Over the length of our course we read Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders and followed the course of the Freedom Riders through the South, although our class focused on only hot spots of the movement rather than the actual route of the Freedom Rides. However, one of the most interesting portions of the course was watching the documentary film companion to Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
Though the merit of documentary film is debatable, this one is far more descriptive than the text of a book or descriptions in a lecture. The Freedom Rides were an incredibly emotional, tense, and turbulent period of the Civil Rights Movement. The youth of the 1960’s were extremely brave, and I never quite understood how these bus rides made such a huge impact until watching this film and truly understanding what these young people experienced.
Students about my age risked their lives for civil rights that I take for granted every day. I do not think twice before using a public facility or being able to vote for my local and national officials. I regard all of these privileges as natural rights that I was born with, but only 50 years ago people fought to make sure that southern states secured these rights.
The film shed some light on what the students truly experienced. People were beaten within inches of their life and jailed for long periods of time just for acknowledging that they had the constitutional right to ride the bus through the south however they would like. The arrests in Mississippi filled Parchment Prison to capacity with Freedom Riders, where they were forced to work and deprived of their mattresses and tooth brushes simply for singing Freedom Songs. These were everyday young men and women, many of whom were college educated but treated like common criminals. The injustices placed on the Freedom Riders were incredibly uneasy to watch as I sat in an air conditioned classroom at a mixed-race university enjoying liberties brought to me by their suffering.
Another uneasy scene was listening to Southern governors speak to segregation and seeing their views unchanged decades later. It spoke to the true feelings that these individuals held towards segregation. It was not simply an idea they were promoting for the popular vote (or rather the vote by the populous that could vote), but rather a deep seeded hatred for desegregation and equal rights under the law. To see it spoken is a lot different than reading it in pages of a book or on the internet. It takes on a much deeper meaning and becomes truly frightening.