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Freedom Riders

  • A twelve year old girl trying to help by carrying glasses of water to victims of a firebombed bus while a mob of Klu Klux Klan members surged around her.
  • Alabama governor, John Patterson, railing against “outside agitators – black men and white women” who were coming to Alabama to rile up the “good people of local communities” by riding a bus together.
  • College students signing their last will and testament before stepping onto a bus headed to Alabama and Mississippi, expecting to be beaten and killed.
  • Bull Conner, the police commissioner of Birmingham, cutting a deal with the KKK promising 15 minutes to “burn, bomb, kill, maim, I don’t give a god-damn what you do. I will guarantee that not one soul will be arrested in the 15 minutes” after Freedom Riders got off the bus.
  • A reporter not wanting to look black Freedom Riders in the eye as they entered a “Whites Only” waiting area, knowing that death for the Riders was very likely just minutes away. And later stepping between the Riders and members of a Birmingham mob in an attempt to keep that from happening.

The Freedom Rides of 1961 happened a long time ago. And for your students, the events of that summer seem absolutely ancient. But the PBS special, Freedom Riders, that aired last year as part of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides is an incredibly powerful tool for helping your kids understand the context of the Civil Rights movement.

PBS does a wonderful job of combining oral interviews from participants, photos, news footage, newspaper coverage, and video clips to create a truly engaging and emotional documentary. The film helps put a human face on both those fighting for civil rights and those fighting to retain the entrenched culture of Jim Crow.

At an hour and 51 minutes, the video is too long for a single classroom period. And, normally, I suggest that very few movies are good enough and powerful enough to show in their entirety. While it would be possible to chunk pieces of this story out, Freedom Riders just may be the exception.

PBS has maintained the Freedom Riders site with its access to teacher materials such as a study guide, instructional materials and links to related resources at EDSITEment. You can find tons of background information on the riders, the context of the period, and a handy timeline. The video is showing on PBS throughout the month of February but you can also stream in directly off the PBS site.

Freedom Riders is a story of amazing courage and bravery. Of racism and extreme bigotry, of cruelty. Simple acts of kindness. Of turning the other cheek and turning a blind eye.

Ultimately, it is a story of America. At its best and its worst. And it’s a story that our kids need to hear.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. JMushing #

    I just took my 15 year old son to this movie, and we were able to meet the director & producer – Stanley Nelson (MLK Celebration showing)! My son was so impressed and amazed at what happend, he was going to ask his teacher if it could be shown to his class when they began their unit on Civil Rights! He still wants to know what happened to the bus driver and why he walked away from the bus before it was bombed – was he seeking help or protecting himself? – He is writing Mr. Nelson to find out! Better yet, Gerald R. Ford Muesum is having a Freedom Riders exhibit starting in March and will hopefully have Congressman John Lewis there to share his history in the event. Powerful learning, and great way for students to understand these historical events that are barely covered in text books.

    February 14, 2012
    • glennw #


      As I was watching this the other day, my own 15 year old daughter walked in and sat down. She got hooked as well. It is such a compelling story. And you’re right, these are the sort of stories that help kids see history as more than just dates and places.

      Would love to hear John Lewis in person! Sounds exciting. Glad your son is going beyond the story and digging deeper. Let me know what he finds out about the bus driver!


      February 14, 2012

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