Young, Brave and Freedom Bound

Fifty years ago a group of young people rode buses south and faced vicious, state-condoned brutality with nonviolence. Participants told The Root how they emerged bloodied, bruised and victorious.

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Courtesy of PBS

Fifty years ago this month, a group of 13 men and women, seven black and six white, left Washington, D.C., on two buses bound for New Orleans.

They never made it. Ten days later, on May 14, 1961, one of the vehicles was attacked by a white mob in Anniston, Ala., the bus set on fire and the riders beaten up. The local police and state troopers made no effort to stop the violence, and the governor of the state, referring to the integrated group of passengers, sarcastically remarked that "you can't guarantee the safety of a fool."

That same day, the other bus pulled into the terminal in Birmingham, Ala., where it was met by a mob of 1,000 people who proceeded to viciously beat the riders. But as Freedom Riders, a stunning two-hour documentary being broadcast by PBS on May 16 at 9 p.m. (EST) (and reviewed by Stanley Crouch for The Root last year) demonstrates, these nonviolent activists never gave up -- and, in doing so, managed to effect real change.

"We did what all oppressed people have done throughout human history," says Hank Thomas, 70, a former Freedom Rider who was a Howard University student at the time. "You try to change things, and you pay a price for it. But you do what you have to do."

"[The riders] did not want to live, or their children to live, the way their parents had lived," adds Stanley Nelson, the documentary's writer-director. "These kids did not come out of nowhere. Every generation of African Americans had done what they could to move forward."

Trained in the nonviolent techniques of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the group was organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and included Stokely Carmichael and current U.S. Rep. John Lewis. They set out to test whether a Supreme Court decision mandating integrated facilities in interstate bus travel was actually being implemented south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

They had little trouble until they reached Alabama, which, along with Mississippi, was, says Nelson, something of a "no-fly zone" because of the level of violence directed against blacks. And in fact, some factions of the movement felt that what the riders were doing was a bit too confrontational and in-your-face, literally inviting aggressive reaction.

"Nonviolence by its very nature is confrontational," says Charles Person, 68, a former Morehouse College student who was the youngest of the first group of Freedom Riders on that trip. "You don't have a weapon, so you have to make [your opponents] feel uncomfortable."

This was brave enough. Even braver was the fact that after the buses were attacked, and the riders eventually found themselves stuck in Birmingham -- where the Greyhound company could not find a driver willing to continue the trip -- another wave of Freedom Riders, based in Nashville, Tenn., and allied with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, decided to finish what the first group had started.

What ensued from that point on was a complicated social and political dance that involved the activists, the governors of Alabama and Mississippi and the Kennedy administration, which, more concerned with international affairs, reluctantly stepped in when it realized that local authorities would do little or nothing to protect the riders from Klan-inspired mobs.