Hopping on the bus is a daily thing for many people, but in 1961 riding the bus in the South was much more than an accessible way to travel—it was a way to stand up to racial inequality.
In 1961, hundreds of ordinary citizens advocating for civil rights put their freedom, and even their lives, on the line by riding interstate buses traveling through the South to protest segregation measures by major motor carriers.
One of the protesters, who became known as the Freedom Riders, was Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., who as a young engineering student spent 61 days in prison in Mississippi for disturbing the peace while participating in the rides. Another was Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a 19-year-old seminary student at the time. He was attacked in South Carolina for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room, he was beaten unconscious in Alabama, and he was imprisoned for 40 days in Mississippi.
Filner, Lewis, and a number of other Freedom Riders were honored on Wednesday for the 50th anniversary of the historic protest movement. Awards were given out before a screening of Freedom Riders, a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson. It is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
The film depicts the inspirational story of more than 400 blacks and whites from across the nation who challenged segregation in interstate travel for six months, facing threats, attacks, and jail time. It includes testimonies from riders, public officials, and journalists who witnessed the Freedom Rides.
The rides, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), intentionally violated segregation laws as riders traveled through the Deep South. “Boarding that Greyhound bus to travel to the heart of the Deep South, I felt good, I felt happy, I felt liberated. I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army,” Lewis said in the film. “The Freedom Riders changed America forever.”
Many of the other riders faced similar consequences and their mug shots were shown during an introduction to the film. Other riders who were recognized included Dion Diamond, Joan C. Browning, the Rev. Reginald Green, Joan Mulholland, El Senzengakulu Zulu, John Moody, Catherine Burks-Brooks, Doratha Smith Simmons, Claude Reese, and Moses Newson, who covered the rides for the Afro-American Newspapers chain.
“Almost every movement that has taken place since the civil rights movement received its mojo from the men and women who you will see tonight.” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Whether the movement began in South Africa or Eastern Europe … they looked at the success of the Freedom Riders and looked at the success of the men and women who put themselves on the line in order to create a new kind of freedom and a new kind of revolution, a nonviolent revolution.”
The two-hour documentary, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be featured May 16 on PBS.