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‘Freedom Riders’ Film Revisits Those Who Risked Lives for Civil Rights

May 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
"Freedom Riders," a documentary that will air Monday on PBS' American Experience, revisits a group of young men and women who boarded commercial buses headed for the Deep South during the civil rights movement. Judy Woodruff discusses the risks and rewards with Rep. John Lewis and a young man who participated in a reenactment.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Fifty years ago this month, a group of young men and women boarded commercial buses in Washington, D.C., headed for the Deep South. The 13 members of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, led by James Farmer, planned a deliberate, but nonviolent challenge to the Jim Crow laws in the Southern states.

From May until November, 1961, hundreds of Americans, black and white, risked their lives. Some were brutally beaten, and all faced imprisonment.

Tonight, “American Experience” on PBS will air “Freedom Riders,” a documentary of those pivotal six months in the history of the civil rights movement.

The following excerpt picks up the story when a group gets off a Greyhound bus in Montgomery, Ala.

BERNARD LAFAYETTE JR., Freedom Ride: The mob came out and went straight to the reporters and started beating them and kicking them and throwing their cameras down, smashing them on the ground.

MAN: After we were forced away, that’s when the attack on the riders themselves started.

FREDERICK LEONARD, Freedom Ride: It just seemed like, just suddenly, they were — we were like — the bus was like surrounded.

JAMES ZWERG, Freedom Ride: You could see baseball bats and pieces of pipe and hammers and chains. And one fellow had a pitchfork.

FREDERICK LEONARD: It was like it was a feeding frenzy, like, you know how sharks will just — they were just crazy.

CATHERINE BURKE BROOKS, Freedom Ride: And what really sticks with me were the women. They were screaming, “Kill them niggers.” And they had babies in their arms.

EVAN THOMAS, journalist: Bobby is getting this in real time as it’s happening from his own lieutenants, saying something to the effect, it’s terrible. It’s terrible, just watching it happen. There are no police. They’re just beating them.

JOHN SEIGENTHALER, Kennedy Justice Department official: This was war on the Greyhound bus terminal parking lot. This was absolute war.

JAMES ZWERG: I asked God to be with me, to give me the strength I would need to remain nonviolent and to forgive them.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D-Ga.: The last thing I recall, standing with Jim Zwerg, I was hit in the head with a wooden crate.

JAMES ZWERG: I heard a crack and fell forward, rolled over on my back and a foot came down in my face. And that was it. I was out.

FREDERICK LEONARD: William Barbee was knocked down. A big 250-pound white guy had his foot on his neck, while another one was trying to drive a steel rod through his ear.

SANGERNETTA GILBERT BUSH, witness: The police were standing there in their uniforms, just looking. They provided no protection for those students.

JOHN SEIGENTHALER: There was a skinny young kid. And he was sort of dancing in front of this young woman, punching her. And I could see as she turned her head blood from the nose and mouth.

I grabbed her by the wrist over the hood of the car, had her right at the door. And she put her hands up on the doorjamb and said: “Mister, I don’t want you to get hurt. I’m nonviolent. I’m trained to take this. Please, don’t get hurt. We will be fine.”

And I said, “Get your ass in the car, sister.”

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN SEIGENTHALER: And — and, at that moment, they wheeled me around and they hit me with a pipe. They kicked me under the car and then left me there.

MAN: There were from 300 to 1,000 whites in the area of the bus depot. Before police finally broke up the crowd with tear gas, they beat and injured at least 20 persons of both races and both sexes.

DEREK CATSAM, University of Texas: After the Montgomery riots, the Kennedys are feeling betrayed. There’s John Seigenthaler lying in a pool of his own blood. And they realize they’re going to have to bring in federal marshals.

MAN: The Justice Department says 400 United States marshals will be in Montgomery tomorrow. They’re being assembled from other Southern states now. And court orders are being prepared to enable them to keep armed order, if necessary.

RAY SUAREZ: Again, the full “Freedom Riders” documentary will air on “American Experience” tonight on most PBS stations.

Judy Woodruff picks up the story from here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The majority of the Freedom Riders were black and white college students.

Earlier this month, 40 current college students from around the country, picked from thousands of applicants, participated in a PBS-sponsored reenactment of the Freedom Rides. They joined some of the original 1961 Riders to make the trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.

It was an opportunity to reflect on the risks and sacrifices inherent in the fight for social change, whether 50 years ago or today. Before their departure, I talked with two of them, Democratic Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, one of the original 13 Riders. He was severely beaten in Montgomery, Ala. And Charles Reed from Jersey City, N.J., a graduating senior at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., he is one of the student Riders.

I asked them why it’s important to remember the rides a half-century later.

CHARLES REED, University of Mary Washington: I had never heard of the Freedom Riders before attending University of Mary Washington, in which I took a freshman seminar course about the life and legacy of James Farmer. And that is what really exposed me to the Freedom Rides.

And I think that it’s so important that we now have this opportunity to give some acknowledgment to such a historic event in American history, where we had these courageous people who were intergenerational, interracial, and both male and female, that were getting on the bus, saying that, we want to end segregation throughout the South when it comes to interstate bus travel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Lewis, not everybody in the civil rights movement then thought the Freedom Rides were the right thing to do. Why did you think they should go ahead?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Growing up in rural Alabama, traveling on a Greyhound bus or Trailway bus over and over again through Alabama, Tennessee to school, I had seen those signs that side “white waiting,” “colored waiting,” “white men,” “colored men, “white women,” “colored women.”

I wanted to play a role to help to bring those signs down and end segregation and racial discrimination in public transportation. I felt like I had to be on a bus. I was a student. I was 21 years old, getting ready to graduate. And I came to Washington, D.C., on May 1, ’61, for training and orientation.

And then, on the night of May 3, as a group — there were 13 of us — went down to a little Chinese restaurant someplace in Washington for a meal. Growing up in rural Alabama, attending school in Nashville, Tenn., I never had Chinese food before. And it was a wonderful meal, a delicious meal. But someone said that night, “You should eat well. This may be like the Last Supper.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were you aware of the disagreement inside the civil rights movement about whether this was the right thing to do at the time?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I was very much aware that some people had some questions about whether we should be traveling as an interracial group through the South, that we could set the movement back, there could be violence. But we could not allow that there — the possibility for violence stop a nonviolent movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Charles, what did you learn about the Freedom Rides? What — what did you learn, and what surprised you about it all?

CHARLES REED: That this was a nonviolent movement and yet there was so much harsh, perilous discrimination against African-Americans while they were traveling throughout the South, with being attacked by mobs.

And that was — was what was most shocking to me, because you have these people, innocent Americans who are fighting for rights that are due to them and they’re being attacked by these antagonists throughout the entire ride. And that was one of the most profound things that I learned about the Freedom Rides.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, there comes a time when you believe in something that is so right, so good and so necessary, that you’re prepared to stand up and be willing to die for it. It’s just a matter of finding a way or making a way out of no way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Charles, how difficult is it for you to imagine what they went through?

CHARLES REED: It is extremely difficult to imagine what they went through.

I think that their efforts and their heroism of getting on the bus back in 1961, knowing that they were facing death, was something that was truly admirable. And they knew it was the right thing to do. It was the just thing to do. And you lose yourself in that moment where you say, “I don’t want to face this type of racial humiliation anymore. I want to put an end to this.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided not to participate in the rides. Why did he decide not to? And what effect did that have on the movement?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: The decision that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made was his decision. It’s in keeping with the movement. It was in keeping then that we all must decide for ourselves what we can do and what we cannot do.

Dr. King had a charge in Atlanta, and he didn’t want to violate his probation. On the other hand, some of the Freedom Riders said to him, we all are on probation. We all have been arrested. We all have been jailed, but we’re going to do it.

Many of the Freedom Riders were very disappointed that Dr. King didn’t board the bus in Atlanta, and when we had the violence in Montgomery, and made a decision to continue the ride, that he didn’t join us. And there’s a great scene in Montgomery, when we continued the ride, with Dr. King shaking the hand of one of the Freedom Riders, with his arm hanging out of the window, the Freedom Rider, and Dr. King just sort of shaking his hand and the bus just pulling off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And going forward, did it — did it weaken the movement? Did it strengthen the movement? What do you say?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: The Freedom Ride, the drama of the Freedom Ride strengthened the movement. It took the movement out of the urban centers, off the college campuses, into the small towns, into rural areas.

It was a movement on wheels. Even after we had been beaten and mobbed in Montgomery, after a church was almost bombed and almost burned down, we didn’t give up. We kept the faith. We kept our eyes on the prize. And the Freedom Ride led to the desegregation of public transportation all across the South.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as a young person today, what does what they did mean to you?

CHARLES REED: I realize that their efforts paved the way for many of the opportunities that I have today, to attend college of my choice, to get on a bus and ride through the South and sit anywhere that I please.

If you are engaged and really motivated to make something happen and make change happen, you can really do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And hearing those words must mean something to you.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, hearing those words from this young man means a great deal.

It demonstrates that what we’re all trying to do, black and white, young and old, men and women, have helped inspire you and other young people like you to get out there and continue what we started.

CHARLES REED: And to add to that, I was just going to say that it’s so powerful how the Freedom Rides taught the philosophy that, if you’re a male or a female, if you’re black or white, if you’re young or old, we’re all people of the human race, and we all should be treated equally. And that right there is very, very important.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: But, Charles, something I said, that, we’re one family. We’re one people. We’re one house. We’re one community. And that’s what the Freedom Ride was all about, that we’re all in the same boat.

CHARLES REED: Yes, exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, on that note, we thank you both for talking with us.

Congressman John Lewis, Charles Reed, we thank you.

CHARLES REED: Thank you.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you.