Fifty years ago this May, a group of young blacks and whites in Washington D.C. boarded a bus to test a Supreme Court decision that segregation on interstate bus and rail transportation was illegal, only to be met with multiple beatings and attacks as they rode deep into the South. Their journey sparked a wave of similar Freedom Rides aimed at desegregating public transportation -- rides that were met with searing hatred and savage brutality.
The Off-Air Series and the Illinois Humanities Council will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Riders with "Traveling Down Freedom's Main Line: The Freedom Rides at 50," an ensemble of theatrical and literary performances commemorating the rides, at the DuSable Museum of African American History on Sat., May 7. (It's free but requires an RSVP.) Part of the celebration includes clips from "Freedom Riders," a documentary by director Stanley Nelson, who took some time to chat with us about his film. "Freedom Riders" was first screened at last year's Sundance Film Festival and will have its national premiere on PBS at 8 pm on May 16.
Why do you think it took nearly 50 years to make a feature length film about the Freedom Riders? What inspired you?
I think that the Freedom Rides maybe got overshadowed by other events in the Civil Rights Movement. It was early on, and it didn't have major famous players like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And I think in some ways, in general, the Civil Rights movement has gotten mashed up in our heads so we don't know about individual events...What interested me about the story was taking a piece of the Civil Rights Movement and looking at it in depth. This was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement...It wasn't solidified. It was in a place where it could have been beaten back.
Would you talk about the scope of what you cover in the documentary?
One of the things that was essential was to cover all sides of the Freedom Rides, the bravery and courage of the people on the rides, but also why people would be so opposed to black and white people sitting together at the front of the bus as to throw fire bombs and hold doors open and try to kill people on the bus. We wanted to try to get that piece of the story. One of the amazing things about the film is that it works on a bunch of different levels. You have the Freedom Riders riding through the South. At the same time, you have this other story taking place in the White House with John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and the international piece about it being during the Cold War.
What does your film illuminate that people don't learn from the facts in their history textbooks?
It's a very emotional film. I think that's something you don't get from books. You get the fear and you get the courage, but you get a sense that nothing was inevitable, that success was not inevitable.
You were about 9 or 10 years old, growing up in New York, when all of this was happening. Did they have an impact on you when you were young?
I don't remember the freedom rides specifically at all. What was interesting for me was that I was basically starting out where most Americans were starting out...I didn't know what a wonderful, incredible story this is.