Every great once in a while, something like Stanley Nelson's wonderful documentary Freedom Riders appears and is so good that it exhausts all common versions of praise. In it, Nelson and his crew take on a period of history usually misunderstood: a particularly dramatic series of events in 1961, known as the Freedom Rides, when young student activists put their lives at great risk, riding public transportation throughout the South.
Nelson (A Place of Our Own) and his crew found the truth of a time in which nobility, courage and unbending optimism were stronger than the crude, superstitious and murderously violent obstacles that held Southern segregation in place. The film, the first full-length documentary recounting the Freedom Rides, is available in New York and Los Angeles theaters for only a few days and will be shown to the nation on PBS next year when the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides is celebrated.
Ask most people today what the Freedom Rides were, and they can't tell you. Or they misunderstand its significance, painting the Freedom Riders as lightweight pacifists who just lay down and allowed themselves to be beaten. That couldn't be further from the truth. Those who, like me, were alive during that time have since seen pictures of John Lewis being beaten up, but I'd forgotten that white Southerners had actually set a bus on fire. It was a remarkable moment. They were literally holding the door closed. The bus was a crematorium on wheels. Thankfully, the Freedom Riders managed to escape.
In our time of cartoon ethnic "authenticity," commercialized falsity and hollow glamour, the film seems out of step, but not because people were so different in 1961. At the time, television was discovering its political power; the rightness of the civil rights movement became abundantly clear just by having microphones and cameras placed close enough to those opposing the activists. Everyone was forced to see things the way they actually were. Negroes suddenly ceased to exist almost exclusively for entertainment and comic relief, their traditional roles on what would become the boob tube. What was happening in the South was neither entertaining nor funny.
With the grace and precision of superb editing, Freedom Riders shows the various ways that Americans and the rest of the world had long-held views of the U.S. — held since the end of World War II — upended. The South had lost the Civil War, but it had won the policy war by instituting the racist laws of segregation. Those unconstitutional laws remained in place for close to a century. Negroes were held as far from basic social equality as possible.
But the Freedom Riders, an interracial posse of students that included John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and Diane Nash, forced the issue. (Others in midde age and beyond joined them.) Many of them were from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). En masse, they bought tickets on Greyhound buses bound for the Deep South. They started out in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, with the intention of arriving in New Orleans on May 17. The Supreme Court had outlawed racial segregation, but Jim Crow still ruled. For their efforts, they were beaten, arrested and nearly burned to death.
The violence itself also brought surprises. The flowers of Southern womanhood could drop their genteel drawls to scream and shout along with the men in the raging mobs. Then again, there was the 12-year-old white girl who could not remain inside her Negro-hating father's store and watch as Freedom Riders were almost burned to death inside a bus and nearly beaten to death when escaping it. She ran out to help. Her humanity overcame her racist upbringing. In certain ways, the victory of the civil rights movement was foreshadowed by the empathy that surely swelled inside that girl at that moment.
With stories like these, Freedom Riders sweeps through the drama, the heartbreak and the affirmative humanity that made an imposingly difficult victory possible. Part of the film's strength is that historical figures are not looked upon in a conventionally sentimental way, and some, like Martin Luther King Jr., are taken down a step closer to earth.
Through Freedom Riders, we see the internal debates about tactics within the searing context of events. The civil rights workers — young and old, black and white — lost their naive ideas about the struggle as they faced the shortcomings among themselves amid great violence. The documentary, which relies on interviews rather than a voice-over narration, builds in suspense; this makes for numerous surprises, high and low.
No amount of cheap, Hollywood thrills is as stunning as the real-life pain experienced and the blood shed by actual human beings. That combination of sacrificial suffering was what transformed the moment and the nation itself beyond the comfortably coy stereotypes of the time.
Freedom Riders has an epic quality, given that it deals with larger-than-life issues such as moral consciousness. But the sense of humor of the civil rights workers lets some of the bad air out of the racist balloon. As with all masterworks of history, levity does not reduce the significance of things as they were; it eases the narrative and gives the listener a chance to laugh, like jokes told between inevitably terrible battles.
Whatever makes this nation great can be seen in Freedom Riders and heard in the voices of the participants. It keeps its eye on the actual prize of humanity, and it steps above all that has pulled us into various bogs since those bloody and inspirational days of 1961.
Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur and a Fletcher and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.