They were mostly young men and women, both black and white, who challenged segregation in the American South in an unconventional way: by traveling on buses together in 1961. Fifty years later, their story was told again through the documentary “Freedom Riders,” which aired on PBS Monday evening. The entire documentary, which The Post’s Hank Stuever reviewed, can be watched online.
The film, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book, “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” features interviews with the men and women who rode the buses. The riders practiced non-violence, a strategy that not every participant said they believed in. One section of the film shows Freedom Riders being trained in non-violence by enduring hate speech and violent rhetoric directed at them.
Jim Zwerg, a white student who participated in the Freedom Rides, was severely beaten as he stuck to the practice of non-violence. In an emotional interview, Zwerg explains how his parents turned their back on him because of his participation:
The documentary also featured an interview with John Patterson, the segregationist governor of Alabama during the Freedom Ride. “At that time, there was nothing integrated in Alabama,” Patterson, who outlawed the NAACP when he was attorney general, said in a new interview. “If anybody running for governor had indicated in any manner that he was not for maintaining segregation, he had no chance of winning.”
“If your intent is not to be a bona fide interstate passenger on a bus, why don’t you just stay home and mind your own business? And everything will be all right,” Patterson said with a laugh. The former governor refused a phone call from President John Kennedy and his brother Robert requesting that he intervene on behalf of the riders. Patterson said it was “a very, very bad moment for me,” and that he would handle it differently now. “It has haunted me ever since.”
Watch the full documentary below: