Freedom Riders: American Experience will debut on PBS tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. Check local listings.

The Civil Rights movement occupies a strange place in our societal concept of history. While it's generally considered to have been a good thing conceptually, in practice, it's been idealized into a single moment. I wouldn't be surprised if the typical American teenager conceives of it as “Black people were oppressed in America until Martin Luther King, Jr made the 'I Have A Dream' speech and ended racism.” The historical reality, is, as always, far more complex.

PBS' American Experience series demonstrates this in fine fashion with their Freedom Riders installment, presented on the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Rides in May and June of 1961. A group of activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by James Farmer, decided to test a 1944 Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate commerce. The activists, two small groups of whites and blacks, men and women, rode buses from Washington D.C. to New Orleans in order to actively desegregate the Deep South. At least, that was the plan. The first batch were attacked when they arrived in Alabama and, without a bus driver, were forced to fly out. A second group came, and the members were arrested when they entered Mississippi. Which triggered a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and so on, until hundreds of Freedom Riders flooded the prison system, and the Kennedy administration was eventually pressured into a more active role combating segregation.

In many respects, the Freedom Rider summer is an ideal microcosm for much of the Civil Rights movement. It is a discrete entity and not a longer, less-defined campaign. It brought most of the major personalities of the Civil Rights movement together, from well-known leaders like Ralph Abernathy, to the rising stars of the student movement, like John Lewis, Diane Nash, and Stokely Carmichael. The documentary also points to how debates over the Freedom Rides led to Martin Luther King, Jr. becoming the mouthpiece of the movement in the eyes of the federal government, while also illustrating growing tension between King and the younger members of the movement.

This is one of Freedom Riders' greatest strengths but also possibly its biggest weakness. It does a great job of telling the story of the Freedom Riders and what they meant at that time, but it rarely steps beyond that, either forward or backward in time. One of the talking heads, for example, mentions that these tensions around Dr. King's role in the movement put him at odds with the SNCC students, but that brief mention is the only time that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is actually referenced by name aurally (there's also at least one visual). Along the same lines, Diane Nash is introduced as having gained experience desegregating lunch counters in Nashville, but it's not mentioned that this was part of a national “Sit-in” movement in 1960, which led toward an accelerated radicalism of students and the formation of SNCC.

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On the one hand, this is frustrating, since it seems like the wider story is being obscured. On the other, it's entirely understandable; the story presented is big enough to easily fill the almost-two-hour long documentary. It gets the core facts right and builds an impressive, emotional history. Many of the most important people and debates in the movement are discussed, either implicitly or explicitly.

The Democratic Party establishment, with its golden boy JFK in the White House, had to come to terms with the Civil Rights movement when it didn't want to. With the Dixiecrats as the party's core, it wasn't in its short-term interest to do so. The party just wanted the problem to be gone, but it was dragged directly into it.

As the Kennedy brothers and the federal government got dragged into the Freedom Rider controversy, it set up a monumental state versus national government conflict. It's always easy to think of institutions like the American government as monolithic, but Freedom Riders shows how easy that monolith cracks at even the slight amount of pressure. Deputized U.S. Marshals from Customs and  the Postal Service attempting to defend a besieged black church from their neighbors in Birmingham is one example of how bizarre that split could be.

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Exploiting that split was the core of the direct action strategy of the CORE and later SNCC and SCLC activists during the Freedom Rides. Former SNCC member and, more recently, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond comes straight out and says it early in the documentary: “They're really courting violence that will attract publicity to really forward the cause.” By publicly revealing that the racist states were not following federal laws, the activists hoped to trigger a confrontation between the two.

This is what happened, and one of the most bizarre and revealing moments in the documentary comes when Attorney General Robert Kennedy declares that, on behalf of the administration, he is asking the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce desegregation rulings of the Supreme Court. He attempts to declare that the United States is not filled with racists, as it appears to the rest of the world, and that he's taking the proper legal and moral action. But he can't help snarking about how “unwise” the Freedom Riders were to continue applying pressure on the government. He's doing exactly what they want because of the heat they're putting on him, and he calls them unwise!

But this is the essential tension at the heart of any direct action. For it to be successful, it has to be painful. It has to be a little bit dangerous. It has to be considered unwise by all the people who think they're in charge of wisdom. And it has to grab the attention of the people in charge and piss them off for distracting them from the things they want to do. Freedom Riders illustrates the apotheosis of direct action in all its chaotic, painful, frightening glory.

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Stray Observations:

  • The documentary is generally straightforward and won't dazzle with flash, but it's structurally brilliant. There's so much info and discussion on the subject already that a narrator would be superfluous, and it's easily dispensed with. What information is necessary is presented when it becomes so, eliminating reams of potential exposition.
  • The talking heads are also generally interesting. Julian Bond is brilliant and insightful, with a voice made for television, and in quick research, I noted that I'm hardly the first to notice this, as he narrated Eyes on the Prize.
  • Janie Forsyth McKinney, a white woman whose father was a crucial member of the mob that attacked the first bus near Anniston, Alabama, might have the most emotional story. After the Freedom Riders came, choking, off the bus, she gets glasses of water for them, a story verified by a photo.
  • The governor of Alabama at the time, John Patterson, is also interviewed. He presents a fascinating case study of a man who seems to vaguely realize that he was a complete and total asshole but has some weird kind of mental self-preservation that makes him talk like he wasn't that bad. “You just can't guarantee the safety of a fool” is an intriguing line from him, on multiple levels.
  • If anyone is a disappointment as a talking head, it's Diane Nash. Not necessarily for anything she does wrong, just that she's such a larger-than-life character—introduced in Freedom Riders, twice, with RFK saying “Who the hell is Diane Nash?”—that a perfectly normal-seeming woman is a tiny letdown.

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