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PBS documentary Freedom Riders, based on book by USFSP professor, airs at 9 tonight on WEDU-Ch. 3

Sometimes it's a song. Or an unexpected question.

But no matter how often he talks about those fateful days in 1961 when he joined the Freedom Riders -- an interracial group of activists who rode buses into the South to challenge segregation -- Charles Person still has moments when the emotion nearly overwhelms him.

Relaxing in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta last week, Person compared it to the post traumatic stress some soldiers experience after war. Because getting on a bus with white friends headed into the deep South was the first shot of a serious battle, no question. And the beatings, the insults and the life-threatening terror he endured that day can still rise up to grab his throat and moisten his eyes, even as he tries to explain what happened to a new generation, 50 years later.

"You remember how graphic it was...sometimes, I can't even finish answering a question when it comes over me," said Person, who traveled with USF St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault, a group of 40 students, Freedom Riders and press through the original route they took 50 years ago, revisiting old locations and passing along their lessons to fresh, young ears. "They turned on the white people with us worse. That's what really stuck with me the most."

To get a real sense of what Person endured, you must watch the American Experience documentary that PBS created based on Arsenault's 2006 book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Screened around the world and given an enthusiastic reception at the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary Freedom Riders makes the professor's detailed stories about this historic, undervalued effort come alive, including film footage of a Greyhound bus firebombed in 1961 and interviews with many of the surviving riders.

Assembled by star documentarian (and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Stanley Nelson, Freedom Riders shows how a cadre of young, committed activists showed older civil rights leaders that non-violent confrontation could achieve more than legalistic maneuvering.

In the process, they exposed how President John F. Kennedy was demanding freedom in Communist countries across the globe, while dragging his feet on ensuring similar rights for black people at home in America.

At a time when much of the country still finds it tough to trust America's first black president, the risks and hard work of the Freedom Riders remains more important than ever.

So instead of watching Bill O'Reilly debate Daily Show host Jon Stewart on whether the rapper Common should have been invited to the White House, why not spend time with a compelling film describing a key moment in the civil rights struggle and America's fitful, ongoing effort to erase the stain of racism from our national fabric.

Check out the preview clips below and mark your calendar: 9 tonight on WEDU-Ch. 3

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Posted by deggans at 12:14:04 pm on May 16, 2011