Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Freedom Riders,” released in 2011, is a monumental chronicle of one of the most dramatic episodes of the Civil Rights Movement (Bellafante). Having invited many participants and witnesses to star in the movie and having included numerous original recordings of the events that happened in 1961, Nelson became able to create a profoundly impressive account of one of the darkest pages in the Movement’s history. The movie pays equal tribute to the most active participants of Freedom Rides: Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As it becomes obvious from the film, each of these organizations employed different methods of fighting against segregation (“Freedom Riders”). The paper presents a critical response to the movie, along with the analysis of the main strategies used by the participants.
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The movie describes the state of affairs dominating in the US at the beginning of the 1960s. As witnesses of those events report, it was rather disappointing that the President did not want to get involved in the problem of segregation because he was “worried about the Soviet Union” and did not want to be distracted from the international events (“Freedom Riders”). What was ironic in Kennedy’s statements was that he talked about the importance of spreading freedom all over the world, neglecting the situation in his own country. The documentary reveals exquisite confessions of both white and black participants and witnesses of Freedom Rides. One white man said that people “were blind to the reality of racism” and “of change” (“Freedom Riders”). Unprecedented interviews and archival video and photo proofs of the dramatic events happening in 1961 made “Freedom Riders” a unique testimony to some pages of the country’s history.
The media landscape of the 1960s was changing, which suggested additional support for the activists of civil rights movements. The following three characteristics best describe the changing media landscape of the time:
- the decreasing supremacy of the traditional types of mass media;
- the continuing power of the established news values;
- the appearance of social media and the Internet (Negrine 64).
Civil rights activists used the shifting media landscape to advance their claims by spreading the information in a variety of traditional and non-traditional ways. By doing so, they were able to reach a high level of people’s awareness of the acutest issues.
Although SNCC, CORE, and SCLC are all known to have participated in civil rights movements, their competing strategies during Freedom Rides were different. The strategies of CORE and SNCC were more radical than those of SCLC. A CORE activist James Farmer was the initiator of Freedom Rides. Witnesses report that for him, the movement was rather crucial. Farmer had “to be the part of a discussion about how the civil rights campaign would have to be sought” (“Freedom Riders”). At the same time, people tended to believe that CORE hoped to achieve “elevation” by participating in the movement: “elevation for this group means everything: money, support, prestige” (“Freedom Riders”). One of the reasons why Farmer initiated the movement was that Southern states disobeyed the rules of banning the segregation established by the Supreme Court (Schwartz 8).
It was for the same cause that SNCC joined Freedom Rides. Students risked their education but could not stand aside. As one of former SNCC members accounts, “if we stopped at that moment, it would mean that the only thing needed to stop the non-violent campaign was to inflict the massive violence” (“Freedom Riders”). Therefore, students constituted the majority of bus riders who participated in the second wave of rides that started on May 16. Compared to these two groups, the strategy of SCLC was rather peaceful, and its members treated the movement reluctantly. When the first two buses were approaching Atlanta, Georgia, they met the leader of SCLC, Dr. Martin Luther King. However, despite their expectations of him joining or at least supporting them, they were met with a warning not to continue their ride (“Freedom Riders”). Thus, SCLC members did not take an active part in Freedom Rides, which is why they were criticized by many participants.
Today’s civil rights movement does not experience social problems to the same extent as its predecessor did in the 1960s. However, not all issues have been solved yet. The modern movement, called Black Lives Matter, draws the attention of the public to unfair treatment of black people. The cases may not be as numerous as fifty years ago, but their severity is rather impressive. There are instances of unarmed and harmless black people being killed by whites (Day). What is even more terrible is that the murderers manage to avoid punishment in many cases (Day). In August of 2014, the Black Lives Matter activists arranged a 21-hour bus ride to Ferguson, Missouri, where a white policeman had killed an 18-year-old black boy (Solomon). People do not feel safe, and they worry about their children’s lives. Even half a century after Freedom Rides, the problem of racial inequity in the US remains acute.
The documentary “Freedom Riders” by Stanley Nelson depicts some of the most dramatic pages of the country’s history. Such pages should never be forgotten, and it is necessary to do everything possible to avoid the repetition of such instances in modern society. Nelson’s movie is a remarkable attempt to draw people’s attention to the problem of racial segregation of the 1960s and encourage the nation to eliminate the possibility of the repetition of such tragic events.
Bellafante, Ginia. “Voices from the Buses on the Road to Civil Rights.” The New York Times, 2011, Web.
Day, Elizabeth. “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement.” The Guardian, 2015, Web.
“Freedom Riders (A Documentary on Non-Violent Civil Right Movement in the US).” YouTube, uploaded by Socko Pricket. 2012, Web.
Negrine, Ralph. “Demonstration, Protest, and Communication: Changing Media Landscapes ─ Changing Media Practices?” Media and Revolt: Strategies and Performances from the 1960s to the Present, edited by Kathrin Fahlenbrach et al., Berghahn, 2016, pp. 59-74.
Schwartz, Heather E. Freedom Riders: A Primary Source Exploration of the Struggle for Racial Justice. Capstone Press, 2015.
Solomon, Akiba. “Get on the Bus: Inside the Black Life Matters ‘Freedom Ride” to Ferguson.” Color Lines. 2014, Web.