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Friday, February 12, 2010


Tuesday, May 16, 1961

. “We held two meetings today. The first was at 6 this morning, the second from 7 to 1 tonight. After much discussion, we decided to continue the Freedom Ride. Of the 18 who volunteered, 10 were chosen: three females and seven males. We will leave on the Greyhound bus tomorrow morning at either 5:15 or 6:45. We were all again made aware of what we can expect to face: jail, extreme violence or death.”

- Jim Zwerg, participated in the Nashville-New Orleans Freedom Ride in 1961. He was severely beaten until he lost consciousness by a mob in Montgomery, Alabama.

When on December 02, 2009, the Sundance Institute announced the lineup of films selected to screen in the U.S. and World Cinema Dramatic and Documentary Competitions for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. "The Freedom Ridders" was among the list.

A flyer read: "In 1961 segregation seemed to have an overwhelming grip on American society. Many states violently enforced the policy, while the federal government, under the Kennedy administration, remained indifferent, preoccupied with matters abroad. That is, until an integrated band of college students—many of whom were the first in their families to attend a university—decided, en masse, to risk everything and buy a ticket on a Greyhound bus bound for the Deep South. They called themselves the Freedom Riders, and they managed to bring the president and the entire American public face to face with the challenge of correcting civil-rights inequities that plagued the nation.

Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s inspirational documentary is the first feature-length film about this courageous band of civil-rights activists. Gaining impressive access to influential figures on both sides of the issue, Nelson chronicles a chapter of American history that stands as an astonishing testament to the accomplishment of youth and what can result from the incredible combination of personal conviction and the courage to organize against all odds."

And so it was that at 6:00 PM on Mon, Jan 25, it had its première which continued throughout the week of the festival until Sat, Jan 30, 2010. According to the organizers this year’s 16 films were selected from 862 submissions. Each film is a world première.

This is how the documentary was described: "At the Sundance Film Festival "Freedom Riders (Director: Stanley Nelson)—The story behind a courageous band of civil rights activists called the Freedom Riders who in 1961 creatively challenged segregation in the American South. World Premiere"

There is no doubt that the Sundance Festival is clearly invigorating the independent film community. "Being a seasoned programming team and having the support of a healthy organization afforded us the ability to take risks and re-think all programs this year so we chose to do some things a little bit differently," said John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival. "We believe this makes for an exciting festival that responds to both artist and audience, one that will invigorate the independent film community."

This time around it is not going to be only the independent film community who would getting themselves invigorated. I was myself very much invigorated after watching an interview between Amy Goodman and on Democracy Now!

What is the story of the Freedom Ridders?

"...let me explain in just a real quick way—in a quick way what the Freedom Riders were. In 1961, twelve people, both black and white, decided that they would test the segregation laws of the South by simply getting on buses, Greyhound buses and Trailways buses, and going down south. And the white and black people would sit together at the front of the bus. They would eat together in the restaurants in the bus stations. The white people would use the colored-only restrooms, and the black people would use the white-only restrooms. And they would just see what would happen to them. And they had no police protection, no army protection, very little press when they started out, and they had no idea that it would really turn into this mass movement." - Stanley Nelson

The Freedom Riders and will air on PBS’s American Experience next year.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re steeped in civil rights history. What did you learn doing this film? What surprised you most, Stanley Nelson?

STANLEY NELSON: Well, you know, I think it’s a film about what a few people can do if they just step forward. I mean, that’s what’s so amazing about the first twelve people who start the Freedom Rides. They have no backing. I mean, you know, everybody’s saying, “Don’t do this. You know, the South is—you know, you’ll get killed!” But they do it. They do it, and they end up changing America forever. You know, the signs that say “white only,” “colored only,” which had been up for, you know, generations and generations, come down, because twelve people say, “You know, we’re just going to go out there and do it.” And I think that’s what’s important about the Freedom Rides.


BERNARD LAFAYETTE: Well, I became a Freedom Rider because I was involved in the Nashville movement back in 1960. And I was one of the founders of SNCC, and we wanted to continue the work that we were doing, because we’d been so successful in desegregating the lunch counters. We said, “Wow, we have something now that’s going to work, that’s going to make a difference.” And this whole nonviolence training was the thing that really made the difference.

I was going to go on the original Freedom Ride in 1961—in fact, John Lewis and I were going to go—but I needed parental permission, because I wasn’t going to be twenty-one until the summer, and they wouldn’t let me go. And I tried to get my parents, you know, to sign, and they say, “Well, you think we didn’t read this thing? We’re not going to sign your death warrant. You stay in school.” So, well, OK, I couldn’t go.


"Well, I felt that it was very important for me to do this. Some people were involved in the movement because they wanted to make things better for their grandchildren and, you know, those who would follow them. No, not me. I wanted to make things better so my grandparents would be able to enjoy this thing. So I had an urgency, and I had a passion, that I wanted to see it happen so in their lifetime, because of all they had experienced in the past, that they would be able to enjoy some of this in their lifetime."



"Well, I was also in Nashville. I was an exchange student from Beloit College attending Fisk. And one of the first people I met was John Lewis. I attended some workshops and got to meet people like Bernard and the others.

It was a very simple thing that started it. I asked some of my classmates if they wanted to go to a movie with me and was informed that we could not go to a movie together, because the movie theaters weren’t integrated... So, ultimately, after a lot of soul searching and prayer, I got involved in Nashville in the stand-ins, and we had, the month before the Freedom Rides started, persevered, and the theaters had opened up, without any problems. And I had been selected at that time to be a part of the central committee, which was a group of about twenty-four students or so, representing the various colleges.

And when we learned that the CORE group left, our immediate response was, it’s got to go on. I was, at that time, the only male—white male involved in Nashville, and I felt very strongly that the group that went had to be integrated. And so I volunteered, and I was one of those selected to be among the first ten."

JIM ZWERG: Well, I realized from my experience in Nashville that I was going to be a focus for violence, if there was going to be violence, in that the segregationists, if they hated anybody, they hated a white being with the blacks. I mean, I was called all the names, and I was a disgrace to the white race. And when I saw the mob coming, I realized that probably I was going to have some violence.

JIM ZWERG: John was taken to the hospital. They were able to find some black ambulances, also segregated, that took both William Barbee and John. But nobody would take me. The white ambulances refused to take me. And so, I kind of laid on the tarmac for a while, and finally it was Floyd Mann who asked one of his associates if he—where his car was parked. And they were the ones that took me to the hospital.


the Attorney General’s envoy JOHN SIEGENTHALER: My phone in the hotel room rings, and it’s the Attorney General. And he opened the conversation: “Who the hell is Diane Nash? Call her and let her know what is waiting for the Freedom Riders.” So I called her. I said, “I understand that there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can.” Her response was, “They’re not going to turn back. They’re on their way to Birmingham, and they’ll be there shortly.”

You know that spiritual, “Like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved”? She would not be moved. And I felt my voice go up another decibel and another, and soon I was shouting, “Young woman, do you understand what you’re doing? You’re going to get somebody—do you understand you’re going to get somebody killed?” And there’s a pause, and she said, “Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night, before they left. We know someone will be killed.”

BERNARD LAFAYETTE: We made up a song saying that buses are a-coming. And we sang it to the jailers to tell them, and warn them, to get ready, to be prepared, that we were not the only ones coming. So we started singing, [singing] “Buses are a-comin’, oh, yes, buses are a–comin’, oh, yes, buses are a-comin’, buses are a-comin’, buses are a-comin’, oh, yes.”

And we say to the jailers, [singing] “Better get you ready, oh, yes.” The jailers say, “Alright, shut up on the singing and hollering in here! This is not no playhouse. This is a jailhouse.” So we said to ourselves, “What are you going to do? Put us in jail?”

The Freedom Riders: New Documentary Recounts Historic 1961 Effort to Challenge Segregated Bus System in the Deep South

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