The Freedom Riders

2 Feb

A new documentary “The Freedom Riders” premiered at the Sundance film festival last week. The director, Stanley Nelson, is interviewed on Democracy Now, along with Freedom Riders, Bernard Lafayette and Jim Zwerg. Episode three of “Eyes on the Prize: Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961)” has a segment on this pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

In May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized a group of students to protest segregation on interstate buses. They called themselves Freedom Riders and rode in mixed groups throughout the Deep South and were met with mobs and violence. Several riders, including Jim Zwerg, were severely beaten and one bus was set on fire in Anniston, Alabama.

Jim Zwerg, Montgomery, Alabama, 1961

Jim Zwerg, Montgomery, Alabama, 1961

Eventually the National Guard was called out to protect the riders, but not before extensive negotiations between the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy and Governor Patterson. Protection was late and sporadic and in an episode in Birmingham, Police Chief Bull Connor gave the mob and Ku Klux Klan a pre-arranged time (five minutes) to have free reign with the riders, before they would move in to make arrests. Blackside did original research on this agreement. The information was not used in the final program, but the documents can be viewed at the Film Archive.

Several people involved in the Freedom Rides were interviewed by Blackside for this episode, see the list below. The interview with Frederick Leonard is particularly gripping as he describes the attack that occurred at the Greyhound station in Birmingham, Alabama.

Gordon Carey, CORE member

James Farmer, CORE director

Bernard LaFayette, Freedom Rider (Audio pre-interview for “Eyes I.” Filmed interview for “Eyes on the Prize II”)

Frederick Leonard, Freedom Rider

John Lewis, SNCC member

Diane Nash,SNCC member

James Peck, Freedom Rider

John Patterson, Governor of Alabama

John Sigenthaler, Executive Assistant to Robert Kennedy

These interviews can be accessed at the “Eyes on the Prize” Interview page:

Jim Zwerg was not interviewed by Blackside, but the Archive has stock footage of him after the attacks. Please contact the Archive for more information.


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