The story behind a courageous band of civil rights activists called the Freedom Riders who in 1961 challenged segregation in the American South.
From May until November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives - and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment - for simply travelling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South. Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws, the freedom riders met with bitter racism and mob violence along the way, sorely testing their belief in nonviolent activism.
From award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till) Freedom Riders features testimony from a fascinating cast of central characters: the riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the rides firsthand. The two-hour documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault's book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
Despite two earlier Supreme Court decisions that mandated the desegregation of interstate travel facilities, black Americans in 1961 continued to endure hostility and racism while travelling through the South. The newly inaugurated Kennedy administration, embroiled in the Cold War and worried about the nuclear threat, did little to address domestic civil rights.
"It became clear that the civil rights leaders had to do something desperate, something dramatic to get Kennedy's attention. That was the idea behind the freedom rides - to dare the federal government to do what it was supposed to do, and see if their constitutional rights would be protected by the Kennedy administration," explains Arsenault.
Organised by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the riders came from all strata of American society - black and white, young and old, male and female, Northern and Southern. They embarked on the rides knowing the danger but firmly committed to the ideals of non-violent protest, aware that their actions could provoke a savage response but willing to put their lives on the line for the cause of justice.
Each time the rides met violence and the campaign seemed doomed, new ways were found to sustain and even expand the movement. After Klansmen in Alabama set fire to the original freedom ride bus, student activists from Nashville organised a ride of their own. "We were past fear. If we were going to die, we were gonna die, but we can't stop," recalls Rider Joan Trumpauer-Mulholland. "If one person falls, others take their place."
The riders' journey was front-page news and the world was watching. After nearly five months of fighting, the federal government capitulated. On September 22, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order to end the segregation in bus and rail stations that had been in place for generations. "This was the first unambiguous victory in the long history of the Civil Rights Movement. It finally said, ‘We can do this.' And it raised expectations across the board for greater victories in the future," says Arsenault.