Friday, September 02, 2016

Black History Film: Freedom Riders

Bombed Freedom Rides Bus

Have you ever gone into McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC or indeed, any fast food place to buy and eat a meal? I am sure at some point we have all patronised some such establishment, or a café or diner.

Have you ever reflected on the fact that there was a time we were not allowed to enter such places?

The documentary Freedom Riders covers a period in 1961 when people – both Black and white – challenged the laws and customs that forbade Black and white people from mixing or co-mingling. The film contains archive footage as well as interviews with some of the original Freedom Riders.

Freedom Riders, a hard-hitting documentary, depicts when members of CORE – the Commission on Racial Equality – embarked on a journey to test a recent ruling by the Supreme Court which had declared segragation on interstate buses to be unconstitutional. They set out to test whether Federal law was being enforced.

The journey began in Washington, D.C. The Freedom Riders boarded buses to Atlanta, GA, where they met with Martin Luther King. They were excited to meet with him and hoped he would join them. But he cautioned them not to continue their quest, and to use methods that were less confrontational.

At this point, I admit to being confused. While applauding their courage, I do not understand why these young people chose to put themselves in extreme danger rather than finding another, less violent way to address the issue.

The Freedom Riders continued on their way, heading towards Birmingham, AL. One group rode a Greyhound bus (coach), the other used Trailways. The Greyhound never made it to its destination - it was firebombed by a racist mob. The Trailways bus arrived in Birmingham to be greeted by another racist mob. Bull Connor, Birmingham's Chief of Police, had made a deal with the Ku Klux Klan to allow the mob to assault the Freedom Riders for 15 minutes before the police arrived.

Because they were confronted by such extreme force, the Freedom Riders resolved to continue on their journey. They refused to be intimidated into giving up. This much I do understand and, again, applaud.

The Freedom Riders were then joined by fresh troops from Fisk University in Nashville, TN. Each had signed his or her last will and testament before joining the Freedom Rides. As time went on, more and more people joined them.

The film documents the dirty deals that were done, such as the one in Birmingham I mentioned above. At one point, the riders were holed up in the First Baptist Church with MLK, who was on the phone to the then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The Kennedies had not taken much notice of the need to enforce Federal law forbidding segregation up until then, and as Julian Bond says, civil rights were “an afterthought” to them. But MLK insisted they take action, and the Freedom Riders captured their attention and that of the nation. The leaders got behind the Freedom Riders and their efforts were reported internationally, shaming America and the values our nation was meant to represent. 
The actions of the Freedom Riders, and the support of MLK and other prominent leaders such as the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, led to the Riders securing a high level of protection for part of their journey. This demonstrated that the State and Federal governments could have afforded them that protection from the start. This takes me back to my original question. Why did the Riders not insist on getting government protection before they started out? Or why diid they not use less violent strategies?

Unfortunately, the story did not end there. The Riders suffered more brutal racist violence. In Jackson, Miss, they were sentenced to hard labour at the notorious Parchman State Prison. Again, this was intended to discourage them but had the opposite effect. The prison became one of the stops on the Freedom Rides and over 300 of the riders served time there – under a law that had been declared unconstitutional.

I have to admire the Riders' ingenuity. Nothing and no one was going to stop them. They turned every adversity into an advantage. They even composed a song about the Parchman prison. 

The Freedom Riders' quest was a foolhardy one – in terms of the methods they used - and led to a great deal of suffering which, to my mind, was preventable. However, the courage and determination of these young people spurred the Federal Government to take action and, in the end, led President Kennedy to call for an end to all segregation.

The film draws some very uplifting and inspiring conclusions. People from all over the United States, from different races and religions, and different backgrounds, came together and put their lives on the line to put an end to racial injustice.

I definitely recommend you see this film.

Please leave your comments below and please share this with your networks. Thanks.

1 comment:

Nubiagirl said...

Thank you for your thoughtful blog, Zhana. I have seen this film, and recall those days of terror. I think that the Freedom Riders went ahead with their plans in spite of the danger because: 1) they were very young and determined to confront racism immediately; they may have thought that MLK's ideology of peaceful demonstration was too passive, and 2) they may not have realized how dangerous confronting white racists could be.

By the way, CORE was the Congress of Racial Equality.