Freedom Riders chronicles the daring and courage of activists, black and white, who rode on interstate bus lines in 1961 through the Southern states to challenge their segregation laws. Directed by Stanley Nelson (The Murder of Emmett Till), the film focuses on how the civil rights campaign was conceived, and how the movement eventually became a major concern for the Kennedy administration. Once again American Experience has come up with a vital and important exposé on a truly pivotal episode in the civil rights movement. I had only the vaguest idea of this story, which happened when I was in high school. I knew I wanted to see this. I thought it would be good, but I had no idea it would be life-changing. I approached this film with a rather neutral attitude, fearing that although it was important “history”, it would be musty and fusty. Boy was I wrong! There isn’t a dull moment in this amazing film. Take the life-threatening journey with these black and white heroes. Their courage and determination forever changed the American South. The entire ride goes from one horrifying scene to the next, getting more scary as the buses head into Alabama and Mississippi. As they progressed further south, eventually riots erupted and some of the riders were thrown into jail. The film details Martin Luther King’s dealings with Washington in getting Robert Kennedy’s involvement. Ultimately this film documents a breath-taking moment when human courage and fear meet in the heart and soul of our country. The real standout is the fact that the story is told by the people who participated in it. These people, black and white, rode these buses into the Deep South to challenge the Jim Crow laws and essentially lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement, even though they didn’t know it at the time. Who knew what would come later on as we progressed further into the sixties? As I watched, I became more cognizant of the fact of how different the U.S. was in Alabama and Mississippi during this time. The term Deep South certainly takes on more meaning. I lived in Tennessee and Louisiana in the 1960s, and marched, sure, but I doubt I would have found the sheer courage of these few people, to travel unarmed and unresisting into the heart of the Deep South, back when the slightest racial transgression would result in mobs of ruffians coming after you with gasoline, fire bombs, and iron pipes. The Freedom Riders were not fear-free, and for good reason 50 years ago in the Deep South. But their vision of a future free of fear and racism was stronger than their own fears. These heroes, black and white, male and female, are truly awe inspiring. People risked their lives so that we could have a better one. I’m so sorry to see how evil and cold-hearted people can be out of ignorance. I hate re-living the 1960s, but it is good to go back and remember the names of the heroes who were beaten, stomped on, fire-bombed — just to eat at a lunch counter. It was also very eye-opening to see how other countries viewed the USA at that time in utter amazement. I learned a lot. It is essential to know and to appreciate how very, very, very far we’ve come, no matter what problems still exist today. This film is an incredible rare meeting of A+ film making with awe-inspiring human courage and love. Highly recommended. Excellent! Absolutely essential! Absolutely a MUST SEE! I honestly believe everyone in the US would benefit from seeing this film — especially in high school classes. Please watch with the younger generation so they’ll learn that freedom is not and was not free. The PBS website has free downloadable resources for parents, teachers, and leaders to use in examining and sharing this significant chapter of American history. Oprah did a follow-up on this story, and her site has a lot of rich additional material. Based on the award-winning book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Documentary, American Experience 2009 NR 111 minutes.
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