A few days ago I tried to see Freedom Riders, a 2009 documentary being shown at the Boulder International Film Festival. As it developed the showing had been sold out for a couple of days, so I didn't get in. But the film is on Netflix, and I've put it in my queue.
Directed by Stanley Nelson, Freedom Riders tells one of the most harrowing stories from the Civil Rights era. In the spring of 1961, volunteers began testing a Supreme Court ruling that banned discrimination in interstate travel and commerce. This included bus stations, so "freedom rides" on buses crossing state lines was an ideal means of testing the law.
The actions of the Freedom Riders were deliberately provocative. In most southern states, local custom (i.e. entrenched racism) trumped any Supreme Court ruling. "We felt we could then count on the racists of the south to create a crisis," said CORE's James Farmer, "so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal law."
There were numerous violent confrontations during the course of the Freedom Rides. One of the most infamous came in Alabama (above photo), when buses were firebombed and riders savagely beaten by white mobs. The Freedom Riders got no police protection and none of the attackers were arrested.
The Freedom Riders knew exactly what they were getting into. In later years some of them said they were prepared to die. This is courage of an order I can only marvel at. I have to ratchet up my nerve just for a job interview.
One of the draws from the recent Boulder screening was a personal appearance by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), a participant in the Freedom Rides. I had hoped to hear some Q&A with him, maybe ask a question and take his picture. I had to settle for a photo of the marquee.
Sources for this post include The New York Times, Dec. 6, 1960, "Bus Terminal Segregation Curbed by Supreme Court;" The Struggle for Black Equality, by Harvard Sitkoff, pp. 88-89, Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, edited by Clayborne Carson et al, p. 124; Voices of Freedom, edited by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, p. 75 (James Farmer quote); Freedom Bound, by Robert Weisbrot, pp. 55-63; and My Soul Is Rested, by Howell Raines.