Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we wrap the 2020 class with the first film of the 2010s to enter the Registry, and yet another fine instance of LoC immortalizing the Civil Rights Movement on film, this time through interviews and archive materials concerning one of its most dramatic and impactful protests. From Stanley Nelson Jr. in 2010, it’s Freedom Riders, as seen on PBS’ American Experience! Let’s get into it, shan’t we?
Once again, we begin on a crunch course through the relevant history, for those who (like me) took AP US History and still only got a snapshot impression of the Civil Rights movement!
Years before Brown v. Board directly declared the notion of “separate but equal” public facilities for white and non-white patrons inherently unjust, the Supreme Court heard the 1946 case of Morgan v. Virginia, concerning Irene Morgan’s refusal to move to the back of a Greyhound bus. The Court ruled in her favor, finding the state’s transit segregation statues unjust under the Interstate Commerce Clause (ICC), a ruling Virginia and other Southern states outright refused to respect, with no consequences for their non-compliance. It did, however, bolster the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)’s 1947 decision to undertake what they called a Journey of Reconciliation, in which black and white members would ride together on buses bound from Washington DC to North Carolina, as means of stress-testing those travel entities who defied the ruling. These riders experienced some resistance and several arrests, but in general attracted very little attention and so made little progress in highlighting the defiant’s wrongdoing. So it carried on for the next decade and change, through the Civil Rights Movement’s popular spark via Rosa Parks, through a 1955 ICC internal case in Keys v. Carolina Coach Co. that further challenged “separate but equal” ideas in public transit under the very body responsible for their enforcement, through the Supreme Court’s more firmly-worded 1960 ruling under Boynton v. Virginia that racial segregation on buses and bus stations was outright illegal. The Southern states were built on a cultural foundation of segregation backed by police, high-ranking government officials, and the Klan’s collective willingness to enforce their way by any means necessary, so none of these indications towards changing times and growing national sentiment against segregation seemed likely to shake them.
Reenter CORE, now emboldened by several years’ progress on the Civil Rights Movement and the Boynton case’s stronger reiteration of the Morgan ruling. Under Director James Farmer, they revived the Journey of Reconciliation idea with a few key differences: the new trip would involve a much larger party, take inspiration from the successful application of non-violent tactics across the country, push all across the Deep South straight into New Orleans, actively court media attention to ensure it would not fade into obscurity, and of course adopt the far punchier name of the Freedom Ride. Counting among their numbers future Congressional Representative John Lewis, longtime pacifist advocate James Peck, Charles Person, Genevieve Hughes, Hank Thomas, and seven others, the mixed-race group departed aboard a pair of Greyhound and Trailway buses on May 4th, 1961. Neither bus would reach New Orleans. Following days of smaller harassment and mob gatherings, the Greyhound was assaulted on May 14th in Anniston, Alabama by Klansmen, who slashed its tires, trailed it out of town until breakdown, and then firebombed the vehicle, using force of numbers to hold the doors shut and trap the riders in the flames until threat of explosion forced the mobaway, whereupon they assaulted the escaping passengers. The Trailway, meanwhile, was waylaid in Birmingham, Alabama on the same day, where mobs had coordinated with Commissioner Bull Conner to repeatedly assault the riders with guarantee of no police intervention for fifteen minutes on each repetition. Having lost Farmer to his departure for home to attend his father’s funeral days earlier, and with replacement leader Peck the most severely beaten of the lot, further threats and violence dissuaded the Riders against finishing their trip despite strong desire to continue, opting instead for flight to New Orleans, a decision which resulted in further beatings and a bomb threat.
Fortunately, CORE’s dedication to nonviolence and courting media attention ensured this racially bigoted, state-backed violence did not bring an end to the Freedom Rides. Reporters sympathetic to the cause were present at each attack and relayed the news internationally, where it caught attention from both the Kennedy administration and Diane Nash of the Nashville Student Movement, who believed a halt here would only embolden those who wished to stop nonviolent protest with brutal attacks. Thus, she and ten other Tennessee students travelled to Birmingham on the 17th, where they united with Lewis and Thomas to continue the Ride. Troubles continued as they arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, where mobs continued to assault the group and sieged Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church during a gathering in support for the Freedom Riders. Pressure from the White House eventually persuaded Governor James Patterson to declare martial law and deploy the National Guard as a means of protecting the riders (time, flat circles, you know the drill), but their push into Mississippi brought further obstacles when numerous Riders were arrested and shipped off to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, where officials hoped incarceration in one of the country’s harshest jailhouses would break the movement’s spirt for good. Far from it: those arrested kept their spirits and solidarity high by continuing protests behind bars and working towards small reforms from within, which brought about a wave of sympathy and solidarity from across the globe. Now an international audience saw images of the American establishment assaulting and abusing nonviolent protesters engaged in innocuous action, and contrary to the Kennedy administration’s desire for a cooling off period, hundreds from across the nation engaged in dozens more Freedom Rides into Alabama with the goal of keeping the movement in the news and ultimately choking Parchman Farm with more prisoners than it could hold.
With pressure mounted higher than the Kennedys could bear, especially with such embarrassing domestic displays of violent bigotry against the innocent in the daily news weakening their soft power on the world stage during a tense period of the Cold War, something finally gave. In September of ’61, under pressure from all sides, the ICC cracked down and at long last issued firm orders requiring enforcement of their own anti-segregation policies nationwide. So it passed as interstate travel was desegregated in the United States, and so the Civil Rights Movement chugged on, with several prominent members of the Freedom Rides (notably Farmer, Lewis, and Nash) going on to become major figureheads in the fight for equality across the next decade.
Now, despite my joke about frustration with limitations and omissions in my high school history education, what you’ve just read is a heavily compressed version from some yahoo who’s only spent the last two weeks reading about the topic on and off. As my function in Registering the Registry should always be one of guide towards deeper, properly insightful media, I must recommend you sit down and check out any or all of the following: Raymond Arsenault’s 2006 text Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Stanley Nelson Jr.’s 2010 documentary Freedom Riders based thereupon (our feature for today, first mentioned five paragraphs deep, good job Garg), the associated PBS American Experience site, which contains a plethora of supporting textual documentation, and American Archive’s collection of every interview conducted for the film in full. More than most works covered for this series, the experiences and stories of the Freedom Riders are best read and heard from the mouths of those who were there, best curated by those who worked directly with the living witnesses to history. We’ll come to the whys and the rants on the whys in a minute, but this series does nominally contain a review element, so how bout we talk execution and opinions for a time before the pulpit beating?
In execution, one will not find much of surprise in Nelson Jr.’s work. His documentary is one which requires straightforward clarity, so it takes the form assumed by the majority of modern historical docs, one driven by interviews with a wide variety of subjects across talking heads and montaged pictures/footage of the era. The demanding might call it boilerplate, or noncinematic, and indeed there are areas where the decision to remain within the template reveals its limitations, regardless the necessity when the subject occurred fifty years past. Several occasions find us listening to a scholar whose connection to the material is unclear, and is likely only featured because the individuals they discuss are too dead to contribute. Some attempts to liven the static pictures of Riders under assault with quick pans and zooms alongside grunting, pounding sound effects come across as unwise attempts at drama, and the movie’s narrative requires certain aspects of the story receive less attention. Everything about the great glut of supportive Riders who overwhelmed the Southern prison system is effectively a ten-minute afterthought despite being the continuous source of pressure that actually pushed the ICC into action, a problem in weaving a people-oriented story not common to Arsenault’s more exhaustive book. These issues, however, are minor and petty concerns in face of what the documentary does offer: an enormous collection of photographic evidence from the time, woven into a story of multiple perspectives on a complicated and messy historical event, united towards a common goal by the very faces and voices who lived through those times. Standard formats take their root as the standard for good reason, and one suspects an approach of greater creative ambition would run the risk of diluting these stories’ impact by making the presentation more important than the message.
Hearing and seeing is the point, as it always is and always ought be. The voices as they crack when the old shudder of terror accompanies reliving the memories of racist mobs cracking down upon their heads. The eyes filled with as much clarity and fire fifty years on from the days when they went against an entire nation’s hatred and apathy. The endless procession of photographed cold faces drawn from the common ranks arranged in militaristic file, of burning and blood and beatings, and the way storytellers contrast these images with stories about authority figures who thought a moderate, hands-off approach best or else actively encouraged the violence. There’s something humbling in the way Nash recounts how she came to serve as new leader because it had to be someone, Patterson recalling how she rightly shamed him when he tried to shout her down as some foolish girl who didn’t understand the risks, Bernard Lafayette and Rip Patton recalling their “Buses Are A-Comin’” song in jail as the guards stripped them their privileges. In praise of how it is all composed, one must admire Arsenault and Nelson Jr. alike for presenting so overwhelming a situation with so many competing, universally-antagonistic variables, and still composing a narrative which journeys towards the light of a better future without denying the troubles along the way. Interviewees in Freedom Riders openly discuss how the Nashville students thought the DC Riders a bunch of foolish Northerners who didn’t know a damn thing about how bad it really was in the South, how the nonviolent strategy necessarily relied upon inviting violence to attract attention from a media inclined to construe such action as uppity, how MLK Jr.’s reticence to join the Freedom Ride lest he be detained from work elsewhere drove an early fracture in the Civil Rights Movement as younger members considered him cowardly or pompous for not putting his neck on the line, and how said fracture likely contributed to the movement’s weakening and breaking when put under internal stresses of its own later in the decade.. We are honest as can be about everything within Freedom Riders, the beautiful and the ugly, the flattering and the damaging, and still the film keeps its head high and delivers a sense of marching through hell with the knowledge something must give if the marchers keep coming.
It is good and right the minds behind these projects assembled and captured this information and these people when they did. The collective memory so often trends towards neglect, and it takes active effort to ensure anything survives, much less remains enshrined and promoted to the point it can still make a difference. Institutions like the National Film Registry give films like Freedom Riders a chance to fulfill this function far longer than initial broadcast on public access and passage into the grand collective unsorted archive. Good work was done here, by the Freedom Riders, by those who documented them, and by those who chose their story as an important enough facet of the American cinematic project for induction into the Registry. Freedom Riders will sit now and forever as one of the Important American films, ready for discovery by any young curious mind, and this is good, and right, and proper. This said, I must introduce a dour note of my own, such that we might take our own march towards a brighter tomorrow on a better informed trail.
Though the Library of Congress’ press release makes no mention of the matter, I strongly suspect Freedom Riders was selected in 2020 because Representative John Lewis died in the same year, the film chosen as a means of honoring his memory. A worthy reasoning, but the thought makes a body ponder on what ifs. What if another set of events ordered priorities differently, what if Lewis’ death was argued as insufficient reason to nudge the film over the line for consideration, what if we were sat here today talking about a different Registry inductee? Whichever film it might be, I’ve no doubt it’d make a worthy entrant. I have, however, already kvetched about my high school education giving the Freedom Riders so casual a pass, if they were ever mentioned at all, and research for this project has called the Freedom Writers to my attention — a non-profit organization founded by Erin Gruwell to encourage at-risk students to really focus on their historical education and writing skills after she discovered nobody in her class had so much as heard of the Holocaust. Two different levels of historical import, of course; the coincidence between the movement lending its name to a cause inspired by such and my own rumination over lacking education caught the mind all the same. If Freedom Riders never made the Registry, and I’d never taken the time to read up on them to write this article to the best of my ability, would I have ever made time for them? Would my readers have done? Would its easy availability have ever made it attractive to the eye as a worthwhile experience for someone who doesn’t often watch documentaries as a matter of habit, without the sheen of being one of the Important films?
One does ill by oneself to forever contemplate the might’ve beens, so it is instead healthier to cut to the quick and extract the real lesson here. The National Film Registry and my work in covering it make a good start, but our interest and education in the history of our country, our culture, the world at large, they must be self-motivated and forever ongoing. That we live in a time of unprecedented documentation by amateurs and professionals alike, that the whole of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips if only we know how to reach, it means nothing if we only keep to our immediate spheres. Y’only need flick through the paper every once in a while to understand the very victories portrayed in Freedom Riders, those of the larger 20th-century progressive movement, are presently at legislative risk in large part thanks to figures who achieved power on the backs of voters ignorant to their history, or apathetic, or given to look on its brightest spots as stained patches requiring correction. The bigotry struck a blow in this historical narrative is alive and well in the world today, and it thrives on ignorance and inaction. Watch these films and consider their lessons and internalize why they have been so elevated, yes, but never stop there. Continue to learn, continue to grow, get involved with activism wherever you can, stand up to wrongs you see in your community, always dedicate yourself to the construction and application of a better person who can join a thousand million others in the fight to ensure all vulnerable and oppressed populations are one day soon accorded the protections and respect deserved by all. Don’t assist in the desecration of a better tomorrow because you don’t step outside your comfort zone to learn.
Aghhh, I’m letting the Bad Brain Signals get in the way of the real point. If you wanna do any of what I’m talking about here, good place to start is following those links up in paragraph five. The stories of the Freedom Riders from the tongues of the Freedom Riders is what’s really important if you care about learning your history and letting it inform your next steps. Do what you will after — I’m just a guide who bemoans The State of Things a little too often. Go on, check ’em out, educate and enjoy yourselves, and be sure to donate to your local PBS station in the meanwhile!
As always, be sure to bite back in the comments with your own thoughts! Any information on the Freedom Riders I left out that you think needs addressal? Any ideas on how to keep their spirit burning into the future? I wanna hear it all! And with this… Registering the Registery 2020 comes to a close! Twenty-three films watched, twenty-five discussed, all wrapped up nice ’n’ tight in a lil’ bow! By the time I write and publish the wrap-up article, the Library of Congress should have the 2021 class announced, so look forward to both happenings in the coming weeks, and be sure to take care of yourselves into the new year. Ciao!