This month marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark moment in this country's civil right era, the 1961 Freedom Rides, during which more than 400 Americans traveled through the South on buses to challenge Jim Crow laws.
"Freedom Riders" (UNC-TV, 9 tonight) recounts this story, powerfully, retracing each arduous, inspirational, painful ,and ultimately successful step on a journey that tested the notion of non-violent activism.
The documentary isn't always easy to watch, mostly because those interviewed have such vivid memories of what they experienced, what they lived through. Thus, the hatred, the fear, the courage, the determination, the moments of clarity and triumph feel so present. That also makes it a must watch.
The rides were launched by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality led by James Farmer, a group that needed to make its mark to be on the same level as SNCC and the NAACP. Leading civil rights leaders thought the bus rides were a bad idea, so risky and confrontational that they might set the movement back. As one person points out, it was a move in support of non-violence that at the same time courted violence to make its mark.
And of course, that's what happened, in horrifying ways. But beyond that, what's striking is how the violence emboldened the mix of black and white riders, most of whom were college students -- 18, 19, 20 years old. You learn some names you may not know like Diane Nash, a Fisk University student who led the second wave of riders after the bombing of the bus. These students dropped out of school during their finals to make the trip, and many of them were the first in their families to go to college.
"Freedom Riders" does a great job, too, explaining the political machinations surrounding the rides, particularly noting the education of President Kennedy and his brother and attorney general Bobby Kennedy. And it gives a revealing, and not completely flattering, image of Martin Luther King Jr.
But the most significant moments come in the personal tales of witnesses. One comes from a woman who as a little girl heard her father planning a 'welcoming for those nigger agitators.' She ends up watching her father be part of a mob that burns the bus; she describes it as 'a scene from hell.' And then she tells how she sees someone coughing, gasping desperately for water and she goes over and gives them some and comforts them, and then picks another person to help.
That singular memory, of a little girl witnessing hate and responding with love, shows that the "Freedom Riders" had a vision of America that could be true and was worth their sacrifices.