It has been 50 years since the Freedom Riders began their journey through the South to desegregate bus depot waiting rooms, lunch counters, water fountains and other places where Jim Crow held fast. Their just mission and nonviolent credo — even in the face of vicious attacks by white segregationists — won others to their cause and helped advance America's thinking on the evils of segregation. Much has changed since those first brave souls, black and white, male and female, got on two buses in Washington to face untold peril as they headed to New Orleans. What they risked and what they accomplished is just now being remembered and honored.
The semicentennial anniversary of the Freedom Riders movement is receiving significant attention due to the scholarship of Ray Arsenault, a renowned professor of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. In 2006 Arsenault published Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, a widely acclaimed 700-page book that became the basis for a riveting documentary that debuted on television Monday night on PBS stations, including WEDU. (And for those who missed it, encore presentations will air at 4 p.m. Sunday and 1 p.m. May 24. It will also be available on-demand at WEDU.org.)
Earlier this month, in advance of the documentary's television debut, Arsenault led a Freedom Rides re-enactment with 40 handpicked college students and Freedom Riders from 50 years ago. They traveled along the original route, from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, where they will be departing to their respective homes today.
The documentary, written and directed by Emmy-winning Stanley Nelson, traces the journey of two original groups of Freedom Riders as they challenged the racially segregated conditions of interstate travel through the South, despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings finding such segregation illegal.
The integrated teams that included many college students were trained in nonviolent civil disobedience. Their purpose was to sit side by side at segregated bus stations and use facilities designated "white only." These simple acts were provocative ones in places where the Ku Klux Klan held sway. The violence the protesters feared came in Anniston and Birmingham, Ala., where mobs beat them with bats and metal rods, and in one case firebombed their bus.
The fierceness of the violence juxtaposed with the pacifism of the protesters pricked the conscience of the nation. It drew a reluctant President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, into the fray, forcing them to confront civil rights issues they had assiduously avoided due to the segregationist influence within the Democratic Party. But hundreds of Freedom Riders could not be ignored. In September 1961, after a request from Robert Kennedy, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered an end to segregated facilities. The Freedom Riders had won.
Now, 50 years since the mere act of sitting alongside a person of another race could result in a brutal beating or worse, America has a black president. It is not too big of a stretch to suggest that Barack Obama would not be president today had a group of people armed with a sense of justice and a belief in the power of other people's conscience, not gotten on a bus and headed South.