Freedom Riders, a documentary covering the civil rights action of the same name, includes a myriad of voices of people who were involved in some way with the momentous events of 1961 (Nelson, 2011).
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Each person represents a point of view – and had reasons for doing and feeling and believing as they did back then, and now. The most dramatic perspective is perhaps that of white civil rights activists. The most perplexing is perhaps that of Jimmy Hoffa.
The mostly young, white Freedom Riders in the mixed race teams were putting their literal lives on the line for a cause which might benefit them not at all. In fact, an argument could be made that the increased access to the job market and other privileges for which they were advocating would actually harm their welfare sometime in the future by making competition for jobs, scholarship monies, and other resources, more intense.
By making it possible for African-Americans to attend top colleges, participate in professional sports, work in all occupations, they were reducing their own chances for advancement, if one believed or believes that resources are fundamentally limited. Some of these young people were what are sometimes termed Red Diaper Babies.
This meant that they were the kids of families with socialist or Communist leanings (Kengor, 2012). The ideal of egalitarianism was one of the attractive features of the left wing for many inquiring minds in the early decades of the 20th century (Gross, No date). Genevieve Hughes Houghton does not sound like one of this type of activist, especially since she worked in the stock market.
She herself said that she “figured that Southern women should be represented so the South and the nation would realize that all Southern women do not think alike” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, 2012). For some of these young people, the appeal of being part of history must have been very strong.
Based on all narration of all the former Freedom Riders, there was clearly a strong sense of camaraderie, solidarity, and fellowship akin to that experienced by comrades in arms. Certainly, the women experienced indignities that were as horrifying as in war, for example, the body cavity searches that Jeanne Mulholland reported (Nelson, 2011, p. 1:30:00)
Another character in this drama is Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious labor racketeer/mobster legendarily buried in all sorts of colorful spots. He prohibited the bus drivers from driving the Freedom Riders at all, leaving them stranded, and vulnerable to the racist mobs (Nelson, 2011, p. 1:00:35). The reasons for his course of action are not clear. It did not garner an obvious monetary gain.
On the other hand, this might have been meant to endear him to Southerners, with whom he was not a popular figure. Apparently, three Southern governors threatened to back Nixon if the Kennedy campaign expressed anything positive about Jimmy Hoffa, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, or Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev – an odd group (Niven, 2003, p. 15).
The full inclusion of African-Americans might have seemed threatening to his union members, since African-Americans would have eventually competed for many of the same blue-collar jobs held by whites. However, if this new category of workers actually joined the Teamsters, they would swell the ranks and increase its power and assets, so he could have had a great motivation to help blacks gain greater civil rights.
With a history that may have included some sort of involvement with the far left himself, given the historic links between unionizing and the aims of the left, Hoffa may have had serious internal conflicts about this situation.
He cannot explain himself, but his action shows how far-reaching the connections were between the push for civil rights and the other concerns of society. Whatever his specific motivations, Hoffa felt he had to take sides.
The documentary offers valuable glimpses into the sequence of events in 1961. It shows clearly the commitment of both African-Americans, and their white allies, from all their varied backgrounds. Although few opponents to the rights of African-Americans can be found to offer their testimony in the movie, the actions that reflected racist unambiguously documented on film. Thus, the movie provides a reasonably balanced view of events.
The prescient statement by Robert F. Kennedy that someday there might well be a black president leads the viewer to contemplate how far the USA has travelled in its evolution of racial tolerance and inclusion (Nelson, 2011, p. 1:40:00).
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Gross, C. Wait; A Memoir of a Red-Diaper Baby. Princeton. Web.
Kengor, P. (2012, October 22). Our First ‘Red Diaper Baby’ President? Retrieved from The American Spectator. Web.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. (2012). Genevieve Hughes Houghton, original CORE Freedom Rider, died Tuesday. Web.
Nelson, S. (Director). (2011). Freedom Riders [Motion Picture]. Web.
Niven, D. (2003). The Politics of Injustice: The Kennedys, the Freedom Rides, and the Electoral Consequences of a Moral Compromise. Univ. of Tennessee Press. Web.