This past Monday, my favorite PBS series, American Experience, presented one of the most riveting documentaries in the program's history.
Nebraska's PBS stations (they're called NET) have since been rerunning this week's American Experience, and as a matter of fact, the program's back on the air right now this afternoon...just as I'm typing out this post.
This week's AE focused on an event that took place fifty years ago this very month...an event that helped shape the America we've got now.
On 5-4-1961, twelve people set out on regularly-scheduled buses from Washington, DC, with the goal of making it to New Orleans, LA, two weeks later.
All they wanted to do was test- and put an end to- America's Jim Crow laws, especially as they pertained to interstate travel.
The Freedom Rides of 1961 were designed as a way to, among other things, get this country's brand-new chief executive (and his people) to start thinking about- and acting on- putting domestic issues (especially the BIG one, civil rights) on the front burner.
That's right: John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech was more than "the torch has been passed" and "Ask not what your country can do you for you...ask what you can do for your country." During that address, JFK talked about spreading freedom all over the world.
He just didn't talk about spreading that freedom all over these fifty states.
Two buses- a Greyhound and a Trailways- pulled out of the nation's capital that first Thursday in the fifth month of 1961.
The Greyhound bus didn't make it, because a mob at Forsyth & Son Grocery, just outside Anniston, AL, firebombed it.
But the six people who'd traveled on that Greyhound bus made it alive.
The Anniston incident didn't stop the Freedom Riders. Neither did mob violence in Birmingham and Montgomery, the Camellia State's two biggest cities...and neither did then Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett's decision to throw one rider after another- 340 in all- in jail (Parchman Farm, one of the worst jails in the world).
And not even Bobby Kennedy's plea to get the Freedom Riders to get off the road and let the government do its job could stop the trips.
RFK's plea came not long after Montgomery was put under martial law...in the wake of vandalism directed at that city's First Baptist Church. (First Baptist was the one where Ralph Abernathy- the man who became the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated almost seven years later- preached.)
Martial law came to Alabama's capital city all of eighteen days into the Freedom Rides.
At last, thanks mainly to MLK's and RFK's frequent telephone conversations, did the US government finally decide to give the riders protection.
And you can bet the whole planet was watching.
They were watching a country whose very name is supposed to mean "freedom" continue a situation that couldn't possibly mean "freedom."
Like it or not, the mob violence- and Barnett's and John Patterson's (Alabama's then governor; in fact, George Wallace's predecessor) endorsing of said violence, to say nothing of Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor's hand in creating and endorsing that violence- gave the United States a real egg stain.
And that violence couldn't prevent the September 1961 ruling that, at long last, outlawed segregation in interstate travel...from the bus stations to the buses themselves.
The documentary, "Freedom Riders," showed interviews of people on both sides of the Jim Crow-in-travel issue...from original Freedom Rider John Lewis (now, of course, a US representative from Georgia) to Patterson himself.
To this day, I'm not really sure if Patterson ever showed any, any, ANY remorse for his hand in helping to make the Freedom Rides some kind of difficult.
One thing I'm really sure about is this: People such as Lewis, Jim Zwerg, Diane Nash, Hank Thomas, Genevieve Houghton, Benjamin Cox, Jim Peck, Bernard Lafayette, and hundreds of others, did something completely and totally courageous...and America is much the better for it.