NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College audiences will have a chance to preview a new documentary on the Freedom Rides that took place in the South in 1961.
The Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) at Bethel College is sponsoring a showing of a 56-minute distillation of Freedom Riders, Sunday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium on the Bethel campus.
The showing is free and open to the public.
The full-length film premieres on public television’s “American Experience” in May 2011 and the shorter version comes to Bethel courtesy of alumnus Jesse Huxman, director of content for KPTS-Channel 8, the PBS affiliate in Hutchinson-Wichita.
The documentary features testimony from a cast of central characters, including Freedom Riders themselves, state and federal government officials and journalists who witnessed the Freedom Rides firsthand.
Freedom Riders, by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, covers a period from May to November 1961 when more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives (many endured savage beatings and imprisonment) to travel together on buses and trains through the Deep South, deliberately violating Jim Crow laws. The racism and mob violence they encountered along the way tested their stated belief in nonviolent activism.
Freedom Riders features testimony from a cast of central characters including Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the Rides firsthand. The documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
In 1961, despite two earlier Supreme Court decisions mandating desegregation of interstate travel facilities, black Americans continued to endure hostility and racism while traveling through the South. The newly inaugurated John F. 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,” Arsenault explains. “That was the idea behind the Freedom Rides: to dare the federal government to do what it was supposed to do, and see if constitutional rights would be protected.”
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the self-proclaimed Freedom Riders, who 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 committed to the ideals of nonviolent protest in the cause of justice.
Each time the Freedom Rides met violence and the campaign seemed doomed, they somehow found new ways to sustain and even expand the movement. At one point, Mississippi officials locked up more than 300 Riders in the notorious Parchman State Penitentiary – which only strengthened their determination.
The Freedom Riders made front-page news around the world. Finally, on Sept. 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered an end to generations-old segregation policies in bus and rail stations. “This was the first unambiguous victory in the long history of the Civil Rights Movement,” Arsenault says.
“The people that took a seat on these buses, that went to jail in Jackson, that went to Parchman, they were never the same,” says Congressman John Lewis, one of the original Riders. “We had moments there to learn, to teach each other the way of nonviolence, the way of love, the way of peace. The Freedom Rides created an unbelievable sense: Yes, we will make it. Yes, we will survive. And that nothing, but nothing, was going to stop this movement.”
“The lesson of the Freedom Rides is that great change can come from a few small steps taken by courageous people,” says filmmaker Nelson, “and that sometimes to do any great thing, it’s important that we step out alone.”