'Freedom Riders,' a story of brave, ordinary folks

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson says his new documentary about the activists who defiantly opposed the 1960s segregation of the South may help inspire a new generation.

"Freedom Riders" recounts the 1961 crusade by activists intent on ending segregated travel on interstate buses in the South. The "American Experience" film, to air May 16 on PBS, has been generating buzz on the film festival circuit since its showing this month at Sundance.

Most of the riders were college students coached in the art of nonviolent protest by veteran activists, including the Rev. James Lawson. The students, both black and white, knew they were risking their lives by traveling on Greyhound and Trailways buses.

Nelson said the lesson of "Freedom Riders" is how ordinary citizens can bring about change.

"It really says that this movement was a movement of people," Nelson said. "Nobody else will ever be a Martin Luther King. What 'Freedom Riders' said is that you don't have to be."

That's the message Nelson wants to impart to students being recruited to join original participants in retracing the route of the Freedom Rides next year on their 50th anniversary. Forty seats are available for the trip, organized by "American Experience."

The tour will begin in Washington and cover flash points of the civil rights era, including Anniston, Ala., where a bus was bombed, and Montgomery, Ala., where riders were beaten by a white mob.

History told in stories

One of the original riders, Hank Thomas of Stone Mountain, Ga., recalled the dangers.

"I was on that bus that was firebombed in Anniston, and the Klan held the door shut while the bus was burning. The fuel tank exploded and the people who were holding the door scattered," Thomas said.

When the bus reached Rock Hill, Thomas was arrested, taken to jail and then to a Ku Klux Klan meeting. He was able to escape.

The bus tour is to culminate in Jackson, Miss., the city where riders were detained and hauled to Parchman prison, where at least one of the riders was struck so hard by guards that he bled.

Nelson said his latest project resonates even more than some of his previous documentaries, including "The Murder of Emmett Till." The 2003 documentary is an account of the 14-year-old black youth's murder in Mississippi in 1955.

The new generation of riders will hear from the movement's veterans, including Bernard Lafayette, who was a 20-year-old seminary student when he got involved. Lafayette said his parents initially refused to sign a consent form, fearing for his life.

Lafayette, distinguished senior scholar-in-residence at Emory University who teaches students about Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy, said the strategies of the civil rights movement are applicable to such issues today as "the bullying, the high dropout rate, the violence that takes place."

"Once students realize what existed before and what we did to bring about those changes, that becomes the teachable moment. The worst thing that could happen is that people come to believe that things cannot change," Lafayette said.

Many voices heard

The documentary includes footage of the buses under attack, as well as interviews with participants and government officials who sought to quell the situation for the Kennedy administration.

John Seigenthaler, a Tennessee native who was a special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said on film he wasn't aware of the plight of blacks on segregated buses before the rides.

Diane Nash, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told him the riders had signed their wills because "'We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.'"