Movie Review: Freedom Riders
One of the most important Civil Rights moments comes to life
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The Freedom Rides of 1961 started small, with a group of 13 black and white men and women standing up for their rights. This nonviolent group's goal was to sit together on buses to protest segregation. Expecting some mean slurs and, at worst, a night in jail, they had no idea what was coming.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. A new documentary was recently released to commemorate the people and struggle behind one of the most important moments of the Civil Rights movement.
Freedom Riders, directed by Stanley Nelson, documents the 1961 Freedom Rides by letting the participants tell their truly remarkable stories. The movie was shown at the ImageNation Revolution Awards at The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City recently. It will air on PBS May 16.
Congressman John Lewis, who is featured in the movie, told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps about how as a participant in the Freedom Rides he was violently beaten and sustained severe head injuries.
"I was hit in the head by an individual with a wooden soda crate and I was knocked unconscious," he said. "My seatmate was seriously hurt. He was hospitalized for several days."
One of President John F. Kennedy's aides, John Siegenthaler, tells how he was involved in negotiations to protect the riders, but even he was violently attacked when he tried to offer help to one of them.
There are many intense moments in the documentary. One of the most violent comes after the Freedom Riders reach Alabama. They faced terror and abuse from angry mobs, heavily supported by the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group. Two buses were attacked. Miraculously, no one died.
This brutality continued throughout the rides, and more and more people were hurt. When the riders almost couldn't take it any longer, new groups of men and women from Fisk University joined the rides to help. They were thrown into Mississippi's toughest prison.
But that didn't stop the Freedom Rides. More people kept coming to volunteer and participate, and more and more attention was brought to what the rides were all about—upholding an existing law that forbid segregation on interstate transportation. The Freedom Rides inspired many other civil rights movements and marches.
"You have to stay with it," Lewis said. "It became a part of you. You had to hang in there, you had to keep the faith, you had to keep your eyes on the prize."
Nelson allows the participants to tell their own stories, which makes the terrible events like those in Alabama come alive. He shows footage, photographs, and documents never seen before. It's a blend of happiness and sadness—the riders' initial optimism, then the devastating violence they faced.
"Because of what we did, young people, students need to know in the matter of a short time, those signs that can said White Waiting, that said Colored Waiting, White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women, those signs came tumbling down," Lewis said.
Be sure to check out Kid Reporter Henry Dunkelberger's video interview with Rep. John Lewis about the Freedom Rides.
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For more on the achievements and contributions of African Americans to U.S. History, return to the Scholastic Kids Press Corps' Black History Month Special Report.
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