The event averages about a paragraph in a typical public high school textbook, but it changed race relations in this country and marked a major step forward for the civil rights movement.
In the summer of 1961, an interracial group traveled by bus into the South to push for an end of racial separation laws. “I was like a soldier in a non-violent army,” says one traveler. “And I was ready.”
Things went smoothly until the buses reached Alabama, where the buses were destroyed and riders savage beaten and later imprisoned.
These Freedom Riders, as they came to be known, are profiled in the stirring PBS film premiering Monday at 7 p.m. on KUED.
In “Freedom Riders,” veteran documentarist Stanley Nelson unfolds this critical chapter of history and brings it to life in a plain but engaging way. He knows this story has a dramatic narrative built into it and lets the surviving Freedom Riders and the era’s newsreels tell the story.
The emotional contemporary interviews are striking and memorable elements of “Freedom Riders,” and they are coupled with surprising archival TV news reports and photography. Footage was located of the riders trapped inside a church while a mob rages outside.
Impressively balancing the documentary, Nelson gained access to influential figures on both sides of the issue. John Patterson, who was Alabama governor at the time, is interviewed and tells candidly how he lied in order to avoid talking to President Kennedy. The film doesn’t gloss over Jack and Bobby Kennedy’s less-than-supportive position. Assistant Attorney General John Seigenthaler explains the administration’s indifference to race relations and his behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Even Martin Luther King Jr. is shown to have “feet of clay,” as the film puts it. King publicly supported the riders but viewers discover his privately revealed unconvincing reasons for not joining them.
Yet including King and Kennedy makes the film’s message resoundingly clear: Ordinary people are able to effect great social change.
Following the telecast of “Freedom Riders,” KUED will air two local productions. “Utah’s Freedom Riders” reviews Utahns who participated in civil rights events of the 1960s, and “Navigating Freedom: A Utah Youth Perspective” is a showcase of films created by eight young women.
Blair Howell is a writer and editor.