In May 1961, a group of daring young activists decided to hop on board public interstate buses from Washington, D.C. and head into the Deep South. Their intent was to challenge the legitimacy of the United States Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia of 1960, which granted interstate travelers the legal right to disregard local segregation laws or customs regarding interstate transportation facilities such as restaurants and waiting rooms. Unfortunately, in return for their daring efforts, the activists were arrested for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and violating local Jim Crow laws.
Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson recounts this crusade in his new documentary, “Freedom Riders,” which is set to air next year on May 16th on PBS. The film has been generating buzz since its showing at Sundance Film Festival this past January.
The New York-based filmmaker, whose past projects include “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords,” a documentary on the history of African American newspapers; and “The Murder of Emmett Till,” the documentary about the 14-year-old’s brutal murder in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955, says he wants to inspire a new generation and prove that ordinary citizens can bring about change. The riders were college students, black and white, who risked their lives to travel on Greyhound and Trailway Buses into the south. They were coached in the art of nonviolence by veteran activists. One noted rider was Stokely Carmichael.
“It really says that this movement was a movement of people,” Nelson told the Associated Press. “Nobody else will ever be a Martin Luther King. What ‘Freedom Riders’ said is that you don’t have to be.”
The documentary will include black-and-white footage of the buses under attack, in addition to interviews with participants and government officials who sought to repress the situation for the Kennedy Administration.
The release of the documentary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the crusade. Students are currently being recruited to join some of the original participants in retracing the route of the riders. According to the Associated Press, more than 165 students from across the nation have applied for one of the 40 seats available for the trip, which is being organized by American Experience. The deadline is mid-January.
The tour will begin in Washington, D.C., and explore crucial moments of the original journey, such as in Anninston, Ala., where the bus was firebombed and in Montgomery, Ala., where riders were beaten by a white mob. The tour will culminate in Jackson, Miss., the city where riders were detained and hauled off to the state’s Parchman prison where at least one of the riders was struck so hard by the guards that he bled. The original tour lasted for eight months with more than 400 travelers. Though many were beaten and jailed, none died.