Want a Real Horror Movie? Watch ‘Freedom Riders’

“Who the hell is Diane Nash?”

I know it’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s week, but let’s pause to acknowledge Nash. As detailed in the impressive documentary Freedom Riders, Nash, a young black college student, stood up not only to segregation in the South, murderous racist mobs and nay-saying from within the Civil Rights Movement, but also to John F. Kennedy’s administration itself, sparking Bobby Kennedy to utter the question above.

Freedom Riders, a 2011 film that screens at the San Antonio Museum of Art as part of DreamWeek, shines a light on Nash and many other young, brave blacks and whites who headed into certain danger with only their non-violence training to protect them. Almost as incredible were the rights they were fighting for: to simply take a bus across state lines and not have to endure segregated seating and rest stops along the way. Of course, the bigger picture was disassembling the Jim Crow South, one ridiculous law at a time.

In fact, interstate bus travel and associated facilities had already been desegregated by the U.S. Supreme Court long before the 1961 freedom rides, but the South largely ignored the rulings to no federal consequence. In Freedom Riders, that cocky, spiteful attitude pervades much of the archival footage.

The first group of riders, from the Congress of Racial Equality, departed Washington D.C. and encountered relatively little resistance until they reached Birmingham, Al., where the bigoted police commissioner had arranged to let the KKK have first crack, literally, at the freedom riders upon pulling into the city. The ensuing brutal violence, refusal of bus drivers to take the integrationists further and warning from none other than MLK eventually broke the first group’s spirit and Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent an aide to retrieve them.

Enter Nash. The young leader from her Tennessee university’s Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee heard of the first group’s defeat and said in the film, “It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.” She rallied her student group to pick up the ride from Birmingham, no small feat considering that entailed dropping out of college, and helped propel the movement-defining event that forced civil rights to the forefront of national policy. At that point, both King and Kennedy were concerned about the confrontational approach, especially as the group planned to ride into Mississippi, a state so racist as to appear impenetrable to civil rights leaders at the time.

The riders were arrested upon arriving in Jackson, Miss. and sent straight to the federal penitentiary “for their own protection,” under the apparent auspices of the Kennedy administration. However, the rides and unconscionable violence had already made international headlines and hundreds of other riders flooded in to continue the mission.

Though its propulsive pace flounders at times, the film does a fine job telling Nash and co.’s story, as well as unapologetically painting a less-than-flattering portrait of the Kennedys and King. Those powerful men did learn from the freedom riders’ non-violent victory over brute force and majority rule, and viewers will, too. The film screening will conclude with a panel discussion and reception with four freedom riders.

Freedom Riders

Free with museum admission or membership, or library card
Film: 3pm; discussion: 5pm Sat, Jan 18
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 Jones Ave