Mark the date: This coming Monday, May 16. Of course, there will be repeats, you can tape it, and it will be available as of that date on DVD. But however you do it, here’s a film not to be missed: Freedom Riders. It’ll be on PBS’s American Experience, on Monday at 9:00 p.m.
Not too long ago, I had the privilege of watching a preview of this film in Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater. It was preceded by comments from legendary civil rights activist, Dr. Julian Bond, and politico Larry Sabato. Like many of us in the audience, I came away asking myself, “Where the hell was I when these conscientious, dedicated folks, many younger than I at the time, were putting their lives on the line for a cause to which I paid mere lip service ?”
It was nigh on about time for me to better understand just what sacrifices they made and what a miracle they performed for our country. I was raised in a privileged white family, outside of Washington, DC, and attended an all-white school. Just over 50 years ago, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. came to deliver a sermon at Princeton University, where as a senior I had become a typically safe and guilty yankee “liberal.” We were a politically naïve crowd. I absorbed little of what he had to say, and went on with my life, while others risked theirs for convictions I presumably shared.
As a result of this film, my wife and I signed up to travel with the very personable Dr. Bond on what had become an annual excursion for him: UVA’s “Civil Rights South: In the Footsteps of the Movement,” from March 5-11, 2011. We rode a bus from Atlanta to Birmingham, traveling the same roads as had the Freedom Riders, and pausing at the historic sites (in Albany, Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Selma), where some very brave people, many of them only kids, changed the course of American history. We met some of them. You’ll meet many of them in this film. They came by the hundreds to march in the marches, join the boycotts, and ride the buses. They payed for it with humiliation and blood and prison time. There were fifty of us on this bus, and none of us came through the experience unchanged.
Fifty years after the Freedom Rides, it’s hard to conceive of what they must have been like. Freedom Riders is a vivid portrait of what happened. We dare not forget.