Freedom Riders by Maggie Gray

The Freedom Riders documentary was a very emotional film for me. After reading Ray Arsenault’s book and seeing some other documentary footage I had not expected to be as affected by this film as I was. It was astonishing, most of all, to see Governor John Patterson speaking in 2012. From what he said, it did not appear that in the 50 years that passed, his strictly segregationist views had changed. He was in no way apologetic or remorseful for the atrocious things that he said and did in 1960 and 1961 during the Freedom Rides. While it is essential to understand the opposition to the movement, I was very uncomfortable seeing him talk so many years later with the same views.

Although some parts were emotional and made me uncomfortable, the film overall was extremely informative and full of valuable footage. I especially liked that almost all of the riders were interviewed. Hearing from Jim Zwerg as an older man was powerful, because his speech from his hospital bed after being brutally beaten was so crucial to the publicity of the movement. It was interesting to hear each of their different stories, not just the very famous ones like John Lewis and Diane Nash. Some of the other interviews that most stood out to me were those with the residents of the towns that the Freedom Riders visited. When I read Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, the bravery of Janie Forsyth struck me. At only 12 years old, she was not afraid to reach out to

Janie Forsyth McKinney

help the Riders amongst a group of Klan members, including her father. Watching her speak about that experience in the documentary was even more striking. The Riders experienced violence firsthand in Anniston, but Janie saw it all happen from an outside perspective. She had a much more emotional reaction, because she saw the entire scene unfold, rather than being caught up in it. Her description of the bus bombing as “a scene from hell” reminded me of the humanity of the movement. Imagining being a 12 year who saw a bus full of people bombed and brutalized made it impossible for me to separate emotion from the struggle for civil rights.

After our class discussion on Monday about naiveté in the movement, I realized that the documentary also demonstrated this. Most of the Riders spoke of not really being afraid both before the rides began and in retrospect. They expected minimal resistance, not nearly the level of violence that they encountered. This demonstrates that they were indeed naïve to think that they could so easily integrate the Deep South. However, I think this naiveté was important to the motivation to start the movement. If they knew what they were facing, some may have been too afraid to set out on their journey. It is also important to note that this naïveté was more in the beginning of the movement that at any other point. After they experienced violence, they did not stop. They still believed in their cause, to the extent that they were willing to die for it even after some had been severely injured. They saw that death was a real possibility and did not shy away from it. Some may say that this demonstrates a different kind of naïveté, but I think it is respectable that they were so dedicated to their cause. In some cases, being naive may be necessary to be successful.

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2 thoughts on “Freedom Riders by Maggie Gray

  1. I am at a rest stop on the highway between Birmingham and Montgomery. I just left the Birmingham civil rights Institute and I’m on my way to the freedom-riders Museum in Montgomery. I will be with freedom-riders the next couple days and also with Janie!

    • That sounds like a great trip. I hope you enjoy yourself! If you get a chance, please let Janie know that I was truly inspired by her brave actions at such a young age.

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