American Experience

S23 E11 | CLIP

Chapter 1 | Freedom Riders

Freedom Riders is the powerful harrowing and ultimately inspirational story of six months in 1961 that changed America forever.

AIRED: August 28, 2020 | 0:10:12

JOHN LEWIS: "I wish to apply for acceptance as a participant

in CORE's Freedom Ride, 1961."

GENEVIEVE HOUGHTON: " travel via bus from Washington, D.C.,

"to New Orleans, Louisiana,

and to test and challenge segregated..."

"...facilities en route.

"I understand that I shall be participating

in a nonviolent protest..."

JERRY MOORE: "...against racial discrimination,

that arrest or personal injury to me might result."

RAYMOND ARSENAULT: The Freedom Rides of 1961

were a simple but daring plan:

The Congress of Racial Equality came up with the idea

to put Blacks and whites in small groups

on commercial buses,

and they would deliberately violate

the segregation laws of the Deep South.

HOUGHTON: We were to go through various parts of the South,

gradually going deeper and deeper,

six of us on a Trailways bus and six of us on the Greyhound bus,

and see whether places were segregated,

whether people were being served

when they went to get something to eat or buy a ticket

or use the restrooms.

GORDON CAREY: One of the major thrusts of the Freedom Ride

was to get the movement into the Deep South.

Most of the action up till this time

had been in the upper South or in the North.

And one of the ideas here was to go into the deepest South.

We were hoping that this would start a national movement.

DEREK CATSAM: CORE had this set itinerary.

They anticipated that this would be a two-week trip,

that it would culminate down in New Orleans

with a real celebration on the anniversary

of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

And there's almost

an element of naiveté attached to it,

how easily they thought it would go.

LEWIS: "I am a senior at American Baptist Theological Seminary

"and hope to graduate in June.

"I know that an education is important,

"and I hope to get one.

"But at this time,

"human dignity is the most important thing in my life...

that justice and freedom might come to the Deep South."

(crowd shouting)

MAN: I have no doubt that the Negro basically knows

that the best friend he's ever had in the world

is the Southern white man.

MAN: We talk about it here as separation of the races.

Customs and traditions that have been built up

over the last hundred years that have proved

for the best interests

of both the colored and the white people.

There's not been one single change.

(protesters shouting)

MAN: The colored man knows

where he stands.

The white man knows where he stands.

We have signs saying colored and white.

The colored man knows that he is not to enter there.

WOMAN: Well, the nigger's all right in his place,

but they've always been behind us and just tell you the truth,

I want them always to stay behind me,

'cause I never have loved a nigger, mister.

WOMAN: You cannot change a way of life overnight.

The more they try to force us into doing something,

then the worse the reaction will be.

MAN: Our colored people will do exactly as they have done.

Our white people will do exactly as they have done.


Because it's worked out best.

ARSENAULT: It was all encompassing, this so-called Southern way of life,

and would not allow for any breaks.

Um, it was a system

that was only as strong, the white Southerners thought,

as its weakest link.

So you couldn't allow people even to sit together

on the front of a bus,

something that really shouldn't have threatened anyone.

But it did.

It threatened their sense of the wholeness, the sanctity

of what they saw as an age-old tradition.

DIANE NASH: Travel in the segregated South,

for Black people, was humiliating.

The very fact that, uh, there were separate facilities

was to say to Black people and white people

that Blacks were so subhuman and so inferior

that we could not even use

public facilities that white people used.

The Supreme Court even said

that there was no right that a Black person had

that white people had to respect.

CHARLES PERSON: You didn't know what you were going to encounter.

You had night riders.

You had, uh, hoodlums.

You could be antagonized at any point in your journey.

So most of the time it was very, very difficult to plan a trip,

and, you know, you always had to meet someone to meet you there,

because you didn't know what to expect.

♪ We're rolling along the highway... ♪

♪ There is merry adventure in every wonderful mile ♪

♪ We're gliding along the byway ♪

♪ Lighthearted and free in streamline style ♪

♪ As we travel over the countryside ♪

♪ There's romance...

SANGERNETTA GILBERT BUSH: My father traveled quite a bit.

And he just wanted a cup of coffee

to make it to Montgomery.

And he had to go around the back of the café

to get a cup of coffee and then they told him...

I'm sorry, our management does not allow us

to serve niggers in here.

Pushed 'em on out the door.

♪ It's a wonderful happy feeling ♪

♪ Rolling along the broad highway ♪

♪ There's the open road in view ♪

♪ Every mile there's something new ♪

♪ To make your trip a happy, thrilling thing to do... ♪

I grew up in the South.

Child of good and decent parents.

We had women who worked in our household,

sometimes surrogate mothers.

They were invisible women to me.

I can't believe I couldn't see them.

I don't know where my head or heart was.

I don't know where my parents' heads and hearts were,

or my teachers'.

I never heard it once from the pulpit.

We were blind to the reality of racism

and afraid, I guess, of change.

♪ We're rolling along...

♪ America for me.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let the word go forth, from this time and place,

to friend and foe alike,

that the torch has been passed

to a new generation of Americans.

ARSENAULT: When John Kennedy was elected

in November 1960, there was great hope and expectation

that things would be better on matters of civil rights,

that there was a contrast

between him and Dwight Eisenhower.

He was young and had ideas and talked about the New Frontier.

But when he gave his inaugural address in January of 1961,

he talked about spreading freedom all over the world--

to China, to Latin America, to Africa--

to everywhere but Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia.

EVAN THOMAS: The base of the Democratic Party

was the, essentially, white voting South.

The Kennedys had to be careful

about antagonizing Southern governors

and the whole Southern establishment,

which was segregationist.

I was the first governor in the South

that publicly endorsed him for president.

I think he's a person who is sympathetic

to the problems and conditions in the South.

I think he's a man who will work with us down here...

PATTERSON: I knew that you couldn't run for president

on a segregation ticket; I knew that.

But I felt like, that if we ever got in a situation

where we needed some understanding and some help

from the federal government

in regard to our problems down here,

that I'd get a good... I'd get an audience.

The entire nation will be looking at us on election day

and will judge the way we feel about the segregation question

by the size of the Democratic vote on November 4.

Let's turn out the largest Democratic vote

in the history of the state and show the people of this nation

that we're not going to tolerate integration of the races

one minute.

THOMAS: The Kennedys, when they came into office,

were not worried about civil rights.

They were worried about the Soviet Union.

They were worried about the cold war.

They were worried about the nuclear threat.

When civil rights did pop up, they regarded it

as a bit of a nuisance,

as something that was getting in the way of their agenda.

ARSENAULT: It became clear that the civil rights leaders had to do

something desperate, something dramatic

to get the Kennedys' attention.

That was the idea behind the Freedom Rides--

to dare, essentially dare the federal government

to do what it was supposed to do

and see if their constitutional rights would be protected

by the Kennedy administration.

I'm James Farmer,


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