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'Freedom Riders' recalls pivotal but often-overlooked turning point in civil rights movement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2011 - "Who the hell is Diane Nash?"

That's what a furious Bobby Kennedy wanted to know when he called his representative, John Siegenthaler, who had been sent down South to help defuse the crisis touched off by the freedom riders 50 years ago. The group of black and white activists who wanted to end Jim Crow laws set out on buses for what was supposed to be a two-week trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. But their journey was anything but smooth.

Those freedom riders are the subject of a new PBS film by director Stanley Nelson that will be shown on the Nine Network (KETC) several times this month as part of its "American Experience" series. Nelson was in St. Louis last week to talk about "Freedom Riders" as a pivotal but sometimes overlooked part of the civil rights movement.

So who is Diane Nash? When the bus trips through the South appeared to be grinding to a halt in Alabama - one bus torched, riders beaten, reporters intimidated by white mobs - Nash, who was a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., helped revive the symbolic effort.

She recruited students from Fisk and elsewhere to take the place of the original riders who could no longer go on. With a steady stream of volunteers ready to join the crusade, the Kennedys - President John and Attorney General Bobby - were under pressure to end what had become an embarrassment to a nation that was trying to put its best foot forward as it dealt with communist countries at the height of the Cold War.

In an interview, Nelson noted that, in 1961, the civil rights movement had not gained the status it has today; and many of the people involved did not enjoy the reputations they later developed, including the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. But with television news just coming into its own, the dramatic bus trips and their intrepid passengers were an ideal vehicle for showing the rest of the nation and the world just how blacks were treated in the Deep South.

From segregated waiting rooms at bus terminals to strict rules about where each race could sit on the buses to the burning crosses and white-peaked hats and robes of the Ku Klux Klan, the deep-seated hatred of whites toward blacks made an indelible impression on the nation.

And while most people know about parts of the civil rights movement, Nelson said, this film was a good opportunity to put it into context.

"It kind of gets jumbled in people's minds," he said. "We know the iconic images - buses burning, dogs being set on people, fire hoses - but we don't know what those images mean.

"At the beginning of the civil rights movement, there was no inevitability about it. You don't have the big players involved. The freedom rides really teeter on the brink of collapse; then all of a sudden, from nowhere, these students from Nashville decide to continue the rides. It was an incredible moment."

While no one died in the caravan, Nelson says that some of the riders suffered injuries that affected them for the rest of their lives. With some participants and witnesses dead and others aging, he said it was the right time to capture their struggle on film to remind today's generation of what it cost to defeat Jim Crow and of the debt they owe to unknowns like Diane Nash and hundreds like her.

Which brings us to another phone call that will figure into the success of "Freedom Riders." Nelson says he was sitting in his office one day when the phone rang; on the other end someone asked for Stanley Nelson.

When the director said he was Nelson, the next four words floored him: "This is Oprah Winfrey."

The talk-show legend gathered an audience of former freedom riders to take part in a discussion with Nelson, taped at the Winfrey studios in Chicago on April 28. The program is set to air on May 4, 50 years to the day that their Greyhound and Trailways buses hit the road. The riders held a reunion in Chicago over this past weekend.

So, after recovering from his initial shock, did Nelson try to verify that the person on the other end was really who she said she was, and the call was not a prank?

He smiled and said there was no need. "You could tell who it was," he said.

One of Nelson's first films was about Madam C.J. Walker, whose business of beauty products for African-American women was based in St. Louis. Topics for future projects include Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, historic black colleges, the Black Panthers and the economics of the slave trade. He is a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant and was won the contemporary cinema award at the 2010 St. Louis International Film Festival.

The Beacon caught up with Nelson last week at the Chase Hotel, where he was somewhat jet-lagged after just returning from China. He was in town for an event where clips of "Freedom Riders" were shown.

The actions of some big names involved in the freedom ride are quite different from what you might expect. Can you talk about the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Alabama Gov. John Patterson?

Nelson: The Kennedys were not the Kennedys they became. They were interested in international affairs, in the Cold War. That's something new for people who see the film. It's a question of perception, but for the people we interviewed, in general they view Jack Kennedy as much more of a political animal than Bobby, and Bobby more of a heartfelt person. Bobby was much more sincere, much more able to be moved by events, where Jack was much more practical and a politician. Probably at the time of the freedom rides, they're pretty similar. The civil rights movement had not yet exploded. For them, it was let's just get this thing to stop.

For Martin Luther King, we had to figure out how to do the portrayal. He refuses twice to go on the freedom rides. Again, Martin Luther King was not the Martin Luther King he became. He had not participated in this kind of nonviolent action. Although he was already an icon from the Montgomery bus boycott, that was civil disobedience. It was an economic boycott, but not the kind of action that came to symbolize the civil rights movement.

Patterson actually pretty much apologizes and says he was wrong for what he did. I think Patterson was not very proud of what he did. In my estimation, he used the film to kind of confess, in the classic sense of confession, getting it off your chest, letting it go. He needed help getting re-elected, but he didn't get elected again anyway. He lost to George Wallace, who he had beaten in 1958.

It's funny, because in Alabama, in light of Wallace, Patterson is kind of looked at as an OK guy, a moderate compared to Wallace. With Southern politicians like Patterson and even Wallace, they were educated men, They knew better. But they were playing to the lowest common denominator. In some ways, that makes them worse.

Would today's young people be as willing to put everything aside and get involved in a cause like the riders did 50 years ago?

Nelson: I think they could. I think they will. We show students the film, and they're always moved by it. Things are more complicated today. Then, you would see signs saying colored only and whites only, and that made things very clear. The people you are fighting against today are much more sophisticated. But all change and revolution is made by young people. The world is never changed by old people. Students need something that is worth fighting for. That's all they need. If you're 20 years old, you can have 50, 60, 70 years of things happening, so you better get involved.

One thing the film brings home very forcefully is the intense hatred that many whites felt toward the freedom riders.

Nelson: That's one of the things so present in the film. You almost can't believe it. It was really important for us to show this hatred that comes just from sitting in the front of the bus together. I think that kind of out-and-out, visceral, in-your-face, upfront hatred is not there like it was, though the country still has lots of civil rights problems.

There is this feeling by some people today that those were the good old days. You see by this film that those were not good old days. It was a horror, what those people were feeling and expressing at the time.

The film is made up of two equally fascinating parts: Vintage photos and film clips and interviews with participants today. And the film has no narrator. How did you track down all that material, and why did you decide to tell the story the way you did?

Nelson: We started from the very first day of production trying to track down our material. It's not like we cut the film or did the interviews, then looked for pictures. That's essential. Literally, we made up a wish list of footage that we would try to find. We had two people whose jobs for the whole production was to find footage and find stills. It took 18 months, every day, trying to track down every single lead.

After the buses were burned in Alabama, the FBI held hearings. We got the transcripts of the hearings, where one guy said, "I live 100 yards down the road, and my son went down and shot the bus burning on Super 8 film," but the FBI confiscated the film. We asked the FBI if we could have the film. They said they didn't know what we were talking about. We faxed them the testimony, and eight months later they sent us the film of the bus burning, which had never been seen before.

One of the first decisions we made was that we would make this film without narration. So, the reliance on footage, or sound on tape, was much heavier because we didn't have the crutch of a narrator. I find that a lot of times, if there is no narrator, the audience relates to a film in a very different way. They make the connections themselves. It's as if the story is unfolding in front of you. You're saying to yourself, the Kennedys aren't that great in this story, instead of someone saying (switching to James Earl Jones-type voice), "At that point, the Kennedys...." You're getting the story in a very different way. We had great witnesses, and that was the way to tell the story without using a narrator.

You just got back from showing "Freedom Riders" in China. What did they think of it?

Nelson:We went to three cities in 10 days, and it was great. Some of the reactions were the same as in the United States. People asked about the Kennedys; they asked about Martin Luther King; they asked about Patterson. But they also asked about how these things reflect on China, whether it's possible to have the same kind of nonviolence movement there. They asked about censorship in China, could we make the same kind of film in China? Do you think we could make a film about the cultural revolution? As a filmmaker, it was an amazing experience for me to hear people talking about that.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.