In 1961 a group of dedicated activists led a campaign to desegregate America’s interstate transport network by riding on buses across the South. Their groups were interracial and their point was made by sitting together and using restrooms and waiting areas in a mixed rather than segregated way. This caused many problems in the southern states who saw the campaign as an attack on their way of life.
This film by Stanley Nelson tells the story through archive footage and interviews with those involved who survived to tell the story. Made in 2010, the footage is still shocking. The level of violence, often endorsed by those in authority, highlights the bravery of the young men and women who volunteered to ride on the buses. Over 400 people participated through the spring and summer and into the autumn of 1961.
What comes across most powerfully, apart from the obvious bravery of those fighting for civil rights, is the powerlessness of the Federal government to uphold the law. John Seigenthaler worked for Robert Kennedy. He came under attack at the hands of racist mobs when trying to ensure the freedom riders were protected. Whether the actions of the civil rights protesters forced the government to act is up for debate but the footage had a powerful impact and the USA had to defend its record on race to hostile countries.
‘Freedom Riders’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?