What is known at the time of historical events is often less than the full story. Years later, details might emerge that add dimension to what happened. Heroes are sometimes proved to be all too human, and seeming extras in the theater of the past turn out to have played pivotal roles.
Those are just some of the things we learn in Freedom Riders, a superb American Experience documentary by Stanley Nelson that will be shown 50 years after groups of black and white Americans rode Greyhound and Trailways buses to test the segregationist laws in the South.
The first rides were organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, but when one of the two buses was set ablaze in Alabama by white mobs, the ride was aborted. (The lone Kentuckian on the Freedom Rides, Joseph P. Perkins of Owensboro, field secretary for CORE, was aboard that bus.)
Soon after, Diane Nash, a college student in Nashville, organized new rides. This time, the riders got to Mississippi, but not without meeting the same kind of violence.
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Eventually, the Interstate Commerce Commission acted to end segregation in public rail and bus lines, and the Freedom Rides were rightly considered one of the seminal events in the long and still continuing battle for racial equality in the United States.
What is less well known, though, is just how complicated the story of the Freedom Riders was. Through incredible archival footage and contemporary interviews with former riders such as U.S.. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, former Robert F. Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler, former Alabama Gov. John Patterson and many others, Nelson probes the almost Shakespearean complexity of what was going on behind the scenes during the six months from May to November 1961.
While there might be popular belief that John F. Kennedy was an important champion of racial equality from the get-go, historians have long known that it took Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general, a while to get to that position. And it was largely the Freedom Rides that pushed them there.
At first, the Kennedys considered the Riders "a nuisance," in part because the brothers were preoccupied with Cold War issues, but also because Southern Democrats like Patterson helped get John Kennedy elected. Robert Kennedy is even shown voicing the same opinion offered by Patterson: The riders were instigating trouble and should go home.
Even when the Kennedys came around, Robert Kennedy didn't want the White House to take action to protect the riders. If the ICC did it or if he could get Patterson to call out the National Guard, the potential political damage of the federal government getting involved in state laws could be contained.
The climactic moment for the riders came at a meeting at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, attended by 1,500 people. Although the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept the riders at arm's length at first, concerned not only that they were in danger but that the rides themselves could undermine the equal rights movement, by the time of the church meeting, King was convinced that they weren't going to go away. Many tried to persuade him to ride with them, and his demurral left them more than a little disappointed.
One of the most fascinating testimonies is that of Patterson. While he branded the riders "outside agitators" at the time and tried to thwart them, he perhaps saw the writing on the wall, in that he stopped short of the kind of extremism exhibited by Bull Connor, public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Ala,. and by Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett who had more than 300 riders thrown into the notorious Parchman State Penitentiary.
When President Kennedy, at his brother's behest, tried to contact Patterson to urge him to take action to protect the riders, Patterson had his aides tell the president the governor had "gone fishing."
Eventually, Kennedy got Patterson to call in the Guard. Eventually, the Kennedys came around to more public espousal of racial equality. Eventually, King became the most famous martyr to the cause of racial justice in 20th-century America. And eventually, as Robert Kennedy is shown suggesting in archival footage, an African-American would be elected president.
It all seems so long ago, in some ways. Yet, watching the extraordinary news footage, it's almost hard to imagine that the country could move forward at all from so much strife, much less in 50 years.
But that's only until we think of how many years of struggle led up to those six months in the South, and how much more is left to do.