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Scott Witzke
WTIU – Television from Indiana University

Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011

WTIU-TV hosts a special screening of 'Freedom Riders' documentary

March 30, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The year 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic journey taken by the Freedom Riders, more than 400 black and white Americans who risked their lives traveling together on buses through the Deep South.

WTIU-TV, the Indiana University Cinema, IU's Black Film Center/Archive and the departments of Communications and Culture, and Telecommunications will mark this historic event with a discussion and screening of the documentary film Freedom Riders (2010) Friday (April 1) at 7 p.m. at the IU Cinema.

Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson

Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, the film's director, will present the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture at 3 p.m. the same day at the IU Cinema. Original Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks will be on hand for both events to discuss her experiences.

From May until December of 1961, more than 400 Americans risked their lives -- many enduring savage beatings and imprisonment -- simply for traveling together on buses as they journeyed through the Deep South. Determined to test and challenge segregated travel facilities, the Freedom Riders were greeted with mob violence and bitter racism, sorely testing their belief in non-violent activism.

Freedom Riders features testimony from a fascinating cast of central characters: the Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the rides firsthand. Based on Raymond Arsenault's book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, the two-hour documentary also will be aired on WTIU-TV on May 16 at 9 p.m.

Despite two earlier Supreme Court decisions that mandated the desegregation of interstate travel facilities, black Americans in 1961 continued to endure hostility and racism while traveling through the South. The newly inaugurated Kennedy administration, embroiled in the Cold War and worried about the nuclear threat, did little to address domestic civil rights.

Freedom Riders

In Anniston, Alabama, an angry mob stoned and firebombed the Greyhound bus holding some of the original Freedom Riders.

"It became clear that the civil rights leaders had to do something desperate, something dramatic to get Kennedy's attention. That was the idea behind the Freedom Rides -- to dare the federal government to do what it was supposed to do, and see if their constitutional rights would be protected by the Kennedy administration," Arsenault said.

The self-proclaimed "Freedom Riders" 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 were firmly committed to the ideals of non-violent protest, aware that their actions could provoke a savage response, but willing to put their lives on the line for the cause of justice.

Each time the Freedom Riders met violence and the campaign seemed doomed, new ways were found to sustain and even expand the movement. After Klansmen in Alabama set fire to an original Freedom Ride bus, student activists from Nashville organized a ride of their own. "We were past fear. If we were going to die, we were gonna die, but we can't stop," recalled Joan Trumpauer-Mulholland. "If one person falls, others take their place."

Later, Mississippi officials locked up more than 300 Riders in the notorious Parchman State Penitentiary. Rather than weaken the Riders' resolve, the move only strengthened their determination.

The Riders' journey was front-page news, and the world was watching. After nearly five months of fighting, the federal government capitulated. On September 22, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order to end the segregation in bus and rail stations that had been in place for generations.

"This was the first unambiguous victory in the long history of the civil rights movement. It finally said, 'We can do this.' And it raised expectations across the board for greater victories in the future," Arsenault said.

"The people that took a seat on these buses, that went to jail in Jackson, that went to Parchman, they were never the same," said 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 Ride 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," Nelson said. "And that sometimes to do any great thing, it's important that we step out alone."

"Freedom Riders tells the story of an overlooked piece of not only civil rights history but American history," said Mark Samels, executive producer of the TV history series "American Experience."

"It's a story that we knew had to be told," Samels said. "The film touches and inspires everyone who sees it, and it's an honor to be presenting it."

In addition to the broadcast, "American Experience" is hosting the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, which will retrace the historic civil rights bus rides that changed America. Accompanied by original Freedom Riders, 40 college students will be chosen to participate in the ride, which will take place May 6-16 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the original rides.

Additional outreach activities include screenings and forums, a 20-city traveling exhibit, full curriculum materials, and a comprehensive website. For more information, visit