Freedom Riders: The fight to end segregation

Associated Press | 12/28/2010, 6:46 p.m.
JACKSON, Mississippi — Filmmaker Stanley Nelson says his...

The New York-based filmmaker said bringing youth activists on a tour retracing the “Freedom Rides” promises to be a vivid experience. “Talking about the civil rights movement in the actual places (where it happened) is important,” he said.

The new generation of riders will hear from the movement’s veterans, including Bernard Lafayette Jr., who was a 20-year-old seminary student when he got involved. Lafayette said his parents initially refused to sign a consent form, fearing the rides would be “his death warrant.”

Lafayette, now a 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 drop out 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.

Lafayette said “Freedom Riders” recalls a time in U.S. history that must never be forgotten.

The documentary includes black-and-white 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 served as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, said on film that he wasn’t aware of the plight of blacks on segregated buses before the rides.

Seigenthaler had tried to persuade the activists to call off protests, fearing further violence. But he said Diane Nash, a Fisk University student and a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, refused. He says on film that Nash told him the riders had signed their last will and testament because ‘“We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.’”

During an eight-month period in 1961, more than 400 blacks and whites traveled on the buses into the South. Many were beaten and jailed, but none died.

The film has had select screenings nationwide.

Thomas, now the owner of McDonald’s restaurants and Marriott hotels, attended last month’s showing at The Alamo Theater in Jackson to standing ovations.

“We were treated like conquering heroes or superstars when we walked on the stage. There was thunderous applause,” Thomas said of a theater brimming with hundreds of people. “I felt a little bit embarrassed by it all.”

Associated Press