Freedom Riders / A review

Freedom Riders / A review: “

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Freedom Riders underlines current political dilemmas

by Frederick B. Hudson

Folksingers in the 60’s sang often of Parchman Prison. Located in the Mississippi Delta, the prison was a working farm which regularly turned a profit by having prisoners work under duress of cattle prods and guns. Guards there regularly used devices called wrist-breakers, metal clasps which could fracture the bones in a prisoner’s arm when tightened.

In 1961 a group of fourteen young women were there, sleeping on concrete floors and annoying the guards so much with their singing that they were thrown in a sweat box.

Why were they there?

Because a professor at the University of Chicago said that he was going on a Freedom Ride, and his class said, “Can we go?”

This contingent of middle and upper class students found themselves in the midst of a national and international power struggle which helped to form the modern civil rights struggle—their sacrifice was honored this month by President Obama who proclaimed May 2011 as the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

The convoluted history of inter-generational activists who decided to cross state lines to bring the failure of Southern states to abide by two U.S. Supreme Court decisions forcing the integration of travel accommodations for interstate travel is graphically depicted this Monday, May 16 on PBS stations in the television documentary, Freedom Riders, written, directed, and produced by filmmaker Stanley Nelson.

The still and filmed scenes of demonstrators’ beatings and burning busses punctuated by interviews with courageous riders including U.S. Representative John Lewis have been depicted in other civil rights documentaries, including Eyes on the Prize. But perhaps the most salient value of the piece is its shattering of the Kennedy brothers’ reputation of championing civil rights.

Nelson’s research with government officials, including John Seigenthaler, a native of Nashville which was the seat for much of the Freedom Riders’ organizing, whose status as Bobby Kennedy’s assistant did not save him from a vicious beating, tells with no soft punches the Kennedy brothers lack of concern for the civil rights struggle—before or after the 1960 election.

John Patterson, governor of Alabama, was an avowed segregationist and the first Southern governor to support Kennedy for president. In a riveting clip, Patterson tells Alabama voters that a vote for Kennedy is a commitment to segregation. Kennedy needed every state in his narrow victory and was loath to upset the Dixiecrats. Voting in the South in the 60’s was for white people after all.

But the Congress of Racial Equality decided to expand the recent gains made during the lunch counter sits with the more drastic technique of freedom rides. Following the model of an earlier trip in 1947, the riders—seven black and six white—aimed to penetrate the Deep South by bus, breaking state laws on segregated seating and segregated restrooms and restaurants along the way.

Some younger activists questioned the wisdom of the organizational model since all the various city officials would have to do to avoid confrontation and publicity would be to meet the demonstrators at the bus stations and escort them out of town.

But this analysis ignored the depth of the racist attitudes that separated not only the seats of the buses but the restaurants and waiting rooms that served the passengers.

The riders left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. They included James Farmer, the new national director of CORE; John Lewis already arrested five times in the sit-ins; and a number of black students from the sit-in movement. The whites were generally older.

The riders had appealed to President Kennedy for protection of their constitutional rights. The Justice Department thereupon alerted the Birmingham police force. Still, the ride proceeded with almost no incidents until two members were beaten by a mob in the white waiting room at Rock Hill, South Carolina. At Anniston, Alabama, on the way to Birmingham on May 14, a mob attacked the Greyhound bus with chains and iron rods, breaking windows and slashing tires. The bus then developed a flat tire a few miles out of Anniston, and part of the mob, following in cars, hurled bricks through the windows and set the bus afire with incendiary bombs, destroying it completely.

Freedom riders on another Trailways bus were attacked on board by eight men who tried to oust black students from the front section. As this bus pulled into the Birmingham terminal, an angry crowd surrounded it, inflicting head wounds on one black student,. The Justice Department later found the police planned this delay. All rioters arrested turned out to be Klan members.

Stanley Nelson commented in an interview before Freedom Riders was screened at the Sundance Film Festival: “And the South voted solidly Democratic, so they were trying as best they could to stay out of the Freedom Rides, you know, and they just kept getting backed up and backed up and backed up, to where finally there was this dramatic siege in a church in Montgomery, Alabama where the Freedom Riders and the local, mostly black, community had come for a rally. There were 1,500 people trapped in the church by a mob of over 3,000 people, who were setting fires, turning over cars. And finally—they were trapped there until about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and finally the federal troops were called out, and that was the only way they were saved from the church.”

After Diane Nash, a student at Fisk University. called for a national effort to continue the Freedom Rides, Southern and Northern students began converging in Alabama, determined to continue the rides from the brutal carnage. But Bull Conner, chief of police in Birmingham, Alabama held the students in “protective custody” and drove them to the Tennessee border and told to go home.

The group found refuge among the country residents and found their way back to Birmingham and eventually to Mississippi where the young women sang among the wrist breakers and the cattle prods.

This piece is worth seeing for its exposure of bravery as well as the duplicity of governmental officials who in echoes of today’s conflicts still are subject to the insight by activist Randall Robinson who said “But, in the last analysis, most of us understand: until you can manage media to make (an) issue one of political consequence for American political figures, there is very little you can do to alter the kind of response that our country ought to make.”