six months later, a dozen black and white students decided to challenge the local laws of the Deep South and test the commitment of the Kennedy administration to civil rights.

A new documentary by the award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson tells the story of what happened to these brave students over the next few days and weeks and how they inspired hundreds of others to join the Freedom Rides and eventually succeed in desegregating public transportation. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. The documentary, called The Freedom Riders, will air on PBS’s American Experience on May 16th.

We turn right now to Stanley Nelson, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker, to talk about his film.

STANLEY NELSON: In 1961, 12 people, both black and white, decided that they would test the segregation laws of the South by simply getting on buses, Greyhound buses and Trailways buses, and going down south. And the white and black people would sit together at the front of the bus. They would eat together in the restaurants in the bus stations. The white people would use the colored-only restrooms, and the black people would use the white-only restrooms. And they would just see what would happen to them. And they had no police protection, no army protection, very little press when they started out, and they had no idea that it would really turn into this mass movement.


AMY GOODMAN: And so, there were—talk about the different Rides that went down and what happened to each.

STANLEY NELSON: Well, the first twelve people were beaten so badly in Anniston and Birmingham that they had to stop, they had to quit.

JANIE FORSYTHE McKINNEY: The door burst open, and people just spilled out into the yard. They were practically tripping over each other because they were so sick and they needed to get some air.

MAE FRANCES MOULTRIE: I can’t tell you if I walked off the bus or if I crawled off or if someone pulled me off.

HANK THOMAS: When I got off the bus, a man came up to me, and I’m coughing and strangling. He said, “Boy, you all right?” And I nodded my head. And the next thing I knew, I was on the ground. He had hit me with part of a baseball bat.

MOSES NEWSOM: People were gagging, and they were crawling around on the ground. They were trying to get the smoke out of their chests. It was just an awful, awful, awful, awful scene.

JANIE FORSYTHE McKINNEY: It was horrible. It was like a scene from hell. It was the worst suffering I had ever heard.

STANLEY NELSON: But then another wave of Riders came down from Nashville who were mostly students in Nashville. And they came down, and they were—they finally, after another ride in Montgomery, got to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were put in prison. They were put in the worst prison in the South, Parchman Penitentiary, which is the prison that we know with the black and white stripes and the chains and the chain gang. And they were put into Parchman.

And the governor, Ross Barnett, of Mississippi thought that that would break the back of the Freedom Rides. But then there was a call for more Freedom Riders, and it ended up over 400 Freedom Riders came from all over the country, and they kind of filled up the jails in Mississippi. And finally, the signs in the bus stations and the train stations that said “white only” and “colored only” were taken down as a result of the Freedom Rides.


AMY GOODMAN: The role of President Kennedy, of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his brother?

STANLEY NELSON: Oh, one of the things that’s so interesting about the story is that the Kennedys are not the Kennedys that we know later on. You know, they really did not—they wanted to ignore the civil rights movement. They were so focused on foreign policy, and they were really beholden to the segregated South.

RAY ARSENAULT: It became clear that the civil rights leaders had to do something desperate, something dramatic, to get the Kennedys’ attention. So that was the idea behind the Freedom Rides, to dare the—essentially dare the federal government to do what it was supposed to do and see if their constitutional rights will be protected by the Kennedy administration.

STANLEY NELSON: And the South voted solidly Democratic, so they were trying as best they could to stay out of the Freedom Rides, you know, and they just kept getting backed up and backed up and backed up, to where finally there was this dramatic siege in a church in Montgomery, where the Freedom Riders and the local, mostly black, community had come for a rally. There were 1,500 people trapped in the church by a mob of over 3,000 people, who were setting fires, turning over cars. And finally—they were trapped there until about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and finally the federal troops were called out, and that was the only way they were saved from the church.