FILM- Freedom rider: Nelson drives bus of civil disobedience

Stanley Nelson

In 1961, two small, integrated groups of activists left Washington, D.C., and Richmond by bus. All they wanted was to desegregate Southern buses and bus stations. What they got, as one participant says, was "all-out war."

Their first bus was fire-bombed. Howling redneck mobs, 200 strong, dogged them and beat them mercilessly. In Montgomery, Alabama, "Bull" Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety, gave the KKK fifteen minutes' grace time to attack the protestors with impunity.

But nothing stopped the Freedom Riders or made them violent. Meanwhile, the nation–- first and foremost, the Kennedys (President John and AG Bobby)–- watched as these few heroes relentlessly battled bigotry in the first major act of civil disobedience of the Civil Rights era. 

Five decades later, award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson commemorates these events in Freedom Riders, part of PBS's American Experience. Combining archival footage with recent interviews with surviving Freedom Riders and other participants, Nelson has crafted a harrowing film.

When he began it, Nelson, 55, realized that he "knew about 10 percent of the story," he recalls. "Like so many people, I had heard the term, and it kind of got mixed up in that mash of Civil Rights stuff that's in our brain–- but we don't know the details."

As the project unfolded, he strove to give a sense of what was going on in the white Southern mind. "What," he asks, "would make you want to kill people for sitting together on a bus?"

To match his subject's intensity, Nelson made the film "more visceral" than other films he's seen on the Civil Rights movement, so he asked his subjects probing questions, like, "How did you feel after you had just taken a beating in a bus-burning in Alabama and the next day, you decide you're going to get back on the bus?"

Nelson also unearthed extraordinary clips of the hopefully now-alien, yet all-too-recent, 1960s South. The firebombing of the first bus was vividly filmed in 8mm by a boy who lived nearby. The FBI confiscated the footage, which remained unseen until now.

Freedom Riders has garnered standing ovations and awards at festivals. Nelson, who appeared at the 2006 Virginia Film Festival, theorizes about its growing popularity:

"What the film says is that change can be made, and it really in some ways shows you how it gets made by a small number of people. We're living in a time when we kind of forget that."

And he offers one of the reasons why it has resonated so much with young people: "Because they see young people standing up and making a change. I think that's what I'd like people to walk away with–- besides being entertained. That's the first step."


Stanley Nelson will introduce a screening of Freedom Riders at 6pm Friday, November 5, at Culbreth Theatre with a discussion moderated by Larry Sabato.