PBS advertised The Freedom Riders for so long and with such intensity that I knew exactly when it was premiering on television … and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it. I mean, the advertisement seemed to tell the story. Groups of well-meaning black and white people rode buses through the Deep South in 1961. They were heckled or worse. In time things changed. Done. But life is never that simple. And if there is one adage I believe above all others it is this: If you do not remember the past, you are doomed to repeat it. So I watched it.
Nothing compares to hearing history retold by the actual participants in the events, from the students on the bus to the then-governor of Alabama. It becomes clear what a complex web history is as all the names of the day are mentioned: Jimmy Hoffa who refused to let his union drivers drive the buses once the buses became targets for white mobs, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy who were trying to juggle international and domestic events and just wanted the riders to stop and go home, Marting Luther King Jr. and other high level civil rights leaders who also wanted the riders to stop in the beginning, and on and on. Ah, the deals that were made and the lies that were told. But above all else what stands out in this amazing film is the courage of the men and women who took part in this protest, a protest that evolved quite a bit over time.
Of course, in the end, this is a story with uplift. Perseverance pays off. I, as an African American woman in 21st Century U.S.A., can travel anywhere I like by bus or any other mode of transportation. In fact, in 2005, before I ever knew of the freedom rides, I did travel solo around the Deep South by bus and train. Still, I am left with questions after my first viewing of the program.
Throughout the program we hear first-hand remembrances of the riders, politicians, and a few local residents. I’d be interested in hearing the reflections of the men who made up the attacking mobs in the various cities. Do they feel any different, fifty years later, about what took place? If circumstances allowed, would they repeat their actions? If yes, why? If no, why not? The most nagging question I have is for my parents. In 1961, they would have been married and begun raising a family. How is it that they — and so many other people like them — could experience such denigration throughout their lives, be habitually treated as second-class citizens or little better than animals, and still somehow choose not to plant seeds of hatred in the hearts of their children for their “oppressors?” I think that must take courage, too.