Freedom Riders


Last night after work I walked down* to the National Museum of American History for an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, one of the defining events of the Civil Rights era.

The main event was a screening of the new PBS American Experience Documentary “Freedom Riders” which debuts on tv over here in May.

If you get a chance to see the film, do it. It’s an incredible documentary, and does a fantastic job at showing that the civil rights movement was more than just Martin Luther King; it was hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, many of them students, who in that very clichéd but real sense did extraordinary things.

After the screening there was a panel discussion with the film’s director, the author of the book on which the film is based, and three of the original freedom riders: Diane Nash, Jim Zwerg and James Lawson.

Left to right: Stanley Nelson (filmaker), Diane Nash, James Lawson, Jim Zwerg, and Raymond Arsenault (author).

To see these people in person was absolutely phenomenal, particularly Nash and Zwerg who I’d studied at university. The panel discussion was interesting, although let’s be honest here: James Lawson is just a little bit crazy, and had a habit of going off on weird tangents. Towards the end of the evening we were treated to his theories about how MLK wasn’t assassinated by James Earl Ray but by “government forces.”

As usually happens at these types of events, the real crazy came out during the “questions from the audience” section of the evening. A better title might be “incoherent rambling ‘reflections and comments’ from the audience.” Unfortunately crazy lecture-going Americans don’t seem to wear felt, and everyone was wearing hats because it was snowing outside, so my usual tactics to pick the loonies didn’t work.

There were a couple of good questions, thank god, in the midst of the crazy. One person in particular asked about the role of women in the civil rights movement, which as Raymond Arsenault pointed out is an enormous topic worthy of many books. Nash, Zwerg and Lawson agreed that the balance between the sexes was more even in Nashville than elsewhere, as demonstrated by Nash’s leadership.

Jim Zwerg, however, did say that one of the reasons all the men in the Nashville group respected Nash’s leadership was that “Diane was a fox!” His wife was sitting in the front row – “honey, I love you, but we were all a little in love with Diane.” Nash responded with, “Now’s not the time to be humble – I wasn’t elected because of my looks, I was elected because I was competent.” I think I might be a little bit in love with you too, Diane Nash.

Whilst it was a “personal reflection,” rather than an actual question, one woman at the end had a pretty powerful message – she got up to say that she’d brought her 14 year old son along to hear the message of the film, but that he’d been attacked on his way to the museum by gang members who wanted his shoes. I’m not sure you could’ve asked for a more poignant demonstration that the struggles of the civil rights movement are far from over.

Jim Zwerg, who seems like a truly lovely man, made the comment of the night. He talks a lot to high school students, and often gets asked, “how can one person like me make a difference?” The answer, he says, is to think about it differently – you’re already making a difference. The question is whether it’s a positive or a negative one. My heart is black with cynicism, but that comment touched even me.


* As an aside: my route from work to the museum takes me directly past the White House. I’ve seen the White House quite a few times now, but it still doesn’t get old. Hey, look at me, just casually strolling past THE WHITE HOUSE on my way to A SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM where I’m going to get the chance to see DIANE NASH in person. Awesome.


2 Responses to “Freedom Riders”

  1. 1 Matthew

    That is an incredible post. But, would it be wrong if I tried to download the movie? Actually, from ur post I think I might even try to buy this one.

    Sometime we should skype and then I can here more about this.

  2. 2 justsomethings

    I think PBS actually puts a lot of the American Experience documentaries online to watch for free, so you might actually be able to see this one legally! It’s not scheduled to be shown on tv here until May, so it probably won’t go up on their website until sometime later in the year.

    In the meantime, if you’re looking for a Civil Rights fix, all of “Eyes on the Prize”, THE documentary on the period, is up on Yahoo, randomly:

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