'Freedom Riders': An Understanding Of An Unforgettable Challenge

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During my short but sweet time here at TOTN, I've learned a bit about everything I could ever imagine. Well, that's a big part of this job — becoming a quick expert on issues in politics, economics, entertainment, etc. When it comes to history (specifically American history), though, I feel like I've gained the most knowledge, especially the significant moments of the 60s and 70s.

I wasn't alive to witness the events of that time which changed our nation, and my family hadn't arrived here in the States yet. Much of my understanding of that time comes from history textbooks in grade school. But after producing a few anniversary shows, my understanding has skyrocketed.

From chatting with Carlotta Walls Lanier about her experiences as one of the "Little Rock Nine," as chronicled in her memoir, A Mighty Long Way, to asking Dean Kahler about the tragic day at Kent State in May of 1970, talking directly with people who were in the middle of conflicts truly puts things in perspective.

And now, I hope to learn more about the Freedom Rides of 1961 through a new documentary. In Freedom Riders, award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson chronicles — and attempts to clarify — the non-violent activism of 400+ black and white Civil Rights activists who risked their lives, beatings, and jail time, during a journey through the Deep South. While Nelson himself wasn't one of the Riders, he immerses his viewers into the action. Through original footage documenting the rides, to testimonies from the Riders themselves and other major players involved in the weeks of turmoil, Nelson's film seeks to understand what happened when a group of people challenged local laws or customs enforcing segregation.

Essayist and columnist Stanley Crouch reviewed the film recently on The Root, stating that it "illuminates true profiles in courage." The preview alone encapsulates the harrowing journey the brave men and women took to stand up for what they believed was right:

With the grace and precision of superb editing, Freedom Riders shows the various ways that Americans and the rest of the world had long-held views of the U.S. — held since the end of World War II — upended. The South had lost the Civil War, but it had won the policy war by instituting the racist laws of segregation. Those unconstitutional laws remained in place for close to a century. Negroes were held as far from basic social equality as possible.

Crouch also notes that the footage in the film gives an even more surreal perspective than what TV stations were airing at the time. And despite the seriousness of the content, the documentary somehow balances the heavy with the light.

Freedom Riders has an epic quality, given that it deals with larger-than-life issues such as moral consciousness. But the sense of humor of the civil rights workers lets some of the bad air out of the racist balloon. As with all masterworks of history, levity does not reduce the significance of things as they were; it eases the narrative and gives the listener a chance to laugh, like jokes told between inevitably terrible battles.

Like I mentioned before — reading about a monumental event that changed the course of history is one thing. Hearing from the source, though, really puts things in perspective. Hopefully, we get the chance to talk with Nelson by the time the documentary debuts on PBS' American Experience series next May for the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

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