It's been fifty years since integrated busloads of activists left Washington DC, en route to New Orleans via the Deep South. To celebrate the anniversary, PBS is airing an American Experience film called Freedom Riders.
The film will be broadcast on May 16 at 9 p.m., and will cover the events of the spring and summer of 1961.
The original Freedom Rides started with two buses of civil rights activists on May 4, 1961, with the intention of testing the newly passed desegregation law for interstate travel. Two buses full of Freedom Riders initially set a course through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana on interstate highways.
The Freedom Riders were attacked and arrested in the Carolinas, and one bus was firebombed (on Mother's Day) while Ku Klux Klan mobs armed with bats, pipes, and chains beat both busloads of activists on several occasions in Alabama.
On most occasions police refused to stop the beatings, ambulances refused to carry the injured, and hospitals barred entry and even turned out injured Freedom Riders in the middle of the night to face angry mobs outside.
That first group flew to their final destination in New Orleans after the beatings and firebombing in Alabama, but another group from Tennessee resumed the Freedom Rides and immediately began getting arrested and threatened by mobs. New groups replaced each arrested group until the governing body in charge of enforcing the desegregation law on interstate routes was forced to enact a new policy in line with the law in November of the same year.
PBS chronicles these stories and experiences through interviews with surviving Freedom Riders and original photos and videos from the rides.
Along with the film release, PBS' American Experience is sponsoring a 50th anniversary Freedom Ride retracing the original route from Washington DC through the south to New Orleans. The ride will include 40 students on two buses, and will last from May 6-16.
The Student Freedom Riders competed against more than a thousand other students for the chance to experience the all-expenses-paid retracing of this important moment in American history.
Students will be using social media including Twitter and Facebook to document their journey and experiences throughout the 10-day trip. To follow the students during the 2011 Freedom Rides, see the American Experience site.
Watch the preview for Freedom Riders and let us know if you plan on catching it on May 16.